By Rosie and Jo’s mum
I’m not an expert in behaviour management or child development. I’m a parent who has learnt lots over the years from reading, looking after my own children and talking to other parents of children with ASD. Controlling behaviour is an issue that lots of us parents seem to come up against and it also appears to be one of the most common reason that professionals use to criticise parents and label their parenting skills as the root of a child’s problem.
I would like to share some of my thoughts on controlling behaviour and how it could be managed.
Children with ASD and anxiety can often display high levels of demand avoidance and the need for control. I’ve observed dramatic increases in what could be described as controlling behaviour from my own children and friends’ children when their anxiety is high and feeling unmanageable. This is often associated with their needs not being met in school. If they are prone to masking outside the home, the controlling behaviour won’t be seen in school which can be taken as evidence that the school is getting it right and parenting is the problem.
We know that our children with ASD often seem to find the world to be an unpredictable place where everyone else seems to understand each other and know what is going to happen next and they feel confused, excluded, unsafe and unable to express their needs. I believe trying to gain control of their environment at home is an attempt on the child’s part to create at least one area of their life where they know what is going to happen next, what people are saying and doing and nothing unpredictable is going to happen. It’s completely understandable, works to some extent, causes enormous strain on the family and is very easily used as evidence that the parent is getting something wrong.
I regularly see posts on internet forums for parent of children with ASD and PDA about their child controlling their everyday lives with threats (not necessarily explicit) of aggressive meltdowns if they don’t comply. It isn’t unusual for this to extend to literal control of where parents are allowed to sit, who they are allowed to speak to, what they can eat, where and when they sleep and even how they position their own bodies. Sometimes, no matter how hard the parent tries to comply, what they do is never good enough, the controlling behaviour escalates and the meltdown ensues anyway. The child is looking for the wrong solution to a problem they don’t fully understand and the parent is doing everything they can to alleviate their child’s distress without success.
When our child arrives home from school stressed and anxious, in distress and looking for a release, our instincts tell us to do whatever we can to make things better for them. We want to do what they want; what they say they need. We want to make the world a better place for them. Who wouldn’t when they are struggling so much of the time?
The problem is that children, including children displaying high levels of PDA, need to feel that the adults caring for them are strong and able to keep them safe. If the child can control the adult, so can other people and that can make them feel insecure, leading to an increase in anxiety and a vicious circle with more attempts at controlling behaviour.
Children who are worried that something might happen often do everything they can to make it happen, seeking reassurance that, no matter how hard they push, it won’t. They are unconsciously looking for the point at which the adult will take control. This can be confusing for parents who sometimes give the child what they want in the hope that it will calm them, which it may do temporarily, but inevitably makes the underlying problem worse.
Sometimes it is easier to give in to a child in order to avoid a backlash but, by doing this, we are teaching them that aggression is a useful tool and just postponing the time we will need to impose the boundary. At some point, there will be a boundary, even if it has to be the police who impose it. It doesn’t do them or us any favours in the long term if we put that off.
My worry is that we don’t want to teach our children that they can manage their own anxiety by controlling others. How are they going to manage future relationships or employment, if they can only manage their anxiety that way? There is also the obvious point that it just doesn’t work. Often, the more control they have over adults, the more they seek.
All children need some boundaries. For children with ASD and PDA, those boundaries need to be carefully thought out so they aren’t counter-productive. It can be helpful to offer choices wherever they are possible and appropriate to reduce to a minimum the number of firm boundaries. However, there are some behaviours, those which are harmful or dangerous that cannot be accepted and I would include attempting to exert inappropriate levels of control over the lives and bodily autonomy of others.
We don’t need to take control simply for the sake of being in control. It is written in Jo’s Statement of SEN that she should retain control of her own targets and progress towards independence. This is because pressure to make progress causes her to be anxious that her support is going to be withdrawn and actively prevents her from taking next steps. In this example, it is reasonable and constructive to hand control to the child. It isn’t teaching her to try to manage her anxiety in an inappropriate manner and it doesn’t harm others.
I don’t believe it is helpful to punish or ignore controlling behaviour. We need to look for the reasons behind it so we can reduce the anxiety that causes it and we also need to help the child to learn more appropriate strategies that can replace the need for control.
If the need for control can be removed by reducing other sources of stress, that must be our first port of call. Behaviour is communication. If the child is desperate for inappropriate control, they are telling us that there is something causing the distress. We need to do everything we can to find out what it is and reduce it.
Giving children a clear, planned structure to their day, with warnings of changes well in advance wherever possible can help. This applies at home as much as at school and often doubly so in school holidays.
Offering choices and control whenever they are appropriate can reduce the number of battles. However, a lot of choices can be overwhelming for some children so we need to approach this carefully.
It helps if a consistent approach is taken by all the adults caring for a child. If a behaviour cannot be tolerated, we need to make sure that their school staff, grandparents, etc also understand and implement the same boundary. One well-meaning adult who thinks that doing a child’s bidding will make them feel better or happier, could make the whole thing harder.
Before deciding to stop letting the child have an unreasonable level of control we need to explain, explain, explain. Help the child to understand their own emotions, our emotions, the effect their controlling behaviour has on us, the effect it would have on their peers, the reasons why they feel the need for control, why it doesn’t help to have it, alternative ways they could communicate, express their distress and manage their anxiety. Most of all, we need to explain that we are going to change how we are going to respond to their need for control. An inexplicable change in our behaviour out of the blue will be harder to manage.
We need to be aware that, if we have allowed a child to take control inappropriately and decide to change this, we will probably have to deal with an escalation in behaviour before anything improves. Change induces anxiety and a new boundary must often be tested to the limit before it can be accepted and relied upon.
Despite what some professionals say, we don’t give our children control because we are inept parents. We do it because we want to find a way to make the world a better place for them. We need professionals to recognise this and offer support and understanding. We need them to help by making adjustments that reduce our children’s anxiety and stress so they don’t need to fight for control in the first place. We also need them to stop judging and start listening properly to the reasons behind what they see as problem behaviour. Maybe then we won’t have to manage our children’s desperate struggle for control because the world is a less confusing and unpredictable place for them.