I recently ran across this fantastic article in Psychology Today about nature versus nurture in child rearing. Robert Plomin Ph.D., dives into the research he presents in his book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are.
What he has found is that our DNA is the driving force behind our psychology from personality to behavior. Your wonderfully sassy kid is probably genetically designed to be sassy. So strap in and hold on for this ride, because that kid isn’t going to change. (Keep that in mind when you’re feeling some type of way about your child’s “attitude.”)
He notes, for instance, that parents who read a lot to their children likely have children who enjoy being read to at a basic psychological level. So, when your mom friend starts bragging about reading 400 books to her daughter over the summer and asking you how many books you read to yours, don’t feel bad that your own daughter was too busy drawing to be bothered to sit for many stories. Your child’s personality is going to be very close to what it already was at conception, save for a major brain event.
On one hand, it’s freeing to know that all the experiences children encounter and process through the lens of their DNA help form their understanding of how the world works. Experiences are important and the field of epigenetics is informing us more every day about just how important they are. What we know for certain is that it’s crucial to develop a relationship with your child to find out their strengths and aptitudes and build on those. That sassy child I mentioned likely has heaps of natural confidence. Consider all the wonderful things they’ll be able to do, perhaps, in the public sphere. They may become an influencer or a politician. When you take note and support their interests, so many wonderful things will happen.
My son, for instance, is pretty chill at the most basic level. He mostly works with Peaceful Dad and me and follows directions well, but he needs our patience because he works in his own time. My daughter, on the other hand, is a spitfire. She’s demand avoidant to an extent and will fall to the floor in a heap at the slightest resistance on my part. Respecting my children means I plan in lots of thinking time for my son and I try not to rush him. And, for my daughter, I stay in her space without judgment as she frets. Then, when she’s ready to do something else, we work together.
Peaceful Parenting offers the ideal framework and guidance to work with children’s different personalities and needs. It respects the essence of the child and is flexible enough to move with a child’s genetic tendencies without any of the rigidity that can stifle a child’s inborn potentiality.
ABA is an extremely sensitive topic. You may experience intense emotions as you read this piece. I ask that you read through the post in its entirety before you make a final decision on what your perspective will be. If you need clarification, please ask. If you disagree, I’d appreciate your feedback.
It has taken me months to prepare this post for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been coming to terms with my own very late autism diagnosis. I’m one of the fortunate people who wasn’t subjected to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, but so many autistic people are not so lucky. I write this post for them and for all the children now and in the future who will undergo this very painful experience.
At the start, I have to make clear that I am not a professional. I’m an autistic mom of an autistic child, and I have been in the position of deciding whether or not to put my child into ABA therapy.
I also need my fellow parents to know that I am not condemning you if you’ve chosen ABA therapy. It is the gold standard “treatment” for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s covered by insurance, and it certainly seems to work. Unless you’ve been exposed to autistic adults and our position on ABA, there’s little reason for you to be concerned. I hope you will hear what we have to say and consider whether you want to continue down this path.
Autism Isn’t a Behavior Disorder
So, why treat it with compliance-based training? Autism is a completely natural, neurological variant. It is only disabling in cultures where autistic people are not included and embraced.
Autistic brains perceive and process the world differently from allistic brains. But, we are fundamentally human beings, like everyone else, with the same emotions and responses to stimuli. If you hear a loud noise, do you not cover your ears? That’s not considered odd at all, right? So, why would it be odd for an autistic person to do the same? Sure, it might be accompanied by humming and rocking, because stimming is so comforting to us, but we’re doing the same thing you do to reduce the strain of overstimulation. When allistic children relieve intense stress by cutting, we don’t send them to compliance-based training to try and coerce them to stop. We get them into helpful therapies to give them back control and provide relief that doesn’t harm, thereby addressing the problem rather than the behavior. And, that’s what autistic kids need: acknowledgement that behavior is communication and relief from the underlying problem.
A History of ABA Therapy
Back in the 1970s, UCLA psychologist, Ole Ivar Lovaas, participated in the development of a therapy that promised to alter “deviant” behavior. His involvement in the Feminine Boy Project offered him an opportunity to engage in a form of behaviorism soon-to-be-called conversion therapy wherein gay men would theoretically be converted to heterosexuality. He also used this new therapy in his work with autistic children.
Conversion therapy for homosexual people has since fallen out of favor, for obvious and good reason. However, autistic children are still subjected to the same behaviorism that we’ve deemed unacceptable for use on other human beings. The reason? It was the same back then as it is now. In the words of Lovaas himself, ABA therapy can make autistic kids “indistinguishable from their normal friends.” Unfortunately, that so-called progress comes at the price of an uptick in PTSD and suicide among autistic people. I’m sure you can understand how devastating it is to go through life feeling that the person you genuinely are simply isn’t enough for the people who say they love you. Now, before you decide that my criticism is unfounded, let me make it abundantly clear that Lovaas was a pretty despicablefellow:
Modern ABA might look gentler on the surface; however, at its core, it starts with the assumption that autistic people are broken and wrong, and it seeks to make our behavior more comfortable for allistic people.
