Parenting can be tough, especially when it comes to managing conflicts. Managing conflict and avoiding arguments with an autistic child can be even tougher.
Whether they are toddlers fighting against having a bath, teenagers refusing to come off their phones or needing support around managing the tricky side of relationships with those close to them, autistic children often need a bit more help and patience from their carers. As parents helping them navigate life it can really help to understand where they are coming from, why they struggle with conflict and resolutions, and how we can approach the unavoidable arguments that come with family life to support them best.
Here we explore how to avoid arguments escalating, why our children act the way they do when faced with conflict, and how learning peaceful parenting techniques can help.
Why am I getting into so many arguments and conflicts with my autistic child?
Many autistic children love to argue and need to have the last word. Autistic children often find it distressing to not be ‘right’; this is due in part to the need to look ‘perfect’ to protect their self-esteem. It’s not important to get the final word as the adult; don’t get into a downward cycle of arguing. You can give your child choices, walk away, and give them time to calm down.
Many autistic children need to feel they are in ‘control’ to make sense of the world and feel comfortable in their environment.
When emotions are running high your child will not properly process what you are saying and just see it as confrontational and an excuse for more anger and arguments, meaning the situation will get worse if you pursue your point, not get better.
Many autistic children will struggle to process the feelings of those around them and to see how their actions affect others.
Tips to help avoid conflicts and de-escalate arguments
- If your child wants to argue over information that is wrong, just state the correct information once, and then let it go. In the heat of the moment they will not want to back down or be ‘proved wrong’.
- If your child is angry or emotional, arguing with them is not going to help. Let the situation calm down before discussing their behaviour. Don’t necessarily ignore them, but make it clear you are not engaging in the argument any longer, and make it clear you are not going to budge.
- Be really explicit with your instructions always. Don’t get upset if you ask your child to put clothes in the tumble dryer and they don’t turn it on – because you didn’t include that instruction in the request.
- Autistic children can find the demands placed on them very stressful. If you find yourself often arguing over a set task or something you have asked them to do, give them a choice to help them feel in control. For example, instead of ‘you must do the dishes and put out the rubbish’ try ‘which do you want to do first, dishes or rubbish?’. Or rather than ‘do your homework today’ try ‘do you want to do your homework this afternoon or tonight’? This gives them an element of control and reduces the demand you are placing on them. Or introduce a consequence, ‘you can either do the washing up or lose iPad privileges for tonight.’
- If it is your child’s behaviour that has caused the argument, focus on the feelings of the people around them, rather than the facts of what they have done, so they gradually learn the consequences of their behaviour on others. For example, rather than ‘hitting your sister is a terrible thing to do!’ try saying ‘lashing out at your sister because you are frustrated has hurt her physically and is very upsetting for her and me’.
- Avoid ‘emotional blame’. Instead of saying ‘you are making me angry’, say ’I am angry’.
- Use indisputable information. For example, instead of saying ‘you need to go to bed because you have school tomorrow and you will be tired otherwise,’ which are not set-in-stone facts, you are likely to get the response ‘No, I won’t be tired’. Try saying instead ‘you need to go to bed because I am tired and need some time to myself’ – your child can’t dispute this.
- Follow the rules of natural consequences wherever possible. If a child breaks something, don’t replace it (unless the item is crucial to their mental or physical health).
- Be consistent. Rules and consequences must always be the same. Don’t punish something one day and not the next.
Try ‘peaceful parenting’. The peaceful parenting approach does not focus on punishment and rewards, which are seen as helping in the short term rather than the long term.
The aim of peaceful parenting is to:
- Regulate our own emotions as parents so that we are calm in our interactions with our kids. We are their role models and they will copy our behaviour.
- To better connect with our kids, and understand the underlying needs which is causing the unwanted behaviour.
- Foster a warm and caring relationship with our kids.
- Coach them rather than control them.
Some peaceful parenting strategies:
- Take a deep breath; take a moment to pause and think before reacting in anger.
- Make quality time for your kids (even if it’s only 10 minutes before bed) when they have your undivided and unhurried attention. Make time to be close to them and if they like cuddles, have lots!
- Coach instead of control. An example would be rather than taking away their iPads as punishment for an unwanted behaviour: talk through the behaviour, discuss how they felt, how you felt, what it would be better to do next time etc.
The benefits of peaceful parenting are happier kids, a calmer household, closer bonds with family members, and kids who learn to regulate their own emotions and become responsible.
Here is some further reading on peaceful parenting and managing conflict:
The difference between arguing and seeking understanding