The language of distress

******Warning some people may find this post upsetting as it contains mention of self harm and threats of suicide. *********

It was our dog who first taught me that there was another language used at times of distress..

You see our lovely dog is amazing, he is good in almost every way except for two things, he will steal food (he is a lab cross what can I say?) and he trashes the house when we go out although less often these days. When he was younger I used to tell him off when I got back and found the contents of the cupboards either eaten or in a big pile in his bed along with our coats and underwear.

Then I watched a show where they filmed a dog with the same ‘bad habit’ while the owner was out explaining why it behaved this way. The recording showed the owner leaving the house and the dog immediately started showing visible distress, it ran from window to window howling ang getting more and more agitated, them it seemed to scoop up as many of the owners possessions as it could and lie on them for comfort and in obvious distress. Time passes and the dog remains anxious until you hear the door go, the dog jumps to its feet looking happy for the first time in hours and rushes to the door to greet the owner it missed so dearly and the owner comes in the room and shouts at the dog who runs into its bed…

This video made me cry. More than that it made me change the way I approached my dog.

I had assumed while I was out he was having a great party by making himself a comfy bed and snacking on forbidden food and then I’d come home and catch him out. I never saw his behaviour as distress and my reaction to it as reinforcing that and causing more anxiety. Now I try not to leave him for longer than an hour, I put the radio on for him and I don’t tell him off if he makes a mess. I understand the motivation, I know now he is not being naughty he was communicating his distress.

How this related to my parenting

In a similar way my son who is autistic with a PDA profile and has, in the past, exhibited what would be described by professionals by challenging behaviour (and just to make it very clear here I am not comparing my son to a dog, I am talking about my behaviour and lack of understanding not his) and I wrongly assumed for a long time his behaviour was wilful and aimed at me. I never stopped to think that this behaviour was purely a symptom of his distress, let alone an attempt at communicating that distress to me. I see this same assumption in other parents, I am not judging, I assumed too. Assuming though is not the same as knowing and it is a dangerous thing to think you know something that is happening internally for someone else, yes, even if it is about your child.

Once I realised my son was distressed, not wilful, I could start to hear him and learn to read his cues and speak his language.

In turn reading his language meant I saw him differently, seeing him differently trickled down to him making feel safer and with that a sense that he could trust me. Once I knew why, I stopped taking it personally, I knew it wasn’t aimed at me so I reacted more calmly when it happened and I could begin to fix things for him rather than punish the symptoms of the environment being wrong. Over time the understanding between us has meant that escalation stopped and it is very rare that things ever get to the point of him needing to exhibit these behaviours partly because he knows I am listening he stays calm enough to tell me in words before that point.

I have written down some of the common verbal and non verbal communication an autistic/PDA child might use in the build up and during a meltdown and what they might be trying to tell you.

Please remember this is only what they might be meaning to give a sense of how a child might be trying to give a very different message to what they are actually saying or doing, you need to learn your own child’s language to understand what they are trying to tell you.

Verbal Comunication

I hate you.”

– I am hurting and I need you to fix this.

“You are a terrible mummy/daddy”

– please understand me, you are my parent I need you.

“I will kill you”

– I can’t see any way out of this situation that I just can’t cope with.

“Stop hurting me/shouting (when you are not)”

– I am in sensory overload and everything feels 100x more intense.

“Yuk, I hate your cooking/That is disgusting”

– The texture of this food triggers my sensory intolerance and or the flavours are too strong for my hyper sensitive palate

“I want to hurt you”

– I want you to understand that I am hurting

“You can’t make me”

– I know you are more powerful than me and can make me, please don’t I can’t cope.


– This is beyond my capabailities right now.


– The way you asked me means I don’t know how to say yes to that.

“Get me ______ now!”

– I won’t – I can’t do that right now, it is too much for me.

“🤬 🤬🤬🤬 “(aggressive swearing)

– I am trying to make myself seem as aggressive and confrontational as I can in order to defend myself against what you are doing/expecting because I am terrified.

Non verbal Communication


– please get away from me, I feel out of control.


– I need to try and stop you doing that but I don’t know how.

throwing things

– keep your distance I can’t cope.

Hitting or punching

– I cant take any more so I am going to fight my way out of this situation.

Running off

– I cant take any more so I am going to escape from this situation.

Scratching or bitting

– You are so close or so hands on and I have to escape

Hitting siblings

– go away. You are so loud, so near, or so demanding of me. I am going to make sure you stay away.

Not listening/hearing/responding

– my brain has stopped working as it is overloaded, I need quiet and space,

Covering Ears

– I want to block everyone out so I can try and regulate myself.

Banging head, punching themselves, self harming

– I’m seeking sensory input (stimming) to self sooth or as distraction from this outside pain I can not identify but that is overwhelming.

Threatening suicide

– I want to convey to you that I do not know what to do, I have no control over what is hurting me and I just want it to stop. I see no other solution than this on my own.

It is not always easy to know what it is your child is really trying to tell you but once you learn how to listen it does get easier and once your child knows you are listening they may feel able to communicate in more direct ways.

9 thoughts on “The language of distress

  1. I just want to say thank you for writing. Its nice to feel that I am not alone in living with PDA. My son has it. Your posts help with understanding my precious one better. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, that means a lot. Your son is fortunate to have a parent who is seeking to understand him better.


  2. Brilliant reminder thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading glad you found it helpful.


  3. It was when I realised my child was having a panic attack rather than being ‘naughty’ that our whole world changed, for the better with us but the battles then commenced with the so called specialists… fantastic information for people who don’t ‘get it’


  4. Geraldine Kelly May 9, 2019 — 6:30 pm

    I am a Foster carer. My Foster son has attachment and trauma disorder. His behaviours are very similar to and are often mistaken for Aspergers. Reading articles such as this one really helps me put into perspective what is actually going on for him. Thank you for sharing


  5. As the adage goes “behaviour is communication”. I’m so glad you are better able to translate his distress words/actions. Too many parents take it personally and as an attack on them when it’s actually a sign that the child is suffering.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What about – I don’t want to live here anymore, I want to live with Dad. We don’t get along anymore. I get along with Dad better.

    Fully knowing that Dad has hurt him many, many times over the years. He says he wants his Dad to accept him. He says he is happy to do chores for Dad. He says he still a bit scared of Dad but Dad will motivate him. Says he doesn’t get any recognition from me when he does things – he does. Says we always fight – we haven’t fought for a long time. I asked why my asking him to do things doesn’t motivate him. Why my support doesn’t count.

    Dad said he was just being an a$$hole teenager when he was told the diagnosis. Dad drinks heavily and son has now suddenly accepted it and wants to also have a drink. Dad has always said it’s his ultimate thing – to have his son have a drink with him. Son is 14.

    He has said that he can do what he does here because he knows I won’t leave him. He doesn’t know that about Dad he says.

    Help please. I am trying very hard to understand where my son is at, what he’s feeling. Do I need to let him go? How long can he mask? Brother says he is very different when they’re at Dad’s.


    1. I am a parent not a psychologist but I would say this is classic of emotion abuse. When a parent will not accept a child and hurts them emotionally or physically the child feels rejected and craves acceptance so will do anything to get it. This could be what’s happening here. The fact your son says he can be himself around you (no matter how difficult his behaviour gets) is a great compliment to you. Basically what I think he is saying is you accept me as I am, my father does not I want an opportunity to be accepted by him. I think you would be failing in your duty of care to your child to let him live with his dad based on what you have said as it does not sound like a safe environment for a child. Best thing you can do for him is to love him unconditionally and help him understand it’s his fathers problem not him.


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