Autistic Perspectives on ABA
Amythest Schaber is an autistic artist, writer, public speaker, and advocate. Her series, Ask an Autistic, tackles a great many topics that have proved helpful to her many allistic followers. In this episode, she explains what ABA is from her perspective.
The following list includes links to other autistic writers and advocates, as well as allies, who explain why ABA should be avoided:
Finally, this post from the Non-Binary Intersectionalist (and I must give tremendous credit to this page for the wealth of resources I’ve been able to provide in this post!) describes a recent interaction with a young child in ABA therapy:
If you’re interested in reading some personal accounts of ABA therapy, I encourage you to check out this post on Stop ABA, Support Autistics. If you still aren’t convinced that ABA therapy is harmful, read this post.
What’s the Alternative to ABA Therapy?
To answer this question, we have to consider what well-meaning parents intend to happen when they put their children into ABA therapy. Some of the most common reasons I’ve seen are 1) to help the child be more independent, 2) to help the child navigate society more easily, and 3) to protect the child from danger. There are many, many more reasons of course! These are simply the top three as I’ve understood them.
I imagine you won’t be very surprised to learn that the best alternative to ABA therapy, in my experience and in accordance with my values, is Peaceful Parenting.
Peaceful Parenting achieves each of the three aims I mentioned by instilling self-sufficiency, self-assurance, and boundary recognition in children, as well as improving emotional development and self-regulation, one interaction at a time. Peaceful Parenting does not require thousands upon thousands of dollars or 40+ hours a week of therapy. For symptomatic concerns, there are other wonderful therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. These therapies can help discover and meet needs that parents may not fully understand. And, much like taking an ESL class, they help autistic kids learn a different culture without coercion.
Autistic kids deserve the same gentle treatment as any other child. If you wouldn’t put your neurotypical child into ABA therapy, there’s no need to put your autistic child into ABA therapy. If you’d consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (sidenote: CBT and ABA are not the same) to help your neurotypical child handle the stresses of life, offer the same to your autistic child. Figuring out how best to support a child – any child – can be complicated. But treating our children with the same responsive gentleness, regardless of neurology, need not be the least bit complicated.
In this TED Talk, Dr. Amy Laurent explains why autistic people need support in developing emotional skills, not behavior management:
ABA therapy is simply incompatible with Peaceful Parenting. The entire concept hinges on the adult therapist’s ability to coerce a child into compliance by withholding beloved objects and activities until the child “earns” them by obeying the therapist. ABA therapy discourages children from saying “no.” It does nothing to meet underlying, unmet needs and, instead, attempts to force children to ignore those needs while behaving as though the needs do not exist.
If you are a Peaceful Parent who is alarmed by what you’ve read, please know you and your child are enough just as you are. Your connection with your child is the key to comfort and growth. All children want to be heard and understood. Your job, then, is to learn how your child communicates and become conversant in their preferred language. Trust yourself. Trust your child. And, when you need help, find people who are willing to do the hard work of figuring out why your child is suffering and then find ways to relieve that suffering by way of accommodations and modifications. For instance, if your child hits himself in the head in the presence of very bright lights, the remedy is simple. Turn the lights down or off. When you start to see remedies everywhere, the rest falls right into place.
My son was diagnosed with ASD, Level 2 (since autism is diagnosed by how burdensome we are to allistic people, which is unfortunate) which means the expectation is that he will have far more additional needs as he grows up than an allistic child might. Considering the dire prognoses presented in medical literature, one might expect my son to barely function in the broader culture. In fact, many people do. But, let me tell you a story.
Recently, I took both of my kids to the gym for the first time ever. My gym has free childcare which makes my life so much simpler. So, here you have a young, autistic boy who has never set foot in this new place and finds himself face to face with brand new sounds and smells that he’s never experienced. He’s led into a small room with an abundance of toys, all bright and mishmashed, and he sees two complete strangers sitting there smiling at him. What does the boy do?
Well, he finds a stand-up racing track and begins racing little cars. He listens attentively to the caregivers, and he has a relaxed smile on his face when it’s time to go home. No meltdowns. No shutdowns. No stimming. No fear. And, the reason? He’s been the recipient of Peaceful Parenting from the day he was born. Peaceful Dad and I are firmly connected with him, so he feels safe. We do not punish or reward him, so he doesn’t feel coerced. We are honest with him and prepare him for new experiences, so he doesn’t feel blindsided. We treat him like any other deeply loved person and include him in all our activities, so he has plenty of other experiences to draw from when encountering something new. And he knows that, if it’s ever too much for him, we will respect his needs and find the exit as quickly as we can.
