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SocializingNeed for Predictability

Need For Predictability In Children

Young girl with pigtails looks defiantly at the camera.
Anna Kroncke
Anna Kroncke
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 09 Aug 2022
Published 13 Apr 2022

What is the Need for Predictability in Childhood?

The need for predictability in childhood is the need to know how things will go to feel safe and comfortable.

Interestingly, psychologists have found that this could be part of a genetic trait. Some individuals get upset when life is unpredictable. These individuals need plans to remain the same and find comfort in agendas and routines, becoming upset when plans change. 

A child with this issue may become very distressed when a school assembly changes the daily schedule. When the bell rings for a surprise assembly, they may refuse to leave the classroom and stare angrily at the teacher. 

Your child might become anxious when the store is out of a favorite mouthwash brand. You may have a kiddo who does not like traveling for summer vacation because the process of flying can be unpredictable.

Children who need predictability can struggle socially because they will be less flexible with their peers and need more control over situations at school, at home, or during playdates. 

Symptoms of the Need for Predictability in Childhood

  • Inflexibility: your child may be rigid, insisting on a specific game, snack, or playmate. They may be unlikely to compromise and more likely to walk away from friends and play alone if they cannot get their way
  • Continually asking ‘What’s next?’: your child may be very concerned about the daily or weekly schedule and want to know every little detail. They may correct you if something goes out of order
  • Worries a lot: your child may have a lot of worries and ask a lot of what-if questions
  • Need for control: your child may need to make every decision, or you may need to make it feel like your child is making every decision. This could feel like walking on eggshells
  • 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 distraught 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. Your child may also tend to feel comfortable only when the schedule for the day is exactly as expected.

Causes of Need for Predictability Issues in Childhood

Anxiety: excessive worry can lead to children having difficulty adapting when plans are changed. They may dread that something will go wrong if the day does not go as expected. This ambiguity becomes extremely 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 seemingly small negative experiences that happen in childhood. Recent research suggests that children may experience what adults consider mildly distressing events as traumatic. For example, children who 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.  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 significant 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 children who may be experiencing this kind of distress.

Rigidity: 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 to their environment. Remember, if you have a rigid kiddo, they are simply not easy to parent and support. 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.

What to Do About Need for Predictability in Childhood 

Top 5 things parents can do to support a child who craves predictability

  1. DO try to have a schedule, offer choices and have plan B. Stick to a schedule and be predictable when you can. We all know this is not possible all the time. Provide your child with as much warning as you can when things will change. Offer choices to your child when you can. A child who craves predictability wants to be in control. It helps relieve anxiety if the child can feel a sense of ownership. Getting places early, and having choices or “plan B” built into the day can help your child feel comfortable.
  2. DO listen to the child and help them problem solve. For example, a teacher could pull a child aside to share that there is a surprise assembly today. They can head off an issue by listening and problem solving with the child. “What do you think would work best for you today, considering we have an assembly?” “You can choose to go to the assembly and bring your bean bag and headphones for special seating, or the librarian needs help unpacking new books. Which would you prefer to do? What would work for you?” “Okay, let’s put that on your schedule for today. Thanks for problem-solving with me!”
  3. DO show empathy and compassion. If your child doesn’t like the routine changes, it’s okay if they cry and express their upset. Listen carefully and reflect on their feelings. You can say, “I understand you are upset. I know you don’t like it when things change. I am here to listen.” Even if the child remains upset, stay calm and use a soft voice. 
  4. 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. For example, you can say, “I really wanted to go over to your cousin’s house today too. I was really looking forward to that trip. I hope when the weather clears up, we can go over another day.” 
  5. DO offer some opportunities for control. If there are a number of things out of your child’s control today or this week, try to find ways provide them with them some control. Maybe your child can choose what you cook or order out for dinner. Perhaps they can pick the family movie for movie night. If your child needs predictability and routine, give that when you can. Offer praise for handling times when things change because that is part of life AND reward them with opportunities to have control in the situation.

What to Do: Consider Collaborative Problem Solving and Downshifting

An important consideration for families who have chronically inflexible children is choosing a parenting style that will help. 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 predictability, rules and structures will help, but teaching and modeling flexibility is also important.

Ross Greene offers a great 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.

Basket A is a small basket for non-negotiables.

Basket B is for issues that are important but for which 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-a-bout-it’ basket. This collaborative problem-solving approach is referred to as downshifting, which means that the parent demonstrates for the child how to calm down and think rationally about what to do.

When to Seek Help for Need for Predictability in Childhood

You may need more help if your child’s problems are more severe, resulting in social isolation, behaviors at home, 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. For example, it may be that giftedness, anxiety, ADHD, autism, or trauma that explains your child’s tendency to seek control and predictability.

Sometimes a thorough assessment is the key to determining specifically what 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. Of course, 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 Need for Predictability 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 Need for Predictability 
  • 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 Need for Predictability 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.

  • Inflexibility: may have trouble changing from one activity to the next or one approach to another
  • Rigid behavior: may get ‘stuck’ on having own way or adherence to routines
  • Behavior problems: may have poor frustration tolerance, anger, and aggression
  • Emotional regulation: may cry or have meltdowns when plans are changed
  • Insistence on Sameness: may insist that everything stay the same in your home and life

Book Resources for Need for Predictability in Childhood 

Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.

Greene, Ross W. (2001). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children.

Peters, Dan. (2013). From Worrier to Warrior

Dewdney, Anna (2013) Llama Llama Mad at Mama.

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