Gentle Support for Your Resistant Child

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.

Sourced from Gozen.com

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

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

Final Thoughts

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.

Dysregulation and Grounding

No, not that kind of grounding! We don’t do punishments around here. By special request, I am dropping a note to provide some definitions in my own words for those who are wondering. I use the terms dysregulation and grounding, in a variety of forms, to describe some of the important steps in the process of developing self-regulation.

Definitions

  • Self-regulation: the state of being in physiological and psychological balance without external influence. Please note that self-regulation does not mean self-control. Self-regulation develops as a child builds skills to become more able to manage stress in healthy ways. Self-control means arbitrary self-inhibition whether or not the child is handling stressors in a healthy way.
  • Dysregulation: an inability to sustain physiological or psychological balance due to unmanageable stressors.
  • Meltdown: a vigorous, externalized, emotional eruption.
  • Shutdown: self-protective, internalized isolation.
  • Grounding: the process of bringing oneself back into self-regulation.

Explanation

Many of you may already be familiar with the concepts of meltdowns and shutdowns as they apply to neurodivergent children. Kids on the autism spectrum are at an especially heightened risk of experiencing these very upsetting, very natural responses to living in a world in which they have to work every waking hour to operate within the confines of what neurotypical people consider “normal.” Anecdotally, I’ve found that autistic kids are more able to function in neurotypical cultures when they have autistic adults guiding them. They’re less likely to meltdown or shutdown, probably because the autistic adults can better predict stressors and teach the kids how to avoid or work through them.

But, it’s not just neurodivergent kids who respond to stress by melting down or shutting down. Neurotypical kids do it too because, well, they are kids. Up to around age 25, we humans are pretty unskilled in the process of understanding ourselves and negotiating appropriate behavior. Meltdowns and shutdowns occur when children reach a point at which they are overloaded and unable to function. The source could be overstimulation, hunger, exhaustion, or any number of major crises that a child cannot overcome alone.

Signs

Learning the signs of dysregulation isn’t an exact science. Caregivers should have a sense of what’s typical for a child in a given situation and, when things start to escalate, that’s when you know it’s time to act. Unfortunately, because of the way many of us view childlike behavior, it can be easy to brush off signs of dysregulation as a child just being obnoxious. However, behavior is always communication. A child may not be able to explain what’s happening, but their behavior can reveal the truth. Understand that dysregulation is never a choice. If you see any of these signs, or any suggestion that something is up with your child, take action.

Possible Signs of Impending Dysregulation
This list is not exhaustive.

  • Increasing hyperactivity
  • Increasing vocalizations (talking, humming, other sounds, etc.)
  • Increasing destructiveness
  • Whimpering/crying/whining
  • Aggressiveness/anger
  • Unusually avoidant behavior
  • Unexplained mood swings

Intervention

When a child begins to dysregulate, we adults can help. We can guide our child toward grounding by gently offering techniques that soothe at a time when our kids can no longer reason through to a solution. We become their calm. Be sure to choose interventions you know your child enjoys and ask first. Consent is crucial to ensure your child feels as calm and peaceful as possible.

Possible Grounding Interventions
This list is not exhaustive.

It’s easiest to decide what might work best for an individual child if we can figure out what’s wrong to begin with. If my child is just completely overwhelmed and unresponsive to conversation, my go to is always a hug, and then we might move onto other things. If I can see that my child is getting very sleepy, I try to create a calming environment and a place to rest (usually a nap on the couch if it’s during the day). If I can see that my child is starting to physically push people around, I look for ways to introduce heavy work. My response depends on putting together all the other observations I’ve already made leading up to the crisis.

Dysregulation isn’t bad. It’s a natural response that children have no control over. It’s our job as the reasonable adults we are to show our kids how best to cope and get back to a balanced position.