I’m writing this post from the perspective of a parent of an autistic child with PDA. That isn’t to say that my child’s autism/PDA defines them. It doesn’t at all. But it has certainly helped to define my journey as a parent. So far, that journey has led me to a few conclusions, and I’m sure there will be plenty more. The first is that the further our children are from some mainstream idea of how a child should be, the further we need to move away from mainstream parenting in order to meet their needs. The second is that, despite that, it’s also true that what is essential in our relationships with our neurodiverse children is just as beneficial in our relationships with our neurotypical children. And the third, is that not following conventional parenting norms is consistently challenging and enriching. And, whilst being immensely gratifying, it also requires a kind of strength that doesn’t have a lot to do with many people’s idea of parenting.
The language of traditional parenting is certainly infused with lots of tough-sounding concepts, like boundaries, limits and discipline. The adults make the rules and the children follow them, and the ‘strength’ of the parent is to stick to their guns even when all is blowing up around them, to hold tight to the notion that they know best. They might well do this lovingly and with the child’s interests at heart, but this system is generally based on the child adapting their behaviour to what the adult considers right.
In the case of many children, and I’m thinking particularly about PDA here, it is also recipe for disaster. Loving or not, it is likely to create a battleground in the home. What society may see as strong, consistent parenting is revealed by a PDA child for what it also is. A stripping of their precious need for autonomy. Ironically, many parents who have exhausted conventional parenting techniques to ‘solve’ their child’s behaviour are made to feel at fault or weak when they don’t work. Boundaries not firm enough, lack of consistency, not enough limits…
I sometimes feel like PDA children are the flag bearers for all children. The majority of parents I meet with PDA children are already well aware that the usual systems we use to coerce children will not fly with their child. And, as these parents have discovered, once you get away from discipline, rewards, punishments and limits, you’re essentially left with your relationship with your child and not a lot else. If something is difficult in the home, your only real options are dialogue and connection. And here is where the strength comes in.
It is immensely more gratifying and in some ways much harder, to work in partnership with your child. More gratifying because it is led by your child’s real needs, desires and innate way of being. Because of that, it will be an entirely unpredictable journey, but it will be authentic and will give your child the space they need. And, much harder, because this is likely to go against many of your own ingrained thoughts around parenting. In the beginning, you are likely to be triggered by numerous situations every day, and to find yourself frequently talking yourself down from places of anger, frustration and insecurity. There’s no easy way through when you don’t have conventional tools at hand. Whether it’s an argument between siblings, an angry child, or a morning that seems to have gone off the rails, it is far easier to shout, shame, limit or just crumble than to stay calm and present. Every single parent ever knows that staying calm takes more strength than exploding.
One of the hardest things I’ve found is that it is precisely the times when I feel most on edge that it is also essential that I am calm. This is bound to happen. The longer a situation lasts, or the more tension there is, the more our ability to stay present with it will be tested. And if it’s hard for us, it’s certainly harder for the child. And at those moments, the part of me that is just another average human with all the usual vulnerabilities and thoughts, needs to reach inside to find some buried reserves of extra strength. This is something that I imagine all unschooling parents find themselves having to do, no matter who their children are. Deschooling ourselves of the conventional ways to respond to children is essential so we can discover how to live with our children in a way that is far more gentle and empowering to all.
So, how we can consciously cultivate that strength?
It all starts with us
One of my biggest discoveries is that the better I treat myself, the more ability I have to stay calm. Self-care is essential, in whatever form that takes for each of us. If we don’t take care of our own emotional and physical needs, we’re likely to feel like we’re the family martyr (and maybe we are…). That is guaranteed to sap any reserves of strength and makes us vulnerable to myriad negative feelings when the going gets rough. So, whether it’s a coffee with friends, or long walks in the woods, figure out what you need and try your hardest to get it. It’ll be good for everyone.
Know your triggers
We all have our triggers – those situations or words that always make us feel guilty, angry, ashamed or any other emotion we’d rather not feel. Before you know it, you are shouting, despairing or doubting everything you ever did as a parent. Work out what your triggers are, and spend some time unpicking what’s going on in your mind when they arise. Learn to recognise them when they pop up, and respond in a different way. Maybe just take a couple of minutes out to let the emotions subside, before rejoining the situation.
Trust that it can land well
When I am finding something hard, I remind myself that eventually everything lands. If I am able to hold steady, I know that whatever is happening will probably land in a way that gives way to greater connection and understanding. A conversation, hugs, tears, laughter, or some outcome I had never even imagined. Remind yourself that at some point you will be beyond this moment and all will be well.
Stay empathetic to your child
In a particularly challenging situation, staying connected and empathetic to our children helps us stay present. If we’re having a hard time, they undoubtedly are too. Remembering that our task as parent in that precise moment is to accompany, and not necessarily to solve, can hold the frustration at bay and keep us safe from triggers.
When you do have to be Herculean, take the time to rebalance after
There have been times as a parent when the strength I’ve had to muster up to avoid falling into either anger or self pity has felt truly super human. In some particularly challenging moments I could feel the adrenalin surging in my body as I held on tight. Even after everything landed where it needed to land I still felt jittery. In this case, in the calm after the storm, I would prioritise whatever it took to rebalance: a walk, a bath, a quiet moment in my room… Apart from it being physically healthy to get the tension out of our bodies (if we were animals we would just shake that adrenalin out), it’s important that we reset mentally too.
Find the tribe you need
I’ve always felt that the nuclear family is a sadly limited structure when it comes to bringing up children. All too often, it’s just the parents (or sometimes just one parent) who end up holding the emotional space for several people, with little energy left over for themselves. I doubt we’re naturally meant to live this way. But since that’s what most of us have, we can at least find ways to make the load lighter. There are lots of ways that other people can help us stay happy and grounded, even if that’s just a listening ear, someone to share playdates, or a friend to have fun with. There’s a lot of strength in community.
Try some mindfulness
After dabbling in meditation for some years, I finally got to grips with it after my daughter was born. Perhaps it was the realisation that with three children, I was really going to need to cultivate some more inner calm… It has been a fantastic companion on my journey through unschooling, PDA, and everything else that life has brought my way since. Given that it really does all start with us, a little time in the morning can transform the day.
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