What is low demand parenting or a low demand approach?
Low demand parenting or the low demand approach is often spoken about in the context of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA); however, this can be helpful for a person who experiences high levels of stress and anxiety. This is a low arousal approach because it prioritizes the reduction of stress and anxiety and is based on trust, flexibility, collaboration, and a balanced approach to demands. The environment and activities are adapted to a person’s unique needs and preferences and they take the lead in their play and activities.
For some, this will sound like “giving in”, which is a concern I hear from parents and professionals. By reducing demands, we can keep a person from entering into the fight-and-flight mode and build an environment that feels safe. We all view behavior through judgmental lens (human nature), but we need to shift how we view behavior and go beyond the surface of what we see. Changing our lens begins with our language around how we describe and talk about behaviors of concern – words such as obsessive, controlling, manipulative, deliberate which places the blame on the individual. We may feel shame and guilt about how a situation unfolded, but have to reflect and review how we are handling things and be honest about what isn’t working or makes us uncomfortable. This is how the shift in thinking starts.
What is the difference between a traditional parenting approach and a low demand approach?
Traditional parenting techniques tend to involve setting boundaries, demands, and consequences around behavior. There are different types of parenting styles, each with its own effect and outcomes for children. These traditional styles may not work with autistic or PDA children.
Low demand parenting uses low arousal approaches to keep anxiety levels to a minimum and provide a sense of control. Parents and carers learn to recognize the signs of escalating anxiety and stress, then defuse and de-escalate before behaviors becomes problematic. Low arousal approaches are anchored in relationship building, trust, respect and a philosophy of care. Without these four things, it is hard for a person to feel confident, secure and safe.
Some people may think that low demand parenting means you are being permissive. Permissive parenting doesn’t involve setting clear boundaries or expectations. Low demand parenting prioritizes anxiety and stress reduction while still maintaining appropriate boundaries and structure. There needs to be predictability in order to keep anxiety levels down. There should not be punitive consequences for behavior of concern.
The environment is adapted and personalized for the individual, which is easier to achieve at home than it is in a school or community setting (both prescribed environments). It should foster an individual’s growth and development while minimizing stress and frustration. What I mean by the personalized environment is the day moves to the rhythm of the person rather than the other way around. This does not mean chaos or anything goes, but it means following patterns of functioning that work for that person. I talked about these optimal functioning patterns in my blog about autistic inertia.
We also have to understand and respect a person’s neurology. In my family, I know that my children need a predictable environment to feel secure and confident so we’ve created that for them. They are surrounded by things that interest them that can be accessed independently; we respect their choices. Over the years, we have also encouraged flexibility in the day so that we could introduce new things, prepare for the unexpected, and expand their interests and their world. All of this is done in a gentle, non-threatening way and at their own pace. We’ve been able to do this because at the core of their lives is stability, predictability and mutual respect.
The P A N D A Approach from the PDA Society UK
The P A N D A mnemonic from the PDA Society UK, lists 5 approaches that can helpful with a child who has a PDA profile.
Pick Your Battle
- minimize rules
- enable some choice and control
- explain the reasons for decisions
- accept that some things can’t be done
- Use the low arousal approach
- reduce uncertainty
- know what the underlying anxiety, social and sensory challenges are
- plan ahead
- treat distressed behaviors like panic attacks
Negotiation and collaboration
- keep calm
- proactively collaborate and negotiate to solve challenges
- be fair and foster trust
Disguise and Manage Demands
- phrase requests indirectly
- monitor tolerance for demands and match demands accordingly
- do things together
- try humor, distraction, novelty and role play
- be flexible
- have an alternate plan
- allow plenty of time to get things done
- try to balance the amount of give and take
How can we reduce the perception of demands?
The following suggestions come from the PDA Society UK website:
- Language use – Using declarative language (statements, comments or observations), or rephrasing things to talk about an object rather than a person, and even simple things like starting rather than ending requests with the word ‘please’ can all change how a demand is perceived. The Declarative Language Handbook provides lots of ideas on how to do this.
- Indirect communication – Physical prompts and visual supports can remove yourself from the picture or leave things lying around (pamphlets, books, information) to be discovered.
- De-personalizing – Explain that the request is being made by a higher authority other than yourself.
- Distraction – Focus on something else other than the demand. I do this with my daughter by pulling cats into the equation.
- Use humor or novelty
- Ask for help – Say you don’t remember how to do something and need help with it.
- Offer choices, with limitations. It took my daughter 23 years to start eating fruit. Now that she does, I often let her choose between a couple of fruits for breakfast in the morning.
- Model behavior or apply demands for yourself. I will tell my children that I am going into my bedroom to read a book to decompress. I hop on the exercise bike when I feel stressed.
Adopting a low demand approach or parenting style may work for the person you are supporting and providing care for. By building relationships, effective communication, and fostering mutual respect, a person will have a more positive relationship with you. This will allow for greater harmony, happiness and well-being for everyone involved.
Neff, Dr. Megan Anna. Low-Demand Parenting and Why It’s Important. Neurodivergent Insights
Helpful Approaches with PDA Children. PDA Society UK
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