For every Snake, there is a Ladder

There was an eruption that happened yesterday in our house which was difficult to manoeuvre.

You see, my seven year old autistic daughter has an anxiety-led need to be in control and when this is disabled it often leads to meltdown. To someone unaware they would probably just picture a child with their bottom lip wobbling and having a whinge whilst trying to get their own way.

In our house it gets a little bit more extreme than that.

If I told you that for my child in meltdown it could mean a glass unit being smashed, items being launched or my lip being busted, I’m sure you would find it hard to imagine. If not managed properly it could even lead to self-harming, maybe requiring medical intervention, or even stabbing her little sister with a pencil.

As graphic as it is you get the gist that it’s a bit more difficult to deal with than a typical ‘toddler tantrum.’

Until you are faced with living under these circumstances you will never know how you would react to it or how you would find an alternative way to make it stop.

Living with a child who has Violent Challenging Behaviour (VCB) is something that many of us can feel ashamed to admit.

Maybe it would be easier if society had more understanding on what behaviour actually means. Parenting will always certainly be scrutinised as the root to what is causing it.

So with that now in mind, I’ll go back to yesterday and ask myself how did the meltdown even start? Well it began when she was just playing with her five year old sister and they wanted the same piece of Lego. Sounds pretty ordinary doesn’t it?

Such a simple childhood disagreement – most would usually bicker until the more dominant personality wins. My two did argue but in the space of a few seconds the youngest got hit and tried to escape to a safe place. The stacks were then high; not only did eldest think the game was about to end but she was scared she would also be in trouble for hitting out, coupled by her guilt and shame for losing control.

A child with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) often has a complete fear of getting things wrong which fuels their anxious behaviour even further.

As usual she becomes more impulsive and sets about barricading her sister in the room to prevent her from escaping. Her sibling then begins to scream and calls for help which in turn makes the eldest panic even further. My eldest with PDA then engulfs the youngest with her full body weight and tells her she can’t leave.

I quickly arrive to save the youngest who at this point was visibly shaken. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so frightened before – she couldn’t even find her breath. It hits my heart strings simultaneously and I’m at risk of not being able to have the helicopter view that is needed.

It’s often the hardest part trying to remain calm when you are so emotionally attached to the victim in the situation.

I had no time to think.

“I’m going to strangle myself, nobody wants me in this family,” PDA’er says as the overwhelming grief and frustration of the situation begin to seep in.

She proceeds to wrap the tassels from a fly screen in the doorway around her neck. I quickly remove it as she tries to strangle herself using her own hands instead. When your child self-harms it is one of the worst things you will ever witness and the impending powerlessness is too hard to bear.

If I don’t keep up with a calm, loving and empathic approach when dealing with an overload the length and severity of it will certainly always increase.

So, I try to distract PDA’er through the screams that are raging and say “shall we make our own board game?” PDA’er pauses through a gut-wrenching sob and reluctantly agrees “yes, but how?”

Now this is the part when I start to panic, how do I even begin to make a board game? I now have two seconds to think of a plan to grab her attention and it has to be good. I remember she had made some craft snakes the other day so I blurt out “how about Snakes and Ladders?”

And that’s really just how the idea began.

All of a sudden we had become fully focused on making our very own Snakes and Ladders board game – leaving the overload stumped in it’s tracks. It was something I hadn’t planned but we were even learning whilst doing it. She helped to measure with some tape to create a hundred square grid. Then she worked on repeating patterns by sequencing and alternating the colours. We used some sticky back tape to attach our snakes and ladders. Throw in a dice I found in an old Monopoly game and bingo we were away!

The girls had to share, turn-take and cope with winning or losing – I had a proper ‘mummy succeeds’ little moment! It had turned into an opportunity to educate my child (whose default response is to avoid adult-led activities) as well as giving us some quality family time. The girls made the game together – relishing in the enjoyment the activity gave them.

They were proud of their achievement too:

Others may think I rewarded the negative behaviour but when your child does not learn from traditional consequences or rewards you have to flip parenting on it’s head.

I had to distract her out of the meltdown so that any form of learning could begin to happen. I She finally apologised to her sister when the time felt ready.

Well after we had played Snakes and Ladders for the umpteenth time 🤷‍♀️ my mind kind of run away with itself and I thought of an old phrase I’d seen before:

I found myself likening the analogy to parenting.

I mean we could’ve stayed on our snake and allowed the meltdown to spiral out of control – but it wouldn’t have been a wise move to make. Or we could’ve tried to move on with the game in the chance that there was a ladder somewhere which could lead us to the finish line.

Snakes can’t do that for you.

Snakes just hiss.

For information on how to help a child in meltdown, here is a link to a similar post.

To learn more about SEND VCB then I would highly recommend this post from Yvonne Newbold.

Yvonne has just received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Learning Disability Awards and is heavily involved as a specialist in this field.

She also runs a workshop on ‘Overcoming the Challenges’ more information can be found here.


    1. Angie Kaye

      You are truly amazing and my heart goes out to you. Tears in my eyes as I was reading. My 12 year old grand daughter has PDA and I empathise. Well done. Hope you have supportive friends and family. Xx

      1. PDA Parenting

        Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. I do have a good network around me, so I feel lucky in that respect. It breaks my heart to think of all the families out there still misunderstood xx

  1. Linda

    My daughter is 17 now, with an Aspergers diagnosis but won’t diagnose PDA and we have lived this since the age of 3, also with a younger sister. It’s so true that nobody will ever understand unless they live with it. X

  2. Stephs Two Girls

    Great analogy. Whilst I admit that our girl has never reached the same levels of violent behaviour, I do totally understand the need to stay calm yourself in order to prevent the situation from escalating further. I’ve also been in that position of having 2 seconds to think of a plan and knowing it needs to be a good one. That ability to think on your feet is an amazing skill which you will have honed through your time living with PDA in the family, but I know the extra levels of stress you will be under and that it must take its toll on your own body. Hope you get chance to relax and recover; be kind to yourself xx

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