How to Discipline a Child With PDA: What You Need to Know About Pathological Demand Avoidance in Kids

Discipline a Child With PDA

PDA, or Pathological Demand Avoidance, is a real condition that affects a good chunk of the population. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s fair, as it’s a relatively new diagnosis. It’s essentially a form of anxiety that comes through in the form of purposefully avoiding people, places, activities, things, and even ideas that may cause them anxiety and/or stress.

It’s also a subtype of autism. If a child has PDA, you’ll usually see them outright refuse to do tasks that are seen as too demanding. It’s often confused for general anxiety and plain old laziness and procrastination, unfortunately, but that’s not the case.

Even if your child has not been diagnosed with this disorder, if you believe your child may have some serious anxiety issues that causes severe avoidance of all things, this article is meant to introduce more discipline methods that won’t cause a worsening of their anxiety. If you punish a child with PDA how some other parents would (with a spanking or a severe scolding), you may be making things worse.

Since it’s important to understand your child and how to help them get through their anxieties, I’ll give you a quick rundown on the most important factors.


PDA: Specifics

PDA in kids

Since PDA is a relatively new diagnosis, some things are still being ironed out, but here are the basics.

PDA is a subtype of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). If you are unfamiliar with the basics of Autism, I suggest learning more about it, because it will go a long way in understanding and caring for your child.

The biggest symptoms of PDA in children include: resisting order and demands, using a litany of manipulation strategies (excuses, distractions, etc) to avoid demands, have generally better social skills than the average Autistic child, excessive mood swings, impulsive behavior, obsessive behavior/hyper-focusing, and meltdowns.

Some common problems of children rejecting demands is because of things like overstimulation, a lack of understanding of the command, and a genuine inability to realize that saying “no” isn’t actually an option in their case.

Here are some tips to help you and your child walk the path of discipline without causing too much trouble for either of you.


Remember That It Doesn’t Go Away

Living with PDA - Autism brain function concept

Before we start, there is something we need to make unmistakably clear: Pathological Demand Avoidance is not something that one can “grow out of”. They may be able to deal with it better as they grow older, but it’s not something that will ever go away, nor can you discipline it out of them like some sort of parenting exorcism. It’s there to stay. As soon as parents can get that idea down, we’ll be on our way to a brighter future. After all, the most important part of parenting is being able to know and understand your own child.


Learning How to Deal With a Meltdown

Dealing With a PDA Meltdown

If you’re close to someone with Autism or perhaps have an Autistic family member yourself, you may know what meltdowns are. They are very commonly mistaken for tantrums, which they are not. Spoiled children with no discipline have tantrums, and Autistic children have meltdowns. Screaming, crying, hitting things, throwing things; all of these are pretty common. If your child has had meltdowns before and you’re not quite sure how to properly respond to them, here’s a quick rundown of some tips.

  • When you realize your child is having a meltdown, guide them to a safe place away from other people.
  • Keep stimuli to a minimum. Try to dim the lights if possible, turn off any loud noise makers like a TV, and give your kid noise-canceling headphones if you have any.
  • Allow only one other person in the room. Do not touch the child unless they clearly want it, and always give them the appropriate amount of space while still being visibly nearby.
  • If your child isn’t reacting well, or at all, to calming words of assurance, it’s best to keep quiet.
  • Wait for them to expel all their energy, then help them get some rest and some water.


Don’t Be Demanding, But Don’t Be Passive

Parenting - a child with PDA

I know, I might as well be asking you to be perfect, but raising a child with PDA isn’t like raising the average kid. You need to strike a balance that doesn’t have to be perfect, but must have a measure of kindness and firmness.

If you’re too demanding and using scolding language and phrases like “do it now” or “if you don’t, you’re grounded” are not the way to go. That only causes more anxiety, and it may get to the point where even speaking to you might cause them stress. The last thing you want is to be the reason your kid is stressed.

If you’re too passive, you run the risk of your child not learning anything other than how to get you to drop the subject.

Even if your child has frequent meltdowns, you should still continue to try and encourage your kid to continue doing certain tasks so that they can get experience and learn how to do things themselves. Be gentle, but firm.


Requests, Not Commands

requests not commands when talking to an autistic child

Language is extremely complex, and how words can come across even without much inflection can entirely change how someone interprets what you’re saying. This isn’t as large a problem with children, but it does still exist.

Words like need, now, won’t, can’t, must, don’t, and hard stops are not the way to go. It’s intimidating for your kid, so softer vocabulary should be offered. Phrases like “do you mind if”, “would it be okay with you if”, “it would really help me if you could please”, etc.

“Please” and “thank you” go a very long way, as well.



Punishing a child with PDA

So it’s clear from how this article has gone so far that you know I won’t recommend traditional forms of punishment. Aggression will get you nowhere and will only cause more headaches down the line. You need to be gentle, yet consistent.

If your child has done the wrong thing by disobeying or ignoring your instructions and needs to learn that, you have to be calm about it. If you’re the type to snap, it’s time to learn a bit of discipline of your own. A child learns through imitation, after all.

You also need to be consistent, which means that every crime needs to have the same punishment until they’re at an age where they clearly know right from wrong. The consistency will help alleviate the anxiety the child feels if they know a punishment is coming, or at least allow them to know what exactly happens if they end up doing wrong.

If it so happens that they continue refusing your instructions and accepting the punishment, you should slowly increase the duration of the punishment. The kid clearly knows better by this point, so you have every right to do so. Let your child know this beforehand so they know why the punishments are being extended.


Punishment for Accidents

Punishing a child with PDA for accidents

This requires its own consideration entirely. Accidents need to be treated as a far lesser crime than as something intentional. Forgetting to do something you asked them to do, for example, isn’t not as bad as outright refusing. Even if the kid was in the wrong (running with a glass and dropping it, for example), they still should only be given a warning for the first time around. Clearly express to your kid what they did wrong, and then warn that should it happen again, there will be a punishment.


Praise for Following Instructions

Parenting - praising a child

On the other side of punishment should be reward. Incentives your kid to do good through praise once they’re finished. Tell them they did a good job and that you’re proud of them. Kids adore positive attention and love to feel, well, loved. The incentive of kind words and doting after a task should help them move past the anxiety of a task.

I would suggest that you offer a reward for bigger or brand new tasks. By “bigger”, I mean things like tests, school projects, and competitions. By “brand new”, I mean things like the first day of middle school or introducing them to a brand new responsibility (dishwashing or laundry). The reward is up to you, whether it be a pre-dinner snack or a sweet treat. This will alleviate some of the anxiousness that comes with things like that.


Final Thoughts

These aren’t rock solid solutions, especially since every child is different, and since PDA is a subtype of Autism, it’s also on a spectrum itself.

If you’re still having trouble with your child, or you think that perhaps your kid is undiagnosed with something other than PDA, I highly suggest you see a child behavioral therapist. That way, you will have the assurance of a professional, and clear instructions. Let’s hope that you don’t have PDA and get anxious about said instructions, too.