On the way to the gym, I explained in great detail what he could expect. His communication is primarily gestural and minimally verbal, so it’s not as though he could tell me in words that he understood. However, his reaction to the new experience said it all.
No autistic child is the same and your child may not be able to handle a new experience at a gym like what I’ve described. That’s totally normal and ok. There are going to be things your child can do that mine can’t. Again, all autistic people are different from one another. The key is learning what exactly that means for your child and filling in every single crevice in your child’s heart that is aching for your love and attention.
That includes autistic children who exhibit self-destructive and violent behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. If a child, any child, is lashing out, something is wrong that the child can’t overcome. Our goal as parents has to be to investigate the underlying cause of our children’s challenging behavior and help to relieve any stressors we discover.
You Want Action Steps? We’ve Got Actions Steps.
You’ll find this to be a very short section, because I’m directing you to the single most helpful post I’ve ever read on helping autistic kids as a parent. For concrete, comprehensive details on what you can do for your autistic child without the use of any ABA whatsoever, please read If Not ABA, Then What at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. The recommendations there will support what you are already doing as a Peaceful Parent.
Careful! ABA Ideology Can Wriggle Into Other Therapies
If you’ve gotten this far, I want to make sure you know that ABA ideology has infiltrated all aspects of the way professionals care for autistic people. Plus, because ABA is so profitable, some professionals use ABA codes to bill insurance even while they claim they aren’t practicing “traditional” ABA. However, don’t be fooled! If it’s called ABA, it is ABA. And, even if it’s not called ABA, the professional could be using ABA tactics to pressure your child into making advances. It can all be very confusing. An excellent post by Autistic Mama describes the red flags that should send you running for the door if you see them in any therapy your child undergoes. Please visit her post directly for a full explanation of each red flag.
Observation is Not Allowed
No Stimming Allowed
Requires Eye Contact
Excessive Reliance on Token Systems and Edibles
Rigid Approach or Refusing to Make Basic Accommodations
Focus on Outward Behaviors, Rather than Functional Skills
Expecting Kids to Perform on Command, Regardless of How Difficult Something is or Where the Child is at Emotionally
Moving too Fast or Not Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Pieces
Learned Skills Don’t Transfer
Focus on Compliance
Focus on Verbal Communication
Punishment of Any Kind
You Are a Good Parent
Any parent who would go to the ends of the Earth, at any expense, for their child has earned that title. Please know my intention is not to attack you, though I understand why such an impact could result. You may be thinking that your child’s ABA looks nothing like what I’ve described or that your child loves their ABA therapist. I’m not here to argue or to condemn you. I ask only that you carefully consider the history of ABA, its inherent weaknesses, and the voices of autistic adults urging caution.
A Thank You to All My Fellow Autistic Adults
This post wouldn’t have been possible without the labor of my fellow autistics. You are so incredibly valuable and I appreciate you more than I can express. I have learned from you and I’ve been able to offer my son a better life because of you. Thank you!
As you prepare to burst through the gate of a brand new year, your thoughts may center on firm resolutions or even just some loose plans for changes you’d like to see in your life. If being a kinder parent is on your list, I have some comforting news for you. One single change can make all the difference in your efforts to embrace peace and gentleness.
It’s so simple, yet so difficult. It takes intention. It may result in a worldview shift and will likely foster in a positive outlook that can carry you through the toughest parenting challenges. If you have limited time and energy; if you’re overwhelmed at the rigors of peaceful parenting; if you’d hoped you’d have more of a handle on becoming a gentler you but trials and tribulations made your path rockier than you’d ever imagined… if you need help but you don’t know what to help to ask for, I encourage you to do this one, precious, small thing: Reframe.
Reframing is a psychological technique wherein you mentally stand up and move to a different location to see your situation from another, more positive (or at least neutral) perspective. I urge you to watch this incredible 10-minute TED Talk before moving on:
When I talk about reframing in the context of parenthood, I mean choosing to see difficult situations in a new light. As peaceful parents, we know that children do well when they can and, when they can’t, they need our help. Not our wrath. It’s so incredibly hard to honor our own emotions around frustrating incidents while affirming our children’s emotions at the same time. But, that’s what they need from us. In those moments when it becomes too much to bear, taking a breather is always a good decision. It is not a failure. It is self-consideration. When you’re ready to gain new perspective in those tough moments, prioritize empathy.
A friend of mine recently shared with me a difficult interaction she had with her young teenage daughter. The pair were engaged in a mother-daughter clothing battle over cleanliness with the teen wanting to wear her favorite hoodies over the course of several days and her mother wanting to get those hoodies washed and in good order. As we talked, my friend recognized that her daughter was likely associating comfort and safety with her favorite hoodies, which helped reduce her anxiety. So, there was likely a genuine need for her to keep those items close at hand. My friend mentioned that she was planning to get some more hoodies to give to her daughter for Christmas, and I suggested getting two of each, which would make four as gifts and six hoodies in total including the existing pieces. Six hoodies would easily get her daughter through a school week with plenty of time for washing. Once she stepped beyond the conflict, the solution became clear.
