Clearing the Brush
Updated: Feb 25, 2021
Regardless of whether or not you “believe in PDA” or are ready to think of it as a disability (and it took me a year to get there myself), you can still start to develop a good family-based plan to “clear the brush.” This means implementing initial strategies that will help reduce the overall anxiety of your PDA child so that you can start to recognize what is actually going on beneath the behaviors that are so disruptive and challenging.
Clearing the brush is also the primary tool by which you can identify your child's demand and anxiety threshold. This threshold is likely much lower than you think. It can also be confusing because it fluctuates day-to-day. However, your ability to accurately identify and protect your child's threshold of tolerance is what will help you pre-emptively reduce panic attacks and meltdowns. Additionally, once you establish trust, it is the threshold that you will carefully push to increase positive -- or at least neutral -- experiences with some things they resist, like leaving the house or not having full control at every moment.
There are three primary components to Clearing the Brush:
Create a Lower Demand Lifestyle
I suggest planning to take a week or two to start doing this, so you can wrap your mind around a new way of interacting with your child. Another possibility is that you set aside specific hours of your day -- for example, 2:00pm - 4:00pm after your child returns from school or Saturday mornings -- to really focus on this approach and break it down into smaller component pieces. This will also give you parameters as you start confronting your own feelings about how you “should” be parenting or how your own parents raised you. It will hopefully also give you enough time to start seeing tiny windows of hope, light, and connection with your child.
Our family's first "opportunity" to clear the brush, was both uninvited and unwanted. It occurred when -- nearly one year ago -- we were forced to quarantine for nearly four months due to the pandemic. With no warning, Cooper's preschool was closed, William's full-time daycare was shut down, and without even being able to see my sister or mother, I was forced to spend 100% of my time in the home with my two children, while snow continued to fall well into April. Suddenly, I no longer had any possibility of "looking away" from Cooper's challenges.
During these four months, Cooper's fierce and unrelenting resistance to moving through the stages of a planned school day wore me down to the point where I simply gave up on the schedule altogether. Constant meltdowns forced me to abandon my day of carefully planned activities and my laminated visual schedule, and simply be with him and his brother. Cooper would then respond by insisting he was in charge, and direct my and his baby brother's actions, in a way that was so intense, he often directed my line of vision or how I was speaking or moving my body. As I gave in to this situation, we would spend much of the day rotating between pure sensory play, screens, crunchy snacks, and once the snow started to melt, hours on the trampoline.
At the time, this all felt incredibly uncomfortable and chaotic. As hard as these days were, however, they were also the times when I saw both the degree to which Cooper's need for autonomy was not under his control, as well as the creativity that was inside of him and what it might look like when his anxiety was reduced. Over time, I came to understand that his desire for "being in charge," or "being the teacher for the day," was actually him seeking a way to reduce his own fear in a pro-active and adaptive way, as tiring and tedious as it was for me.
This experience was the push I needed to start researching PDA. Once we started learning about it, we began incorporating these principles more deliberately. Despite the fact that it was trial and error, and that there were mistakes and doubt along the way, we started to see a difference in Cooper's overall well-being and thus the family stability.
Remember, this is a slow, one-pebble-at-a-time process, so the "wins" will be subtle. It might mean that their meltdowns reduce from an average of five to four in a day, that her brow is less furrowed and she is smiling a bit more, or that he simply let you "in" for a few more minutes than usual, and spoke to you about what was going on in the video game he was playing.
Change doesn't happen overnight, so remember to look for the small wins. View them as signposts that say, You are on the right path, keep going!
(Photo of Cooper in our backyard during quarantine, after the snow melted)