What Is “Low-Demand Parenting”? A Therapist (& Mom Who’s Tried It) Explains

Does anyone ever feel like they have the whole parenting thing figured out? What works for your first child might not work for your second. What worked for your third in the early days of toddlerhood might need adjusting as you reach grade school. We’re all often just out here winging it while also trying to give our kids the consistency they need to function best. So, it’s no surprise one therapist-slash-mom piqued the internet’s interest when she explained her family had moved to a relatively hands-off approach called “low-demand parenting” — and the change in their home atmosphere has been dramatic.

“We’ve swung to doing this very different thing called low-demand parenting. We bought Amazon Fire iPads for our kids two weeks ago — they’ve never had anything like that … He can watch screens a lot of the day now. We’re not making him come to the dinner table. There’s all kinds of things we’re doing,” shares therapist Gretchen Winterkorn.

The switch in parenting approaches, she explains, was inspired by her son, who has a condition associated with autism called pathological demand avoidance (PDA). However, she’s finding low-demand parenting has positive impacts on everyone in her house.

The pivot has proven to be outside Winterkorn and her wife’s comfort zone. “It’s uncomfortable because if you took a snapshot of my son right now, I would look like a sh*tty, kinda neglectful parent potentially. He’s eating ice cream — it’s like 8:30 a.m. He’s on his iPad, not getting dressed. Like, what am I f*cking doing?” she says.

However, what they’ve learned in the process is that this shift isn’t about performative parenting; it’s for their son. “And it’s actually helping us all,” she admits. “I would say the pressure in our house is way down.”

What is low-demand parenting?

According to Neurodivergent Insights, low-demand parenting is a “low arousal” approach to parenting. “It is based on trust, flexibility, collaboration, and a balanced approach to demands. It involves adapting the environment and activities to the child’s unique needs and preferences and allowing the child to take the lead in their play and activities.”

While any family can try the low-demand approach, it’s especially helpful for kids with PDA, for whom being told to do something triggers a fight-or-flight response that often spirals to explosions, meltdowns, or simply unmoving silence in an attempt to avoid the demand.

What are low-demand parenting examples?

Low-demand parenting doesn’t require a complete shift in your expectations for your child, just in how you approach them. It could be as simple as asking, “Will you feed Penny Lane?” instead of demanding, “You need to feed the cat.”

When it comes to setting expectations or chores for your child and making sure they fulfill them, low-demand parenting puts a lot of emphasis on how you frame the things you’re asking your child to do. Neurodivergent Insights suggests:

  • Consider your language, phrasing, and tone.
  • Take a collaborative approach.
  • Monitor your energy.
  • Ask for help, assistance, or “a favor,” so it seems like a choice… even if it’s not.

And listen, this isn’t wildly different from stuff we already do in our everyday lives. How many times have you asked your partner something like, “When you get the chance, will you change the cat litter?” You both know there’s an expectation they’ll do it. But it’s a little bit nicer than, “How TF do you not smell the litter? It’s your job. You need to do it.”

What’s the difference between low-demand and permissive parenting?

Many parents will see tablet usage, unlimited screen time, or easing expectations (like no longer demanding family dinners at the table) and assume that’s permissive parenting. The big difference? Permissive parenting does not involve setting clear boundaries or expectations. With low-demand parenting, you still have rules and expectations — you’re just also prioritizing stress reduction.

It’s about adapting your environment or expectations to fit within what your child can peacefully do, whereas permissive parenting drops expectations and boundaries altogether.

How do parents who’ve tried low-demand parenting feel about it?

Judging by the comment thread on Winterkorn’s video, many families feel it’s the right approach for them, with parents of neurodivergent kids seeming to find the most success.

“I didn’t know there were other parents out there like me!! Low-demand parenting has saved my children, all neurodivergent homeschoolers. I’m so tired of the judging and labeling my kids as slackers!” vented one mom.

“‘It’s super unsettling and we’re seeing really positive results’ 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 It’s both of those things for us,” said another, “but it’s SO kid-centered and important.”

Of course, just as every kid is different, so is every parent. Several commenters made the critical point that the onus is on low-demand parents to ensure the approach is truly in their child’s best interest.