Disciplining a Son on The PDD Spectrum

Q: I find myself dealing with a very stubborn second-grader who questions everything I ask of him. Duvi* is the only child left at home; his married siblings live at a distance.

Duvi has been diagnosed as being on the PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) spectrum and is very rigid in his responses to me. He rarely does anything I ask of him immediately, and I lose patience trying to find ways to motivate him to listen. It’s almost as if he’s turned himself off from listening to me and only responds to his father. I don’t work outside the home, but I tend to feel overwhelmed by the many details of life.

My husband counts down numbers to help Duvi feel less caught up in power struggles with us. That way, our son has more time to listen to our requests. My husband also “negotiates” with him if he has to. My husband is generally much more patient than I am, so the contrast of our individual relationships with Duvi is kind of embarrassing.

I can’t become a clone of my husband, but I clearly see that I need to improve my relationship with our son. When I try to do what my husband does, it doesn’t work. If I try to be more positive, Duvi’s impression is that I’m faking it.

Any ideas?

A: What positive experiences do you share with your son? You need to establish a positive relationship in order to expect more compliance from him. A child generally likes to please a parent, unless other issues have come in the way. Do you spend recreational time with Duvi? As you are presently not employed in the outside work force, and he is the only child left at home, being creative during your time together would be a great plus to both of you.

Children who are on the PDD spectrum share specific characteristics. Building a relationship which avoids constant power struggles is advantageous to all involved, greatly increasing the probability of your son’s compliance. Your husband’s approach has been useful, as “counting down” and negotiating help avoid power struggles. “Counting down” is a challenge to “beat the clock” rather than needing to be continually compliant. Along with negotiating, neither is a way of “spoiling” a child, as the child is well aware that he is being compliant! Like children of the parent who offers the choice of eating broccoli or cauliflower, the child knows that his choices are healthy versus healthy.

Certain children (and adults, for that matter) would rather be asked to do things in a manner simulating choice (even when, in fact, there really is none!)

Children on the PDD spectrum tend to be more cerebral; they are more concrete, black-and-white thinkers. They usually have less of an emotional connection with their parents to help problem-solve the relationship itself. Are you and your husband quite cerebral yourselves? Often the environment reinforces a child’s tendency to be emotionally distant. Perhaps you need to work on this aspect of your relationship — being more demonstrative and expressing positive emotions in a more open fashion.

If Duvi feels that your positive attitude is “faking it,” you can explain that your appreciation for what Hashem has given you is so great that you have decided to work on sharing it with others. It may seem unnatural, but all changes seem unnatural, at first.

You don’t mention specific behavior modification techniques that you’re trying to implement, but the power of such techniques cannot be underestimated. We all are motivated by some type of external reward — be it feeling good about ourselves or avoiding feelings of guilt — and children cannot be expected to be more adept at being internally motivated if we adults fall short in this area.

Hatzlachah rabbah!