When you’re under stress, reframing can feel impossible. It just takes practice and a little ingenuity. Your goal is to view your child in a positive rather than a negative light. With an open mind, you can peer into your child’s heart and see just what’s needed.
I asked friends to share with me some of the most stressful behaviors their children exhibit. You know, the ones that trigger something deep inside that could explode into rage at any moment? Whew! I know that feeling. Let me pause here to say that no one – not me, not you, not anyone – is a machine. Some triggers simply touch too deep, and we do end up exploding. That’s not a fail. We’re human. No way to get around that. We apologize and keep trying. And, that’s what makes us peaceful parents. With that said, I’ll note some of the behaviors that seem to really set folks off.
Children, especially very young ones, seem to be prone to using their bodies to communicate displeasure. They may hit, bite, kick, spit, and scratch, all of which can be extremely upsetting to the adults receiving this inappropriate treatment. It’s especially infuriating when our children hurt each other, especially when it’s an older, larger sibling beating up on a smaller one. Those interactions feel an awful lot like bullying, and that’s something many of us cannot tolerate.
Children use aggression when they don’t have adequate words to express their emotions and when they’ve reached a breaking point. There are certainly cases where some children are violent due to physiological or psychological differences, but most children will lash out at one time or another. This form of communication typically peaks around age 2, but can be present throughout childhood as a child’s (including teens) brain is working primarily off emotion and not logic.
It’s rough when “I won’t let you hit the dog” triggers a toypocalypse as your child slams all her toys onto the floor in a rage. As adults, we know the financial costs involved with destruction. Just walking through the doors of an emergency room costs several hundred dollars to start. That nice dollhouse Aunt Beverly gave your kids last Christmas? $150 down the drain as it becomes the object of a Godzilla-scale attack by a very angry little boy.
There are reasons not to get too caught up in the value of things when your child’s emotional health is on the line, but all the reasoning in the world won’t relieve the fire that burns in your gut when you see your child tearing up their belongings.
As peaceful parents, we want to be countercultural… to view strong responses from our children as natural and healthy. But, there is just something unsettling about a child blatantly doing something we’ve said not to, refusing to eat, throwing food on the floor, and the like. It hits deep and activates our conditioning to view children as subservient and ourselves as singularly worth of respect. Even the calmest among us have a breaking point where we get so fed up, we lash out.
Here’s how it works. When your child does something that sends you right over the proverbial cliff, stop for a moment and recognize that there is an answer. You CAN find a solution! Breathe. Slow down. Look at your child. What’s really happening? If your child is acting in a way that disconnects them from their social group – which is totally contrary to who we are as humans – recognize that there’s a barrier your child can’t overcome no matter how disciplined they might or might not be. Your task is to figure out what that barrier is and guide your child to the solution.
Give reframing a go! Make this your New Year’s Resolution. Once you start to see through the behavior to the need, gentleness will naturally follow. And, if you need guidance to figure out how to support your child through particularly challenging behaviors, I’ll be here all year to help.
That friend I mentioned earlier graciously previewed this post for me. Coincidentally, at the same time, her young son was experiencing a crisis. He had been playing a video game, when he began crying and saying he hated everything. Initially, his father considered taking video games away altogether, but my friend read this post to him and encouraged him to wait. While their son took a breather, they brainstormed why he was acting that way.
Once they put it all together, they realized he had gotten upset when he couldn’t progress past a certain point in the game. My friend’s husband checked the settings and realized they were at a level that was far too difficult for a little boy. After adjusting the difficulty to a more age-appropriate level, he invited his son back in to enjoy a fun father-son game together. The solution was there all along! There is always an answer. You’ve just got to find it.
Whenever I’ve been out with my two kids, and we return home, I like to give my son a little freedom to make his way into the house. He enjoys the outdoors and has certain spots he likes to check to see if any animals have appeared. In particular, he’s always on the hunt for frogs and rabbits. After all, we’re in a semi-rural location with some land and lots of places to explore.
Today, just after noon, we returned from some errands. I took LL from her carseat and set her on my hip before picking up the myriad bags I needed to take inside. I hollered for BB to come along so we could eat our lunch. He scampered up behind me and I heard his heavy footfall on the porch behind me. I rounded the corner and made it to the door. Once inside, I set LL down to play and put all my bags on a shelving unit near our front door. I couldn’t have been inside more than one minute, but I couldn’t hear BB anymore.
I stepped back outside and looked around. Didn’t see him. I walked back to the parking area. Not there either. As LL watched from the living room window, I walked around looking in all of his usual haunts. When I couldn’t find him there, I went back up to the front of the house and looked around. Still didn’t see him. I started to get concerned. I went back to the parking area and walked down to the street level. I looked up one side of the sidewalk and down the other. I peered across the way to a park we frequent. Still no sign. I was getting frantic at this point. I started calling his name in that scary broken voice of panic. Nothing.
