Equalizing 101

equalizing pda Oct 15, 2022


Equalizing is a set of behaviors motivated by a set of core needs: for competency, confidence, feeling capable, and in charge. Anything that is motivated by those desires is creating balance for your child. It feels good, restorative, and renewing to them. Equalizing meets a deep need, the feeling of autonomy and freedom in their lives.

If you have a PDAer, this need will override every other need. It is a driving force that is even stronger than basic needs for survival.

If you don't have a PDAer, you may still have a child with a need for confidence, competence, capability, and to be in charge. But it may not be such a central feature of their life.

If you are a PDA adult, you likely know this need intimately.


Equalizing expresses a human need. Human needs exist across the board, in varying degrees, in different times, to different amounts. So, you likely see the need for autonomy and freedom, and the pattern of equalizing, in your key relationships: in your child, in yourself, in your spouse.

Think about if you have an interaction in the grocery store where somebody belittles your parenting— Do you drive a little faster on the road? Are you more likely to cut someone off, or to boss your child around? We all have this desire to feel strong and capable and in charge, and when that is threatened, we often respond by taking that out on somebody littler than us. This takes shape in “bullying behaviors” when a person, out of their woundedness from not being respected or heard, uses a power imbalance with another person to feel powerful. So equalizing is a basic human trait and a basic set of behaviors that we can see in many contexts. Everyone has this need, and everyone uses the behaviors, at times.


When you see equalizing from your child, you will identifying it, not just by the external behavior, but by the motivating desire and need. For example, hitting could mean a wide variety of things; it's not always equalizing. Hitting a baby sibling when they've just been nursing with the mom is probably equalizing. Hitting a child at the playground that comes too close might be a sensory issue, not be equalizing. Ask: “what need is my child accessing?” and then “how are they impacting their world through this behavior in order to communicate that need to the world?”

Equalizing is an expression of a deep need. That deep need is worthy and valuable and deserves compassion and understanding.

For a long time I would say, “It doesn't feel good to hit your brother. You don't really want to do this,” and my would look at me and say, “Yes I do!” I had to realize that in hitting his younger brother, my son felt better. He was restoring balance in his body. My efforts to denying this fact didn't help . What I needed to do was listen to his deep need:

“I need to feel stronger than my brother. I need to feel more capable than my brother. I need to feel more worthy than my brother. I'm not feeling those things inside of myself, and in order to feel that way, I am finding someone less powerful than me and exert my power over them.” [Or if they're doing it to you, “I need to find someone who appears more powerful than me and exert my power over them.”]

You might find that your child likes to control every aspect of play. This is also an equalizing behavior. Your child is taking a parallel relationship of play and exerting their power by being the only one who can be in charge. You may see equalizing in a game setting where your child needs to win every single time. They're taking a pairing of equals, “who knows who's going to win?”, and they're taking the uncertainty out of it. They can be the only unquestioned winner of the game.

Equalizing is not always externalized onto others. It can also be internalized in patterns of self-control, which can look like perfectionism, obsessive behaviors, self-harm, and disordered relationships to food, alcohol, and other substances.


You can allow this need to exist in your family setting without judging it, without shaming it, without pushing it to the sidelines, by allowing equalizing play to be a part of your family dynamic.

This can take so many different forms. It can be taking a competitive environment with an adult, like a race, a game or a wrestling match, and allowing the child to win — and not just win, but crush you. They win in Uno while you still have 15 cards in your hand. They win in wrestling by body slamming you, and you're totally laid out. They run so much faster than you in the race that they completely leave you in the dust. They're going to feel so much mastery and confidence by destroying you, and the more you allow yourself to be destroyed, the better they're gonna feel. You get to ham it up. This is playful. It's surrounding this need with acceptance and love, and we can only be playful when we're deeply accepting.

Another strategy is play a game where the whole concept is controlling your every movement. Give them a bell, and you can only move when they ring it. Be their robot, and they have the only controller in the world. You be the puppy dog, and they are the dog trainer. Or you can play games where they are undoubtedly the strong, capable, confident one: You are the baby bear, and they are the big, strong papa bear. You are the squire, and they are the king.

It's still a game. It's still playful. This is activating their creative, role-playing brain. Play your role to the fullest. Let them get the fullness of the experience. Giving your child this nurturing outlet for their need for control and competency allows it to come out in these healthy and free-flowing ways— instead of getting bottled up or surging out.


Yes, it’s true that flexibility, adaptability, obedience, and being a follower are life skills that we all develop to varying degrees. Most children already know that these skills are expected of them, and they likely also know that these skills can be very hard for them to access. They may already feel shame for their needs for control and competency, which is part of why they are expressed in less adaptive ways.

Many adults are shamed for taking a low demand approach with the messaging that, “kids aren't supposed to be in charge. You're not supposed to let them talk to you like that. They're not always going to get to win. You need to teach them to lose.”

The reality is that our children will learn to lose when they can. Our children will express flexibility when they can. Our children will be obedient when they can. It is also true that plenty of adults don't lose well. (I'm one of them!) It's possible that they will grow up and never let go of this basic need for confidence, competence, capability, and to be in charge. I have a really hard time joining a group. I'm really good at being in charge of the group, but I’m not great at being a member, at going with others’ flow. So I work with that! I dropped the demand that I somehow be who I'm not, and I set myself up for success.

What if we teach them now to accept all their needs as legitimate and important? What if we take an anti-shame approach to our needs, without a hierarchy or judgment of what needs are acceptable and which must be shoved down or denied? What if we surround our children’s core needs with nurture and understanding, so that they don't grow up to be adults who shame this part of themselves?

The world gives them plenty of opportunities to feel small and helpless.

You can be the one who gives them opportunities to feel capable and to feel confident.

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