PDA doesn’t equal violence

I hear a lot of people who have children diagnosed with PDA or who have just heard of PDA but are confused as to whether PDA actually fits their children because they don’t display violence or aggression. It seems like violent behaviour is becoming known as a PDA trait.

Whilst some PDAers can be violent not all are. Most only become violent when pushed beyond their ability to cope and since PDA people are constantly at the limit of their coping abilities it may not take much to send them into a panic whereby they will lash out physically. This is known as a panic attack.

For most PDAers, they use a wide variety of avoidance tactics to cope with what seems like a constant stream of demands and stress. For these individuals it may take for every one of their demand avoidance tactics to not work for them to become violent. They will feel trapped, like every attempt to escape from a perceived threat has been thwarted and the only option left to them is to fight. This is an instinctual response and is a last resort before defeat. For some, they are so near to the edge already that it only takes one more demand they cant fight against, one more push, one more avoidance tactic wasted that they finally snap, lashing out like a wounded animal. Imagine being in that setting on a daily basis, that’s what it is when you have a child who is constantly physically lashing out.

Some PDAers are violent; daily. This could be because they are constantly on the edge and are constantly being pushed over that edge, usually by well-meaning parents/teachers, sometimes by those attempting to control the individual and sometimes by those wanting to hurt the child (I wish this wasn’t true but sadly there are people out there like that). There are those PDAers who are violent because their bodies instinctive response to any threat is to fight. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, if PDAers weren’t living in a world where, to them, nearly everything is a threat. But since to the PDAer, any demand placed upon them is like forcing someone to face their phobia every time, it is a problem. So they bypass all the other, non-violent, demand avoidance tactics and go straight for the lashing out physically. This isn’t deliberate, I can assure you that they don’t want to react like this any more than you want them to. It’s an instinctual response and one that is difficult, but not impossible, to change. We can learn to use the flight or freeze response instead of fight. Ironically the PDAer may not be able to adequately do this if it’s seen as a demand.

Every PDA person is different and so will react to demands differently. Our stress levels and anxiety levels will also differ depending on many reasons such as tiredness, mood, environment, social activities, sensory input, number of demands already been placed on them, etc and this will affect our ability to cope with any more demands placed upon us. Whether a person will be violent at any given time will depend on so much, including how others react to their responses to demands.

This does mean that people can alter the PDAer’s environment, demands, stress and other inputs to help them cope better and thus reduce the likelihood of violent behaviour. By reducing demands and/or by making them easier to handle you can help reduce the PDAer’s anxiety which will allow them to manage more demands and/or help keep their negative responses to a minimum. We can help teach PDA people how to handle their own emotions and reactions to demands and other stressors and teach them how to non-violently refuse/reduce demands.

So whilst some PDA people react violently, PDA itself does not equal violence. Not all PDAers will display violence and it seems that as PDA people become adults they are generally less likely to use violent behaviour than when they were children. Learnt coping strategies, better understanding of self, more control over environment and better self regulation that naturally comes with age all help PDAers cope with demands and stress without resorting to violence. There are many PDA kids who do not and may never use violent behaviour.

5 thoughts on “PDA doesn’t equal violence”

  1. Such children which show “violence” verbally and physically.. are very very vulnerable, as they are so badly misunderstood; and often receiving terrifying responses precisely when they need help.

    1. It would depend on the reason for the aggressiveness, all behaviour is communication. Theoretically, once the underlying cause is dealt with the aggressive behaviour should stop. However, once a behaviour has been learnt, it is a lot harder to unlearn it. The human brain and body memories behaviour patterns so it doesn’t waste time and energy working out in every situation what the best action to take is, instead, like walking, the body acts using whatever behaviour it has used previously, often regardless of whether it worked or not. This is how people get stuck in negative patterns like smoking or overeating. We have to relearn how to respond and therefore choose a different, and hopefully better, behaviour. This is difficult to do for someone else as opposed to ourselves. If you already know what is causing the aggressive behaviour and are able to deal with the cause then that is the best course to take. If you don’t know the cause then watching the person in question for triggers and listing them is one way to start. Then you can change the environment to remove or reduce those triggers. If no triggers present or, like with PDA, the triggers change daily, it might be worth doing whatever you can to change the environment in the hope this will help whilst teaching the individual methods they can use to deal with potential triggers in advance. Depending on the age of the person, their mental abilities, understanding, will depend on which techniques will work. Mindfullness and CBT can be helpful to allow the person to make sense of their feelings and causes of behaviour whilst helping them see how to manage their emotional responses. For children, the book The Explosive Child can help (there’s a website with the same information on too: Ross Green’s Changing Lives) and is well worth trying out. In order to untrain the mind/body from using aggressive behaviour, we often need to prevent them from using the behaviour at all whilst redirecting them to more preferred behaviour. This isn’t easy if the behaviour is ‘attitude’ and/or swearing as opposed to hitting out, because by the time you see it about to happen it’s often already started. Lowering the cause of aggressive behaviour and using controlled scenarios to act out the preferred behaviour is one way to do this. Social stories can help here by showing the person what should happen and how and then allowing them to practise, thus training their mind/body to use that behaviour instead. Then when the real situation occurs the person will be more likely to use the new method instead of the old. This takes a lot of practise though, and often a similar response is needed to ensure the same outlet is given. For example, when wanting to stop swearing, often a similar word is best given (Truck for example) that has a similar sound and can be used with similar vehemence, that way the person gets the same need but in a way that is better for everyone else. I hope this helps 🙂

  2. My newly diagnosed 13yr old struggles at home. At school he is seen as a ‘problem’ child. He’s currently on his 18th exclusion from school for swearing at a teacher. My son has 6 very well behaved older siblings who set a wonderful example to him. I love the notion that attempting to get him to use the word truck or duck would work. At home we can contol my sons behaviour but school don’t seem to care, they just want him out! The problem with PDA is by the time it’s diagnosed they behaviours are set & it’s incredibily difficult to re-educate

    1. You’re right, it can be very difficult to unlearn negative behaviours, especially if they rely on them or they generate the response needed. It is possible to unlearn them but if there are areas where people won’t help (like school) then it’s a far harder task.

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