My mind was swimming. What if he got too close to the road and someone had picked him up? But, how? He was out there for no more than a minute and he had been on the porch. Where could he be? I walked back up to the front of the house still calling even more terrified. I started to walk to a small man-made pond near the house when I saw him. He was running toward me happily yelling “VULTURE!!” He had gone down near the water feature to look at a volt of vultures that had been sunning themselves along a wrought iron fence surrounding the water. But, because of the topography of the land, I couldn’t see him from the house.
He hadn’t done anything wrong per se. He was in a location we visit often together. He hadn’t gone past the “line” which is a joint in the concrete of our parking area beyond which is a busy state highway. He is very good about stopping at the line and never crosses it without an adult present. He also knew from experience that I curtail his adventures for a while when he ignores a safety limit. Whenever that happens, I hold his hand all the way into the house to make sure he’s ok. It takes time for me to trust in his judgment again.
But, this time, he followed the rules. All except for announcing himself or coming to me when I called. However, thinking back, it was probably a very short amount of time between when I first started calling and when he showed up. It just felt like an eternity when I thought I’d lost him.
This is where it gets really tough. How do I give him freedom to learn to be responsible and protect his safety at the same time? I’ve been thinking about the situation all day since it happened and I realized that my next step is to set a firmer boundary on the side of my house near the water feature. He needs a physical marker to know where to stop. I also need to work on having him respond or return when I call.
But, what I will not do is punish him for being a kid who respects the rules we already have in place. Even though my mommy heart was gripped with terror, I know he needs opportunities like this one to know he can always run back home and be accepted even when he hears that fear and upset in my voice.
Several weeks ago, a friend told me this story about an interaction between her tween son and her mother. Since many of us are gearing up for big family events tomorrow, this topic is something worth thinking about. My friend, a 30-something-year-old Black mother of two in Texas, had this to say:
So today she apparently asked my 12 yr old if he could help her get 2 gallons of water from her car and he said no. She came to snitch and I’m sure was trying to embarrass him and I just said “I’ll help you.” He seemed annoyed she interrupted our conversation to tell me that. My family has no respect for children. I honestly assumed he didn’t feel like it. He had just gotten home and rode his bike from school today and he was getting his snack together. I wouldn’t want to stop preparing food to get water either when it can wait. It wasn’t perishable food she was asking for help with but it honestly didn’t matter to me. I teach them ‘you can always ask but sometimes the answer is no.’
She explained further that there is some background between her son and her mother. It seems she oversteps her bounds and tries to impose her ideology on the children. My friend’s son receives her actions as judgmental. When she asked “Do you want to help me with something?” he answered literally “No” because he was busy.
I can almost see the pearl-clutching! I come from a very Southern, very authoritarian background where adults owned all rights to the labor of children and children had no right to refuse. It was considered the height of rudeness and deserving of quite a spanking. I’ll grant that a young boy who had the strength to ride his bike all the way home from school surely has the strength to go outside to grab a couple gallons of water. Plus, it’s perceived as rude not to be considerate of an elderly relative’s wishes.
Before we had our children, Peaceful Dad and I created family guidelines, and one of those guidelines is “We always choose to help.” We teach our children that we are the heart and hands of Christ to our world. We help out of love. Not obligation. And never because someone wants to assert a flawed belief that my children should be subordinate. I don’t entertain discussing my kids negatively like this grandmother did, no matter who the adult is. I will always ask the adult to speak directly to my child if there’s been a problem. I can be there for moral support, but my child needs to be part of the conversation.
Had this scenario happened in my house, I probably would have broached the topic with my son to understand his perspective while affirming that no one is obligated to help anyone. I would want my son to know that there are relationship consequences for refusing a request for help, particularly since there exists a social expectation that children are to serve adults. This is something children need to be aware of, and it’s something worth discussing as we guide our children through the trials of childism.
Her entitlement was completely inappropriate. No one has a right to anyone else’s labor. I imagine my friend’s son would have graciously agreed had his grandmother asked, “When you finish eating your snack, would mind helping me get some gallons of water out of my car?” So, let’s flip this around. Is it not also rude of an adult, knowing this child was tired and hungry, to demand assistance with a non-urgent matter while the child is in the middle of making himself something to help him recover from his long day and his long ride? Could the request not have been made in a more understanding and compassionate way wherein both of their needs could have been met?
The trouble here is that, for many adults, the outcome isn’t as important as the interaction. They say they like seeing kind, cooperative, and respectful children, but what they really expect is deference and obedience.
Rudeness is a matter of perception. In this case, the requester ultimately got the help she was requesting, so the problem was solved. I don’t want to suggest that kids be encouraged to break social “rules” for the sake of being controversial. I think it’s important for children to be aware of expectations and cultural consequences. But, at the same time, we also need to be holding adults accountable for how they interact with kids, and we need to instill self-confidence and self-worth in our kids so that they know how to navigate social expectations with grace and wisdom.
