What is Insistence on Sameness in Childhood?
Insistence on sameness in childhood is when a child gets very upset when plans change.
This tendency to get upset can also be seen when daily routines get disrupted.
Some children are more inflexible than others. Some kids tend to use negotiation skills when things do not go their way. As a parent, it can be hard to think rationally and handle these situations with care when you’re just trying to get through the day.
If your child has frequent meltdowns or behavior challenges, you might think they have a developmental disorder. This article has ideas to help with insistence on sameness. It also helps you think about your child’s challenges. You can think about them in the context of typical or atypical development.
Symptoms of Insistence on Sameness in Childhood
- Making demands: your child may tell you to go back to doing things the way you did before. For example, saying, “Mom, you always drive to school that way. Don’t go a different way, okay? Mom, turn the car around and go the old way.”
- Lining up toys: your child may get very stuck organizing their things or lining up toys in a specific order. This behavior is okay so long as they do not become highly distressed if their items get moved.
- Avoiding ‘new’ people or situations: your child may be hesitant to start a new sport or join Girl Scouts for fear of the unknown. They may go out of their way to stay in familiar settings and avoid new situations.
- Insisting on specific routines: your child may expect that mealtimes remain the same or that you always make certain foods. Your child may get upset if they have to eat off a different type of plate or sit at a different place at the dinner table.
- Distress over a change of schedule: your child may be troubled when there is a substitute teacher or a different schedule at school for the day. A late-start day, early release day, or school assembly day may upset your child significantly.
- Intolerance for uncertainty: your child may be distressed over not knowing what to expect. Recent research suggests that this tendency is a genetic trait. Some adults and children have a much harder time tolerating life’s uncertainties. For example, you may have a family member that needs a precise itinerary to feel comfortable on a trip. Your child may also tend to feel comfortable only when the schedule for the day is exactly as expected.
Causes of Insistence on Sameness Issues in Childhood
Anxiety or excessive worry can lead to children having a tough time adapting when plans are changed. They may dread that something will go horribly wrong if the day does not go as expected. This ambiguity becomes highly distressing for some children, and they may avoid going to school or social activities out of fear of the unknown.
Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’)
‘Small t traumas’ are smaller, more persistent, negative experiences in childhood. Recent research suggests that children can have even more mental health difficulties with ‘small t’ traumas than with big traumatic events. ‘Small t traumas’ are often due to strained relationships in childhood. It can be that the child experiences a sense of threat in trying to get their needs met.
For example, if a parent is extremely stressed or depressed, a child will be afraid to ask for help. The child may perceive that stressing out the parent further could threaten the relationship with a primary caregiver. Because kids are completely dependent on their caregivers, the threat of losing that relationship can feel intensely distressing.
To cope with the perceived threat, kids ‘foreclose on their hearts’ and try to appear invisible or stay out-of-the-way of adults. In this case, the child’s needs for attunement and connection will go unmet.
The result of this pattern can be that the child feels a sense of ‘threat’, virtually all the time, of losing an important relationship. To deal with that perceived threat, they may prefer that schedules and routines go unchanged. This rigidity can be a method of coping with their insecure emotions. It is important to note that these issues can happen, even in loving and engaged relationships with caregivers.
Kids may experience what adults consider mildly distressing events as traumatic. For example, children who really like their autonomy may be highly distressed over a strict parenting moment or an incident of getting in trouble with the teacher at school. In the course of childhood, almost every child will experience some level of heartbreak or significant distress, such as the loss of a pet, grandparent, or a move across town.
Certain personality factors can make these seemingly mild issues traumatic for certain children. In that case, they may present to the world as hypervigilant or excessively nervous. They may get agitated when expectations are unclear, or plans get changed. These children may insist on things staying the same to maintain some sense of comfort and security.
Significant trauma experiences (trauma with a capital ‘T’)
‘Big T traumas’ are events that cause a substantial threat to a child’s safety or sense of self-worth. Trauma can cause the part of the brain responsible for safety to over-function. For example, the reasoning part of the brain may be ‘hijacked’ by the feeling part of the brain. Sometimes, these different structures are referred to as the ‘wizard brain’ (thinking brain) and the ‘lizard brain’ (feeling brain). When your child is in their lizard brain, it may seem impossible to deal with change or uncertainty. It is essential to have compassion and support for children who may be experiencing this kind of distress. Children’s self-regulation and tendency to insist on sameness can often be associated with trauma experiences.
Children with autism, ADHD, or giftedness may be naturally rigid. They may have a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude. They tend to want things a certain way to maintain some control and predictability in their environment. Remember, if you have a rigid kiddo, they are simply not easy to parent and support. Because insistence on sameness behavior and anxiety symptoms tend to go hand-in-hand, your child may get nervous and upset extremely quickly.
They require a great deal of patience and nurturing on your part. If you are fortunate enough to have a partner, ‘tag out’ and allow your significant other to take over when your child is being especially difficult. When it is your turn, take a deep breath, listen carefully, and offer your child choices whenever possible. Even if you do everything right, your child may still be rigid and upset. Do not expect immediate change but a gradually increasing flexibility with your persistent patience and support.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Although not part of the diagnostic criteria, autistic people often ‘insist on sameness.’ It can be common for kids on the Autism Spectrum to prefer consistent routines and predictable schedules.
To be diagnosed with autism, the child needs to have these primary symptoms: restricted interests and repetitive behaviors, and social communication deficits. The restricted interests might include an almost obsessive focus on certain topics like Thomas the Train, Minecraft, or Pokemon. Repetitive behaviors in the autism population might include flapping, pacing, or drumming fingers repetitively on the table.
