The dilemma of choice? How to give your child the power to make their own decisions.

May 6, 2024 | Children, Emotions

As a society we highly value the freedom of having the opportunity to choose.  We like to weigh the pros and cons and consider potential consequences and outcomes of each option.  At times we allow ourselves to make impulsive decisions, or we might be influenced by friends, the media or our own desires.  There is a myriad of emotions that follows, and we are expected to know how to deal with them.  

We are encouraged to give our children a choice, the NDIS has a strong emphasis on choice and control.  What happens when choice becomes an additional stressor, a trigger for anxiety or emotional outburst because the choice a child has made was not what they expected, or it wasn’t really a choice? 

As children grow, they thrive on routine, predictability and the safety of their caregivers’ emotional availability.  They look towards their caregivers for guidance if a new object or situation is safe or not.  They make their choices based on those cues.  As they grow, they slowly venture into their own exploration and try things out, still under the guidance of their caregivers. Through that period, they learn to make mistakes and find ways to repair the situation, avoid it, or try doing things differently.  They develop the important skill of decision making.  They start to understand the reasons behind their decisions and choices.    

Autistic and other neurodivergent children go through that early developmental chapter on a slightly different trajectory, unless their caregivers are lucky to access early intervention focused on the early development of guided relationship between the child and their parents or carers.  Without this, autistic children tend to organise their world and reality based on familiar routines and events followed by other predictable events, creating a cause-effect world.   

Generally, there is nothing wrong with this if children understand the reason behind the events, why they happen in the first place.  Most autistic children struggle with attaching those reasons and parents often assume that children understand, until the routine changes and their child is struggling to accept it.   

Going back to choices, there is a similar assumption that children know what they are choosing, but they often don’t.   When we ask the child to make a choice, there is a certain amount of pressure to decide.  It is known that autistic children process information slower, especially under pressure.  

If the choice is between two things they have experienced and are familiar with, there is a chance they would be able to make a ‘proper’ choice.  However, the pressure they might feel could still prevent them from finding the right (for them) answer.   

When choice involves familiar objects or experiences, turning a question: “what would you like?” or “do you want A or B?” into suggestions, like “You could have this”, “You could take A or B” or “I think A looks attractive”, adding some reasons why one choice could be more attractive than the other.  This would still allow the child to make their own decision as the suggestion does not imply the need for an immediate response.  It gives the child more “thinking space” reducing their stress response, leaving their cognition able to function at the optimal level.   

When presenting choices which are unfamiliar, we need to create some introduction. This will require adjustment to the child’s capacity to process and comprehend information.  We could use demonstration, narrative language to picture what is involved and again, present reasons why the child might like it or not.   

By taking the pressure away from the child, as well as from us, we give children the power to make their own decisions.  We allow them to ‘own’ their decisions and to grow their confidence in approaching new things.  We also help them develop curiosity and knowing they can always come to their parents or carers for advice and support.   

This will prevent children from experiencing overload, pressure to choose, fear of the unknown and uncertainty of what they are choosing.   

The stress of choices can shift children towards a defensive state, making them avoid requests, choices or perceived demands.  They might display avoidant or controlling behaviours, always choosing familiar and safe options.  This could be misunderstood as oppositional behaviour or poor emotional regulation, creating additional challenges.    

Author: Irena Woodward – Clinical Director