If a child is uncomfortable with a request being made of them, we can be there to help guide the conversation. Otherwise, we can give kids room to work out their own relationships and support them in upholding boundaries… even with elderly relatives. And, even at big family events.
I asked my friend what had changed since her own childhood that caused her to support her son in his interaction with her mother. She said:
In the past I would have felt pressured into forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. When my daughter came along I realized that I was raising my kids differently than I was raised and than the kids in my family were being raised. One day my grandma asked my 1 year old for a hug at easter and my nephew who was about 4 said she “don’t do hugs.” My granny said “I don’t care, come give me a hug girl!” It was right then that I was like “oh hell no!” She is not about to force herself onto my child and traumatize her and then leave me with the job of cleaning up. So I stopped her in that moment and said “we don’t force physical contact on people,” and I looked at my daughter and said “can you wave bye bye to granny?” And she didn’t do that either and I said “maybe next time” and shrugged it off. That’s when I started looking into ways to fend off my pushy relatives because I knew there would be more situations like these in the future.
I went from spanking my son to not believing it was necessary I hardly ever took my kids out during nap time or would leave when they got tired because they just slept better at home and to prevent putting them in situations where they were over tired and would act out. Long ago, I decided that just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.
Just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. That is an entire lesson right there on its own! We can teach our children how to say, “I’m busy right now, but I’ll be with you as soon as I finish.” We can foster relationships in our children’s lives that meet their needs and those of the adults they care about. When the challenge in a child’s life is a social expectation, let’s allow genuineness and honesty to win out. It’s ok for children to say “not now” or even “no” to adults. Unclutch those pearls!
So, how do you instill a sense of selflessness in your kids? How do you foster the development of a human who enjoys being helpful whenever possible? I’m sure there are many ways families are doing this every day (and I’d love to hear from you in the comments!) I’ll mention one of the ways that has been invaluable for my family. We include our children in our everyday lives. Sounds pretty simple, but it takes planning and patience. It can be difficult to allow kids to help in their own developmentally appropriate ways. It’s messy and time consuming, but it is wonderfully affirming for your child! If you’d like to try it out, the key is to resist the urge to do things for your children. Don’t take over. If you want to insert yourself into the activity, help out! Demonstrate by modeling what’s expected. Openly speak with your child about the expected outcome, step by step. Children don’t know the process to get to an end result until they learn it. For example, including children in putting laundry away might look something like this:
Parent invites the child to help
Parent quickly explains what’s about to happen – “We’re going to take the clothes out of this laundry basket, fold them neatly, put them back into the basket, and then put them into their drawers. I’ll help you!”
Parent demonstrates how to fold an item of clothing and hands some clothes to the child
Parent and child go through the steps together
Many children will likely not be able to fold to an adult’s expectation, be able to open drawers and sort, and the like. Some direction is helpful, but allowing the child to try and accepting their effort as is goes a long way to instilling a love of helping in a child. And, start young. Thank your infant for helping you pick up toys even if it becomes a game. There are so many ways to include and appreciate kids. You and your child will figure it out together.
Want to know something pretty incredible about whining? Researchers have posited that it may actually be an evolution of crying at a time when children “switch from primarily mothers to greater care from other caregivers.” That means whining serves an evolutionary purpose in communication between young children and adults. Kids who whine when resources are limited tend to be heard and that means they tend to survive. Pretty clever, huh? But, stressful nonetheless.
I know my title mentions a “cure” for whining, but in reality, whining is good as far as I’m concerned. It signals that a child is emotional, under or over-stimulated, or just plain done. That kind of information can help you be an even more responsive parent. Whining tells you there’s a need waiting to be met and, if you can pinpoint what it is, you can avoid a meltdown. Before you do anything else, make sure your child’s basic needs are squared away. Hunger? Thirst? Discomfort? Tiredness? Sometimes, all it takes is addressing the underlying situation to resolve the cause of the whining.
However, when that’s not possible or when you can’t determine what the issue is, there’s another trick you can keep up your sleeve. The surprisingly powerful “First/Then” statement. It works in just about every context. Let’s say your child wants to go outside to play, but there are toys everywhere. You might say, “Not until you clean up.” That’s a pretty amorphous statement when you think about it. “Not until you clean up.” There’s no direction. No time frame. No, point a to point b.
Back in the late 1800s, Pierre Janet – a French psychologist who specialized in dissociation and traumatic memory – set out to explore the phenomenon wherein we feel like time passes more quickly as we get older. He came up with the “ratio theory” which suggests that the smaller proportion of our lives that remains, the more quickly we feel we’re hurtling toward the end. There are other theories about the phenomenon, some say it’s memory, others our biological clock. Whatever the truth is, one thing is for sure. Time moves at a snail’s pace for children. We can be sensitive to that even as we establish limits for our kids.
