We have respected every aspect of JJ’s body autonomy for the last two years, as part of a low-demand parenting style which undoubtedly is the most successful way of nurturing a PDA child. We’ve navigated (and still do) issues with teeth and bathing, but ultimately things are much better then they have been.
Hair is a HUGE issue for JJ. His last proper haircut was April 2019 and the last time he let me comb it was for a wedding in September 2019! I have photo evidence…
His incredibly thick hair had grown very long and was half-way down his back. It was washed very quickly when he had a bath (which was rarely) but it would hurt and frustrate him so much that I never managed to get it properly clean and conditioned. The tangles would matt, and dreadlocks would form.
Like a weird sort of hair-ninja, I would sneak in to his room whilst he was asleep and carefully snip them out. I did this for cosmetic reasons, I won’t lie to you, as I was genuinely worried that someone would report us to social services, as he appeared feral and neglected. It got to the point where I couldn’t cut any more out without it looking like a crazy mullet. His dad affectionately referred to him as Stig of the Dump.
The reason for the long hair? A combination of demand avoidance and sensory issues resulting in JJ rarely ever visiting a hairdresser (the loud noise of the hairdryers, the feel of the scissors cutting the hair, the tiny pieces of hair which would go down his back…). He used to let me cut it but even that stopped. JJ had also begun to suck his hair and was always itching and rubbing his scalp – he must have been so uncomfortable.
Now trust me, I’m not a superficial person. I couldn’t care less about children being neat or conforming to societal expectations, my son’s body autonomy and happiness was and still is everything to me. But I was genuinely concerned that it looked like neglect, and I couldn’t bear the thought of people thinking I didn’t care for him.
So after much consideration and research in some in one of my favourite PDA groups, I wrote him a letter and left it in his room. I gave him two options – and if you read the letter you’ll see how far I was prepared to go to get that hair cut! This would be a good chance to read the letter so you will know what I’m banging on about…
By this point I was desperately trying to make the haircut options attractive to him, really trying to climb in to his head, and go with the ‘PDA flow’ (a term coined by the remarkable PDAer Harry Thompson) and work out WHY he should get his hair cut. What’s in it for him? People with experience of PDA reading this will know that this goes way beyond bribery and reward. Those are almost defunct concepts in our household.
So keen to do this, I came up with the idea of us both shaving our heads for fun. I genuinely was willing to do this, and still would be if push came to shove. Extreme?! Yes! But most things about living alongside PDA are pretty extreme.
Lucky for me, JJ chose option 1, which was to have no discussions about it, when he was ready to sit on a chair in the lounge, play on his Switch and eat popcorn whilst I gently hacked 21 months of growth off his beautiful little head. I promised to stop when he had had enough, so I had to work FAST. I tiptoed around him, snipping madly, asking purposely open-ended questions about Minecraft and Super Mario in a tense high-pitched, over-enthusiastic voice, so I could try and keep part of his mind focusing on info-dumping rather than what was happening to him.
Consequently it’s nowhere near perfect (has anyone seen the film About A Boy?!) but it’s sooooo much better than before. That night, we washed it and conditioned it so easily, it was a BRILLIANT DAY.
I think this approach worked for a few reasons: the letter gave me the chance to get information across calmly and succinctly – he would never have had the patience to listen to me explain about hair and scalp health. Also, I gave him two options, so he was able to retain a sense of control over the situation. And lastly, I think the timing was right – he was sick of his hair. Oh and of course let’s not forget the novelty and surprise factor. Every PDA parent needs to have an internal ‘inventory’, stuffed with novel ideas, new approaches and endless optimism. Easy, right?!
Parenting a PDA child is overwhelming, exhausting and can push you to the very limits of your patience, understanding and capabilities. But it’s also pretty revolutionary too if you are open, and willing to adopt a low-demand style of parenting.
We can let go of the conventional set of rules for children which revolve around reward and punishment, and the arbitrary expectations of behaviour which we impose upon our children (because those expectations were imposed upon US as children). Parenting a PDA child makes you reconsider and adapt your whole approach, pick your battles and above all encourages you to treat them with respect, like the autonomous individual they seek to be with every fibre of their being.