In addition to these diagnostic symptoms, certain personality traits often accompany an autism diagnosis. For example, the child may have ‘flat facial expressions’, sensory issues, and behavioral rigidity. They may lack cognitive flexibility, preferring instead that life is predictable.
What to Do About Insistence on Sameness in Childhood
Children who insist on sameness tend to have behavior problems in the classroom and home. Setting up the environment for success is important for these children. It is equally important to be patient and compassionate toward yourself as a parent. Kids who are rigid can be extremely challenging. Be patient with yourself and your child. Below is a list of 5 things you can do to help your child when they are very inflexible with changes in routine.
The top 5 things parents can do to support an inflexible child
The techniques below are also provided visually in this Parenting Do’s and Don’ts with Rigid Kids video.
- DO give warnings, reminders, and ‘a head’s up’ when plans are changed. It can be beneficial to let your child know that the day will not go as expected. For example, let your child know that you thought you could go to their cousin’s house, but it turns out that you cannot make it today. Be clear and concise as you explain what will happen today instead.
- DON’T over-explain the situation. If plans are changed, and your child is upset, that is okay. Resist the urge to go over it repeatedly. Once your child understands what will happen, stop talking and start listening.
- DON’T give in to your child’s demands. Once the decision has been made, remember it is okay if your child is upset about it. Your job is not to make your child happy every minute. Resist the urge to make excessive accommodations to alleviate your child’s concerns.
- DO show empathy and compassion. If your child doesn’t like that a routine has been changed, it is okay if they cry and express their upset. Listen carefully and reflect back their feelings. You can say, “I understand you are upset. I know you don’t like it when things change like that. I am here to listen.” Even if the child remains upset, stay calm and use a soft voice.
- DO model healthy coping strategies. It is normal to be upset when things don’t go as planned. As a parent, you can help your child by showing how you deal with such frustrations. You can say, “I really wanted to go to your cousin’s house today too. I was looking forward to that trip. I hope when the weather clears up, we can go over another day.”
How to support a rigid child as a parent
An important consideration for families who have chronically inflexible children is parenting style. Often, children who are easily frustrated and lose their temper a lot are challenging to parent.
You might catch yourself saying, “It shouldn’t have to be this hard. Why does everything have to be a battle?” With a child who insists on sameness, rules and structures will help, but teaching and modeling flexibility is also important.
Ross Greene offers an excellent resource for learning to ‘pick your battles’ in the Explosive Child . He teaches you how to be a ‘basket case,’ which means you put all your priorities into three baskets. Learn more about this technique in the Basket Case video by Dr. Marcy Willard.
Basket A is a small basket for non-negotiables.
Basket B is for important issues you would be willing to negotiate with your child. In this case, you would be modeling, for your child, a rational and calm decision-making approach that results in a win-win solution.
Basket C is the ‘forget-about-it’ basket. This collaborative problem-solving approach is referred to as downshifting, which means that the parent demonstrates to the child how to calm down and think rationally about what to do.
When to Seek Help for Insistence on Sameness in Childhood
You may need more help if your child’s problems are more severe, resulting in frequent tantrums, serious rule-breaking behaviors, or significant issues at school. Sometimes a child’s excessive reactions to change are simply not allowed in certain environments or situations.
In that case, you may consider an evaluation to understand better what is happening for your child. It may be that giftedness, anxiety, ADHD, autism, or trauma explain your child’s tendency to insist on sameness.
Sometimes a thorough assessment is the key to determining what specific therapies and supports will help your child thrive. In the big picture, children can generally do just fine in life, even with their tendency to be inflexible. They may need support to navigate these challenges, but often children can learn to manage these tensions successfully and find a sense of peace and happiness.
Professional Resources on Insistence on Sameness in Childhood
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help. They may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
School psychologist: to help with the learning problems, attention, or emotional issues at school that may be associated with insistence on sameness
Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to understand whether or not a diagnosis, such as ADHD, autism, anxiety, or giftedness, underlies your child’s challenges. A testing psychologist can evaluate cognition, emotions, and behavior and determine if a diagnosis is relevant
Psychotherapist: to help your child understand what is coming up for them emotionally when plans are changed. A psychologist, social worker, or licensed professional counselor can teach your child to manage anxious feelings and stress that they may associate with uncertainty and unexpected events
Similar Conditions to Insistence on Sameness in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Cognitive flexibility: a child who insists on sameness may have trouble changing from one activity to the next or one approach to another
- Rigid behavior: a child who insists on sameness may get ‘stuck’ on having their own way
- Behavior problems: a child who insists on sameness may have poor frustration tolerance, anger, and aggression. Many young people will have occasional behavior problems. Parents will want to consider behavior severity and frequency to determine whether this is a part of typical development or a cause for concern
- Emotional regulation: a child who insists on sameness may cry or have meltdowns when plans are changed
- Anxiety: a child who insists on sameness may have consistent worries or anxiety symptoms when plans are changed. The child may feel a lack of control and safety due to the uncertain circumstances
Book Resources for Insistence on Sameness in Childhood
Other resources for insistence on sameness in childhood
Cook, Julia (2012). Wilma jean and the worry machine.
Cook, Julia (2012) Wilma jean and the worry machine: Activity and idea book.
Culbert, Timothy & Kajander, Rebecca. (2007) Be the Boss of Your Stress (Be The Boss Of Your Body®).
Dewdney, Anna (2013) Llama Llama Mad at Mama.
Foxman (2003). Recognizing anxiety in children and helping them heal.
Helsley, Donalisa (2012). The worry glasses: Overcoming anxiety.
Huebner, D. (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety.
Peters, D.B. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears. Great Potential Press: Tucson, AZ
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
McCumbee, Stephie (2014). Priscilla & the perfect storm.
Zelinger, Laurie & Zelinger, Jordan (2014). Please explain anxiety to me.