Back to cleaning up those toys. Giving children more of a clear directive without attempting to control their every move often helps motivate them and reduces their need to whine in order to be heard. In our scenario, you might consider saying, “First, I need for you to pick up your toys and put them where they belong. Then, you’re welcome to go outside and play until the sun goes down.” You’ve given your child a task list to check off, time-related landmarks, and the power to choose how long to do the task you’ve given. And, if you really want to level up on your Peaceful Parenting, offer to help your child clean up! The very best cure for whining is to meet your child needs.
Much of the information available about Peaceful Parenting assumes your child is neurotypical and is responsive to your relational overtures. But, what happens when your child resists your every attempt? What do you do when connection hurts?
I’ve collaborated with two dear friends of mine for this post. One friend is a mom who lives in Scotland and has a son with debilitating anxiety and psychomotor overexcitability. And, the other friend is a mom who lives in South Africa and has a daughter with an unofficial diagnosis of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). I’ll be using country abbreviations to refer to each with Scotland being SCT and South Africa being ZA.
Peaceful Parenting for Anxiety
We all three believe that Peaceful Parenting works for all kids, but we also recognize that a single approach will not foster connection with every child. The standard steps apply: create your own peacefulness, assess your child’s needs, foster your child’s emotional equilibrium, empathize with your child, and set gentle, reasonable limits. However, parents can stall out at that second step with their resistant kids. What are the deepest needs of a resistant child?
Kids with PDA, traumas, and other anxiety-fueled differences desperately want to connect with their caregivers, but the barriers can be insurmountable for these children to overcome on their own. Anxiety plays a massive role across a number of challenging childlike behaviors, and it’s something we can all understand. The trick is finding the unique approaches that can cut through the chaotic fog of anxiety and let your child know they are safe and wanted.
Anxiety can present in classic ways and not-so-visible ways. For many adults, anxiety manifests as talking incessantly about worries, overthinking and overanalyzing situations, indecision, being “wound up” and unable to relax, trouble concentrating, insomnia, sweating, gastrointestinal problems, and unexpected anger.
Kids often don’t know how to express their anxiety. They may complain of stomachaches or headaches a lot. They may be perfectionists. They may spend an inordinate amount of time doing small things and focus on minute details. They may delay beginning new activities. And, they may avoid social engagements. In small children, who are even less able to communicate their concerns, anxiety may also show up as things like stalling, becoming mean or aggressive, finger/toe/nail/lip/eyelash picking or biting, hair twirling, and inflexibility about their desires and/or their environment.
My friend, SCT, has learned the signs of her son’s anxious dysregulation and what she can do to help him. She says,
What I’ve found so far, and it seems to work at school too, is starting with a hands off approach. Redirecting him to go read for 15 to 20 minutes just recentres his brain. That’s if the anxiety is in the disruption phase. Funny noises, shouting, silliness, maybe something physical like jumping around. That’s usually come about as a result of being overstimulated and struggling to output it. The other little things are lip picking and adjusting his glasses repeatedly. After he’s had the quiet time, he’s more reasonable to talk to and have a cuddle.
In ZA’s case, she realized her daughter was different from infancy. She didn’t like to cuddle and would get stimulated quickly. As she grew up and became more independent, she also became happier. ZA and her husband gave their daughter plenty of respect and autonomy from a very young age, but she grew more and more resistant over time. At first, they tried common Peaceful Parenting techniques like naming feelings and hugging, but she would become enraged. They tried time outs which caused extreme separation anxiety. In their desperation, they even tried popping her on the hand, which inflamed the resistance further.
ZA learned, in speaking with professionals, that talking about feelings exacerbates anxiety in some children who can’t identify their feelings because that uncertainty is debilitating. However, it’s critical for anxious children to learn how to process feelings. It’s a very tough situation. If you’re experiencing what ZA did, she has a message for you.
Trying to explain this to the well meaning moms taking time to try and help me was either met with silence or a “Sorry, I don’t know then”, so for the most part our journey has been quite lonely as nobody understood what we were going through. It wasn’t until I found out about PDA that I’ve been able to get some advice that is applicable to us or at least some genuine understanding without raised eyebrows.
My advice for parenting a child like this is to study them and see what their tells and triggers are. Work on emotional intelligence as much as possible and teach them to recognize the signs when things are becoming too much. When they explode, dissect the hours leading up to it cause I can promise you it’s most likely been building a while. Listen if they tell you to leave them alone or to stop talking but check in and remind them you love them even when they are having a hard time. Read The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. Adjust your way of thinking how parenting should look, sometimes “giving in” is exactly what your child needs and isn’t seen as a weakness but as kindness. Be flexible, very flexible. Work on your own shortcomings and be kind to yourself when you stumble.
