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20 simple ways PDA kids & teens can safely feel in charge of their adult


“WATCH Mama, WATCH!” My 6-year-old PDAer takes my chin in his soft little hand and forcibly turns my face towards the YouTube video he is watching. I take a breath, close my eyes for a split second to find my inner center, and open my eyes to the video.


***


My husband guards the door while I’m on a private call. My child is trying to get inside. He is furious at my husband, and begins to scream at him. After the call, my child lets out his tension with more screaming. “I need to take revenge on Papa!” He grabs my husband’s mouse pad, runs upstairs, and hides it. *** What’s going on in these moments? How do we understand my child’s behavior through the lens of PDA, neurodiversity, and nervous system health?


***


My child’s behavior in these moments is called equalizing.


I define equalizing as exerting power over someone or something to feel safe in the face of an autonomic threat response.


Equalizing behavior in children is often judged as selfish, rude, bossy, know-it-all, cruel, vengeful, or defiant. But those of us who experience PDA from inside can tell you that equalizing is an expression of a PDAer’s underlying nervous system disability. This disability puts us in survival threat response when faced with a lack of social equality, control, or autonomy.


Avoidance is one strategy PDAers use to regain a sense of safety and control when we feel threatened. Equalizing is another strategy.


PDA equalizing usually refers to exerting control or status over another person. But I find it helpful to consider equalizing as a broader category of exerting control over something to feel safe. This can help us see the PDA threat responses in more subtle behaviors, including in how it intersects with demands of daily life.


In my experience, PDAers may equalize over:


Another person

(i.e. “You CAN’T go on a walk now Mama!”)

Our own bodies

(i.e. withholding food or bathroom)

Our own behavior

(“I’m only allowed to wear skirts.”)

An external system or institution

(“I HAVE to get straight A’s in school.”)


PDA children and teens often equalize with adults because as young people they are not offered a sense of social equality, especially with caregivers. The more equal or high status a PDA child feels in relationship to the people around them, the safer they will feel and the less unhealthy equalizing behavior they will show. If a PDAer is unaccommodated, equalizing may look like swearing, yelling, hiding or breaking a caregivers’ favorite item, physically moving a parent’s body, dumping water onto a parent’s dinner plate, etc. These behaviors are expressions of the underlying PDA nervous system disability that gets triggered by a lack of social equality. Children do not mean the things they say while in threat.


PDAers will thrive best if the entire culture of their home (and school if they are in school) offers them social equality - i.e. the ability to make decisions, be in charge of their own body, be treated as a partner in problem-solving, etc. But no matter what, inside of any culture, adults can can proactively strew healthy opportunities to equalize. Then the PDAer can feel a sense high status in a safe way, and everyone can have fun, too. This kind of play may be hard or impossible in burnout, but on the other hand it may help with recovery. It all depends on attuning to your child/teen. Healthy opportunities to equalize allows PDAers to shine as decision-makers, creative problem-solvers, and experts in our areas of interest.


“But how will my child learn that they can’t always be in control of others if I allow them to equalize?”


The answer to this question requires understanding that PDA is best understood as nervous system disability. If a child’s limbic system feels unsafe because of a lack of social equality, they cannot do any kind of learning, and certainly not social-emotional learning. No one can learn while the survival threat response is activated. Paradoxically, the more adults allow PDA children to feel socially equal or high status, the more time the PDAer spends feeling safe, and the more they are able to develop self-regulation skills, empathy, perspective, patience, & the ability to let others take the lead eventually.


 

One big caveat before I list the ideas:


Directly inviting a PDAer to engage in something can trigger our threat response and backfire. Instead of direct verbal invitations, you can:


Strew: Just start doing the thing yourself. Pick up a pillow and toss it playfully. Get out a game and start playing with it yourself.


Use declarative statements (not questions or commands) to cue an invitation “You are in charge of what shirt I wear today!” “Bet you can’t catch me!”


If the child/teen shows no interest, withdraws, or lashes out, drop the idea for now. Do not take it personally, and don’t necessarily give up on the idea forever. PDA is a dynamic disability and our ability to engage in something varies by day and even by moment.


 

20 Ideas for Fun Equalizing for PDA kids & Teens of Various Ages


  1. Hide and seek and you can’t ever find them

  2. Chase and they always outrun you

  3. Wrestling and they push you over and pin you down

  4. Hot and cold where they hide something and direct you with warmer/colder cues to find it

  5. They decide where you sit for dinner

  6. They decide where you go on a walk

  7. They decide what shirt you wear

  8. They beat you in a video game, card game, or sport

  9. They work with a different adult to play a silly prank on you

  10. You pretend something is too heavy for you and they are super strong and help you carry or move the thing

  11. You allow them to initiate conversations with you, instead of you initiating.

  12. Follow their lead on topic.

  13. They lecture you (infodump) on their area of interest

  14. They show off a project they’ve been working on

  15. They teach you how to play a video game

  16. They decorate or reorganize something in the house (their room, a bookshelf, pantry, your phone’s apps:) You ask their help in a declarative way (“I know you’re great at X. I wonder what you think about…)

  17. They choose a recipe & direct you on what to do (chef & sous chef) or judge the results. (Thanks to @barefootinadress for this one!)

  18. You engage in some sensory activity together - trampoline, biking - but they jump higher or bike faster.

  19. They decide on a family outing or restaurant

  20. Some PDAers enjoy compliments, others are triggered by them. If your PDAer likes them, you can use statements here to build up their sense of social status. “You’re excellent at...” “I appreciate that...”



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