The demand cup

I have talked about emotional cups for a number of years now with parents. Some people talk about not being able to pour form an empty cup meaning that you need love and energy to give. I actually believe we all have enough love to give, but agree energy isn’t always there.

I talk about an emotional cup in relation to emotional regulation. Difficult emotions fill our emotional container and if it becomes to full, emotions spill. We need to manage this for ourselves and some can care for the emotions of others.

It recently became obvious to me, when discussing a PDA child with their adult online, and then whilst explaining my son to a family member, that PDAers have a demand cup, and this demand cup completely explains why sometimes PDAers can cope with demands and sometimes not, with the same demands. This variation can be tricky to cope with for people around the PDAer, and I want to offer some understanding.

The demand cup and its lids

Imagine every PDAer has a demand cup. This cup is the container with which they manage demand. Demand is a liquid, and the demands of life, demands from other people, and from the PDAer themselves all pour into the cup all the time.

Volume and capacity
The cup only has a certain capacity and then it overflows. When it overflows. the PDAer is incapable of accepting any demand at all. Demands are not created equal. Some demands are made of more liquid volume than others and this can be somewhat individual to the PDAer. Equally, the person or situation pouring the demands can make a difference to the volume of that demand.

Lids
PDAers quickly become pretty sensitive to their cup and the awful feeling of it being full or overflowing and so develop a series of lids. These lids are used to try to repel demand being poured into the cup. Some work better on some demands and others on others. These lids are our avoidance techniques that can vary in their strength. Another lid we sometimes use, is trying to control every thing and every one around us.

It often feels like parents, teachers, other adults, our expectations and many other things are trying to stop us using our lids, stop us creating them or break through lids.  Sometimes when people think they are subtly using techniques to get us to comply, they are not subtle and we detect manipulation easily, and this is because we can feel you trying to remove our lids.

Two cups, one capcity
When considering the capacity of the demand cup, we need to understand that a PDAer’s demand cup does not work alone. The demand cup is inextricably linked to the emotion cup that everybody has. So we need to understand that cup too, which I will explain below. Suffice to say that demand (in and of itself, not dependent on what the demand is about) causes an emotional response in the PDAer which fills the emotional cup, and other emotional difficulty (can be completely unrelated to demand), spills into the demand cup too, decreasing the capacity in that cup. If one fills, so does the other. If one is regulated, the other can be better regulated.

​Still with me?

The emotional cup

As alluded to above, myself and my CalmFamily community talk about emotional regulation with the analogy of having an emotional cup. All kinds of emotion, struggle, and difficulty add to the contents of our cups and if it gets too full it will overflow. When that happens we see emotional release (crying, shouting, tantrums, meltdowns, hiding etc).

Other people often share their emotions with us, and even if we are happy for them to, this also adds to our emotional cup as we hold their emotions for them. Our children, whose cups are very small and leaky (their regulation systems are yet to mature), overflow often and leak emotion all over the place. It is our job as parents to contain that emotion for them. The only way to do this is by having enough space in our own cups. You can learn more about emotional cups (based on the psychological theory of emotional containment) here in a video created for parents by a CalmFamily consultant.

In a PDAer, emotions from that cup leak into the demand cup, taking up space that could be used for managing demand. If a PDAer experiences difficulty in a relationship or their family, an upsetting event, a house move or anything else that impacts their emotions, their capacity in their demand cup will decrease dramatically. It doesn’t need to be big things in life. It can be things like being around someone who makes them feel uncomfortable,  sensory difficulty, a comment from someone, or a broken toy.

Equally, the environment of the PDAer in relation to autonomy impacts how much demand is being poured in, in a general way. The more freedom they have in their life equals more capacity,  less freedom equals less capacity  

The science

I want to be clear that there is no definitive science on this specifically. This theory has been cobbled together by me from many other psychological theories including human needs theories, emotional containment theory, my own psychological theories, listening to the experiences of PDAers and PDA parents, my own experience as a PDAer and PDA parent, and some fascinating research I found about the neuroscience of motivation. I would like to touch on those here. if you aren’t interested and just want to understand how to support a PDAer, skip to the next section.

Emotional containment
The theory of emotional containment 
was first developed as a concept in 1962 by Wilfred Bion and is grounded in early childhood experiences of being contained by care givers.  Also highly relevant is Donald Winnicott, who around the same time period as Bion, developed ideas focussing on the concept of holding environments and the way in which children require to be held both physically and emotionally to help them to manage their behaviour and development.

​The theory is simply that carers, parents (and then partners, friends and therapists in adulthood) act as a holding space and container for emotions. A child transitions from being so close to the mother-figure that they do not perceive a difference between their emotions, to finally being emotionally autonomous from them. During the transition, the child will start to perceive separation but is still not capable of managing and regulating their own emotions. Their neurological development is not yet advanced enough. The mother-figure takes on the emotions of the child in herself.

Human needs
​Taken from years of studying multiple theories of human needs, including (but not limited to) Maslow, Berne and self-determination theory as part of my masters degree (currently studying), I have developed a new theory of human needs. It says that humans need regulation, and that regulation comes in five parts: Physical, Cognitive, Emotional, Sensory and Psychological. Within psychological regulation there are six needs: predictability, protection, recognition, connection, autonomy and novelty. I believe that neurodivergent people have a different profile of both regulation and needs. In the PDAer, their need for Autonomy is clearly extreme. They must be self-motivated at all times. The below may support this.

