Unschooling your PDA child and staying mindful

Thinking of unschooling your PDA child? Congratulations and fasten your seatbelt! You may well be embarking on the most challenging, frustrating, joyful and healing journey of your life. And, if your child is not diagnosed PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance), but school has been/would be a bad fit for them, this post is for you too.

Although there are many reasons that parents choose to unschool, perhaps the most common one is that it is ultimately the only way forward. The vast majority of unschoolers I know were led to this way of life by a child that simply could not thrive any other way. Sometimes after a failed pre-school placement, sometimes after a long battle with a school to meet the child’s needs, and sometimes after years of searching for the holy grail among different alternative schools.

Among all the individual stories weaves a common thread—the child’s wholeness becoming compromised. Mainstream education for a child who doesn’t fit the mold is particularly gruelling. How difficult to retain a sense of self, when there are clearly so many parts of the self that don’t fit, or aren’t right and need to be corrected, punished or ignored. The overriding message is that these parts of the self will not do well in life, that there is something wrong with them. It can’t surprise us that, being squashed into a box that is too small and restrictive for them under this pathologising eye, a child loses their spark, feels unsafe or becomes anxious or depressed. Even when all of this is done with outward kindness by people who really do want the child to be well, the system itself contains those harsh messages of what is good and what is not. School refusal, stressful though it is to everyone, may also be a stand for self-preservation.

And so, many parents find themselves unschooling, not because of any ideological beliefs, but because, if they want their child to thrive and not internalise those damaging messages, they have run out of options. If ever there were a child least suited to standardised schooling, here they are.

There is perhaps an impression out there that unschooling is the lazy parent’s answer to education. Some years ago, I came across an article about unschooling in a newspaper. “The mum who lets her children do anything!” screamed the headline, a reflection of the panic inspired by the idea that if we’re not directing our children every minute of the day, all hell will break loose. And, of course, the inescapable impression that this mum is irresponsible and lazy.

The reality couldn’t be further from this. It’s true that once you find your footing, it really is easy in many ways, but to get to this place of ease and settle into it requires a lot of work. Not in joining clubs, finding tutors, researching educational trips or keeping art supplies organised. All of that is child’s play in comparison. No, this work is far harder. It requires undoing so much of what we have ever thought about education, children and ourselves. This is the journey–a slow unravelling, driven by the innate knowledge that we are all whole, that we are all okay just as we are. Access to this innate knowledge is complicated, because these same systems have made us doubt our wholeness too. So, under the weight of all the insecurities we’ve picked up along the way—not good enough, not thin enough, not clever enough, not successful enough etc etc—the deep knowledge that our child is enough may manifest as something we can’t quite put our finger on, but that we know is vitally important, and that we are willing to shake up our lives in inmeasurable ways for.

The beauty of a PDA child (or any child who can smell coercion a mile away), is that they will be a formidable teacher on this journey. They won’t let you be half-hearted in your approach, and you’re unlikely to get away with anything that serves no purpose except to ease your own insecurities. As you try to figure out what life can now look like, you may often feel like you are failing, and that they are fighting your suggestions and ideas all the way. It will probably all look nothing like you imagined it would. Your child will sometimes be bored, they will refuse to do things they don’t want to do, they will argue with their siblings, choose activities you can’t yet see the value in, not want to join activities you think would be good for them…. And it is here, in these challenging moments that, on top of all those old insecurities, you will also pile on the fear that your child may never learn anything, the judging comments from other people, and your questioning of your own worthiness as a parent. This tense, difficult place may feel entirely overwhelming, but it is also the place from which you can choose a new path to explore, a path that leads away from your insecurities and fears and towards yours and your child’s wholeness.

So, how do we choose a new path when we are emotionally triggered, fearful or exhausted? How can we let go of all the conditioning around what a child is supposed to do and learn, and instead cultivate an environment that is based on trust and support, an environment in which any child (and in particular a PDA child) has the autonomy and support they need to explore things that are meaningful to them?

Cultivating a mindfulness practice is incredibly helpful to facilitate this process. If we can learn to sit with our uncomfortable emotions and feelings, and respond from a place of calm rather than a place of reactivity, we give space for things to unfold in a far healthier way. This is a virtuous circle. As we live less reactively, all sorts of wonderful things are free to emerge. We learn that we can trust our children after all. That they learn all the time, that they have deep interests, that they don’t need coercion, and that we don’t need to be engaged in constant battles with them. We see our children for who they are, beyond systems that pathologise. We see that they really are quite amazing, and most definitely whole.

And, as we learn to trust our children, we learn to trust ourselves too. There is a lot of freedom to be found in no longer responding from those fearful parts of ourselves and, instead, responding from a place of deeper knowledge. On my podcast, The Unschool Space, I chat with other parents (some with PDA children) about their journeys, and there are common themes that come up over and over again. One is that almost without exception, they have consciously brought mindfulness and self-care into their lives in some form or another as essential tools to support themselves. The other is that the unschooling journey has been a healing one for them and their children. Through embracing their child just as they are, they have gradually rediscovered and reintegrated all those parts of themselves that they understood were wrong when they were a child. Sometimes, it really does take an exceptional teacher to guide us to what, deep down, we already knew.


Some ways to cultivate mindfulness on your unschooling journey:

We all have those triggers that send our nervous system into fight or flight. Often based on old beliefs that we haven’t yet shifted, a trigger will always come with a sensation in the body, such as a tightening of the shoulders, or butterflies in the stomach. Learn to recognise them when they arise and, rather than responding to the situation from that tense, reactive place, give yourself a virtual hug, take some deep breaths and stay with the physical sensation until it passes. For a PDA child who is easily triggered, you staying calm is essential for avoiding escalation or battles. And, your example will help them learn these skills too.

The real joy of unschooling is in the present moment, so it follows that the more alive we are to the moment, the more joy we’ll find in it. Use your breath as an anchor back to the present when you feel your mind wandering to ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. Take a deep breath in then exhale slowly, following the breath as it moves through the body. Try relaxing the muscles in your face, neck and shoulders when you exhale, and see yourself shifting down from the over-thinking mind, into the body.

By staying curious and open to discovery, you’ll avoid bringing assumptions and preconceptions to your days. It’s natural for us to want to keep defining things and to want to feel like we have it all figured out. That’s a reassuring feeling, but it is also a surefire way to suck the magic out of it all, and to create the pressure of new expectations. And your child is likely to balk at these expectations. Embrace beginner’s mind and the knowledge that this learning journey is never over. If your child has a new interest, that’s great, but let them go at their own pace. Just observe what they do without judging.

Incorporating meditation, mindful breathing or yoga into your daily life will help you stay calm and grounded, and less likely to be reactive when challenging moments arise. A couple of years before taking our children out of school, I had begun to meditate in the mornings. And when we really embraced unschooling, I found that my morning routine of meditation and writing gave me a sense of clarity and space that facilitated my own deschooling process. 

Holding a compassionate space for others means taking care of yourself too. If you are on a short fuse or feeling discouraged, think about what you might need. A long walk in nature, coffee with a friend, journalling your thoughts or just some time alone to help you rebalance. Stay alive to how you feel, and if taking time for yourself or prioritising your own needs makes you feel guilty, remember that how you live your life is a powerful example for your children.

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