It is really tough parenting a child who doesn’t respond to the typical peaceful parenting strategies. It’s the toughest thing I have done in my life. In saying that, my daughter has driven me to become a much better parent and person. She’s challenged me in ways that I never thought possible and has made me grow immensely. She is an amazing, caring, insightful, funny, smart human being underneath all of her anxiety and I honestly wouldn’t trade her for anything. I can see everyday how she is growing and becoming a more confident little girl.
If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, and common Peaceful Parenting techniques aren’t helping, please consider seeing a professional for an assessment. Peaceful Parenting works for every child and every parent, but the approaches and techniques you choose have to be adapted to your child’s individual needs. Unless you figure out what your child’s needs are, you may both end up frustrated unnecessarily.
What You Can Do to Connect
Start With Empathy
Understand that your child isn’t being difficult, but rather is having difficulty. Respect your child’s feelings by not minimizing their discomfort. Rather than telling them not to worry or saying things like “You’ll be ok. It’s not that big a deal,” try to acknowledge the worry without amplifying it. Simply saying “I’m here and I won’t leave you alone” communicates a great deal to an anxious child.
As an adult and an onlooker to your child’s situation, you have a perspective that can be lifesaving. You can see if your child’s basic needs are being met and resolve any issues there. You can display empathy and let your child know you accept them as they are, anxiety and all. You can stand up for your child around other people. Instead of saying, “my child is just shy” or making other excuses, state what your child needs. “My daughter doesn’t want to play right now.” Period. Giving your child permission to boldly state their position is crucial to their ability to establish appropriate boundaries in their relationship with you and with others.
Create a Calming Area
When anxious children become dysregulated, they can’t ground themselves even if though they want to, and your efforts to intervene may escalate the crisis. That’s where a calming area can help. Create a kid-friendly space with a tent or even a blanket draped over two chairs. Put a pillow down and add in some chill out items like books about feelings, a sensory bottle, headphones or earplugs to quiet the environment, a compression or weighted vest, stress balls, sound therapy like a white or pink noise machine, or anything you’ve found that helps your child.
During calm times, before a crisis hits, ask your child if they want their calming area to be in a bustling family room or in a quiet, secluded room. It’s critical your child feels that this space is a refuge and not a punishment.
Respect Their “No”
Kids who are resistant often feel that they don’t have control in their lives, so they say “no” to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed. It’s not meant as a challenge to you as the parent. You can respect their “no” while still communicating your requests. With my own kids, I typically set boundaries by saying things like “I can’t let you do that” but for a child with PDA, that simple statement feels far too controlling. Making requests as opposed to demands or other non-negotiable statements can help. “Would you [insert what you want the child to do]?” Or, “After you have finished what you’re doing now, could you [request].”
Model Cooperation and Appreciation
Use words like “we” and “us” to present tasks and acknowledge how difficult it is for the child to comply. “Let’s clean up together! Would you like to pick up toys or take these dishes back to the kitchen?” While you work together, offer affirmations like, “Cleaning is so much better when you do it with me. Thank you for helping!”
Social Stories are a social learning tool developed in 1990 by an educator called Carol Gray who came to understand that her autistic students were missing information about common interactions and just needed someone to communicate that information in a logical way. It’s difficult being autistic in a world where allistic people seem to automatically understand how things work. Social Stories help to bridge the communication gap between autistic and allistic people.
However, Social Stories aren’t just for autistic people. They help overcome all sorts of communication barriers and, because they involve pre-planning, you guessed it, they can help decrease anxiety too.
In this video, speech-language pathologist Carrie Clark delivers a comprehensive explanation of what Social Stories are, why they work, and how to create them. Please be aware that the very beginning of the video includes a mention of ableist functioning labels. Closed captions are available with this video.
The PANDA Approach
Consider the PDA Society approach, which helps to reduce resistance in anxious children. PANDA stands for Pick Battles, Anxiety Management, Negotiation & Collaboration, Disguise & Manage Demands, and Adaptation, and these tactics can be useful for other resistant children as well.
And, Here’s What ZA Does!
Read stories that highlight feelings
Verbalize your own feelings in front of your child
Share highlights and lowlights as a family every day
Adopt an anxiety-friendly framework to address anxiety around activities:
Use indirect requests (“It would really help me out and make me happy if you could do this for me”)
Tell your child exactly why what you’re asking of them is important
Point out the feelings attached to the activity
Ask if the activity is making your child anxious, nervous, unhappy, or scared but never in the midst of an anxiety attack
Ask your child why they think they’re having these feelings, if your child is receptive
Write social stories together describing step by step how the activity would go
Give your child space when it all becomes too much and give it plenty of time before you decide whether you should all move on or if you should address what happened
Your relationship with your child and your ability to ease anxiety can open the door to a genuinely fulfilling experience for both of you. For more tips on calming your anxious child, check out this Motherly article. And, for another fantastic resource, visit Anxious Toddlers (it’s not just for toddlers!) Please tell us what helps your anxious child the most and if there are any other resources we should know about.