​Motivation wiring research
During my studies on autonomous motivation, I found​ theories in research articles regarding a potential difference in wiring of the brain regarding the motivation system. The part of the brain that is responsible for motivation is inherently linked, in these divergent people, to the threat system. The resulting situation is that when external motivation is applied, it is seen in the brain as a threat. This felt familiar. Similarly there is new research suggesting that dopamine (key to motivation) sometimes fires less in one area of the brain than another in some people, and those whose dopamine fires more in the anterior-insular area of the brain, and less in other areas, require self-determination and autonomous motivation fundamentally. This area of the brain also links closely with the emotional parts of the brain and the threat system.

​Putting this together
​We all have the same human needs but every person’s experience of these needs are different.  
Emotions, all emotions, are a signal to us that motivates us to take action to ensure we meet our needs and stay regulated. All human behaviour is action driven from human needs and resulting emotions. Our threat system (the five Fs) is deployed when our needs are not being met to enough of a degree to fundamentally dysregulate and endanger us. Some people’s wiring links our motivation centre of the brain directly to our threat system.


This leads to my theory that these brains have a regulation of motivation difference created by their wiring that not only creates a “demand cup” but links this irrevocably with our “emotional cup” (or ability to regulate emotions).

Managing our cups

Emptying cups
For an emotional cup, there are methods we all have, or can develop, that help us empty  emotions out of our cups. Emotional release can do this but usually just takes a chunk out of the top and does not make a significant difference. Meltdowns or shutdowns often do not offer any kind of release or “emptying” because they are followed by exhaustion and remorse. Doing things that we love, using mindfulness, or receiving support from others can make significant differences to the emotional volume we contain.

For a demand cup, this can seem somewhat more complicated. The things above will absolutely help because having an emptier emotion cup will increase the capacity of our demand cup, but how do we release demand itself? Once demand has been poured in, it is difficult to get rid of. It is the act of demanding that adds to the cup. However, we can ease this to an extent, by removing the demand if possible. Delegating or assigning tasks or demands to others, or making something optional can help to empty a demand cup.

Being actively given freedom and autonomy, through choices, self-direction, autonomous motivation, and respect of competence and consent, can empty the cup bit by bit, and keep it emptier. Further to this, allowing plenty of demand free time and rest allows the demand cup to naturally empty.

Reducing volume of demands
A different way to make a demand cup emptier is to reduce the volume of the demands that are in it.. You can reduce the volume of a demand by:

  • Taking or offering the easiest path to meet a demand
  • Taking back, allowing, or being in control of when, how, where or with whom a demand must be met
  • Removing all non essential parts of a demand
  • Making sure the demand is made when there is capacity in both cups and the cup is held by a suitable cup-holder (see below).
  • Make the demanded task or activity fun for the PDAer to increase their intrinsic and autonomous motivation
  • Add novelty to the process. Doing something a different way can help
  • Add role play to the process, allowing the PDAer to bring in a safety measure.

There are more techniques that a PDAer can use themselves but it is not possible for someone like a parent to do this for them. One example: you can sometimes decrease the volume of some demands in your cup by avoiding doing other demands. You can also create a demand to avoid to reduce the volume of present demands. This might look like creating yourself a very bossy “to do” list in order of importance, and either doing nothing on it, therefore being more able to do other things that are not on your list, or doing some of the things on the list, but in any other order than it states, while avoiding others completely.

Lids again
One way to ensure that our cups remain empty enough for us to manage is to have suitable lids and deploy them at appropriate times. Our lids are simply our boundaries or limits and how we hold them. We are preventing people from adding to our cup. Now, many people around us find our instinctive lids (all kinds of avoidance techniques) difficult to cope with. As we grow, PDAers often learn, and parents can support this natural learning process, to use other techniques to put boundaries in place and to manage better our choices around which demands we need to make capacity for, and which we need to use our lids for, to ensure we can do the essential. It is tricky for us because it is linked so closely with our emotions.

Cup holders
Cup holders are the people and the environment surrounding the PDAer and their demand cup. This impacts how able the PDAer is to manage their cup. In some environments and with some people, the demand of simply being there, behaving a certain way, coping with sensory issues etc, can mean the demand cup is right at the top automatically. Making sure the PDAer is kept in environments and with people in which they can cope better with their cup makes a huge difference. If they need to, or you need them to, interact with unstable cupholders (difficult environments or people), giving them an escape to a more stable environment, or systems for stabilising their cup so it doesn’t tip, is essential.


Safe containers
Make sure that PDAers have safe containers around them in case they spill. Although adults may have got more skilled at managing their cups, like with emotional cups, we cannot always be regulated. Children are still learning and due to developing neurology, just cannot be expected to self-regulate, or manage their cup.


PDAers need safe people around them, which means people who fundamentally understand that they are not giving everyone a hard time, they are not just lazy or trying to get out of helping or working, they are struggling and need even more love and support. One person is a necessity but having more than this is the only way a PDAer can really thrive.


By emily Wilding Fackrell

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