What is Perseverating in Childhood?
Perseverating in childhood means ‘‘getting stuck’ on specific topics, ideas, or desires and refusing to shift away from them.
Perseverating is similar to rigidity or inflexibility and may lead to undesirable behavior. You may find yourself saying, “my child is relentless.”
The tendency to perseverate is the opposite of being flexible. It is the inability to shift between topics and activities smoothly. Every parent has thought at least once, “stop nagging!” as their child asked for one more cookie or five more minutes of video games.
If perseverating is a concern, you will notice your child has difficulty stopping. For example, your child may ask 17 times for a lollipop, despite you saying that dinner is first.
You may notice you have to remove a phone, laptop, or particularly engaging toy from sight to get a child to shift to a different activity or topic. As a parent, you have expectations, including that if you remain calm, your child will hear your feedback.
Perseverating is something all kids do to an extent. Usually, this perseverating is every now and then. Some children may get stuck multiple times a day, which may indicate a problem.
Perseverating can be associated with restricted interest, which is a symptom of autism. Sometimes, children get stuck on a topic and then spend all their time talking about something particular, like the Titanic, despite the need to move on to another topic in school or social conversations. Children with ADHD may also perseverate and fail to respond to your comments and cues. Their interaction style might be disinhibited, and they might not have attended to what you said.
Observable Signs of Perseverating at Home
- Persistent and not willing to let go of a topic: your child keeps going on and on about the same topic; interfering with schoolwork or getting things done
- Sounds like a broken record: your child continues to state or say the same request again and again
- Asks you to stop after school for a snack, repetitively: your child’s mind gets stuck on getting a snack, and they can’t let it go
- Always having an ax to grind with someone or constantly wanting to ‘right a wrong?’: your child feels wronged, and they seek revenge for the misdeed or talk about it long after the incident has passed
- Struggling to let things go: your child’s mind gets fixated on getting something, like computer time, and they can not stop until they get their way; you find yourself hiding or locking things up to shift the topic
Clinical Symptoms of Perseveration in Childhood
Seeking reassurance: your child may ask if you will be on time to get them from school, if you remembered to sign the permission slip, or if the cafeteria will really be serving pizza for lunch
Intrusive thoughts: your child has ideas that get outlandish or highly implausible. Your child may worry that the world will end, that your plane is going to crash, or that the rainstorm may flood the house before they get home from school
Obsessions or compulsions: your child obsesses over a particular topic, movie, or game. For example, ‘Can we hurry home so I can play Minecraft? I want a Minecraft toy for my birthday. These Cheetos are shaped like Minecraft creepers.’
Cognitive distortions: your child keeps thinking about something scary, tense, or sad that seems unreasonable. For example, you were late to pick them up for school one day. Your child then says, “You are always late. You are never on time.” The child may assume ill-intentions on the part of others that are unlikely. “Sally gave me a dirty look at lunch. She must hate me now.” These thoughts have a negative lens, the type of thinking where the glass is always half empty.
“These repetitive and intrusive thoughts result from neuron connections that have been ‘wired’ over time. It’s like drawing a circle in the sand and running your finger over it repeatedly until it is a rut. This stronger connection happens because neurons that ‘fire together, wire together.’ Our brains tend to associate events and ideas that evoke similar emotional states.”
Causes of Perseverating in Childhood
- Depression: Perseverating can result from a looping tape of negative thoughts. These repetitive thoughts may lead to a recurring sense of hopelessness or despair. For example, ‘I feel like a failure because of what I said in class today…which reminds me of other times I have failed…which reminds me that no one likes me…which reminds me that life is hopeless.’
- Anxiety: Kids who constantly worry about what may happen can be anxious. They may have a mantra that sounds like “I think I can’t. I think I can’t” or “What if XYZ horrible thing happens.” Anxiety involves excessive worries and fear over things that may occur in the future.
- Trauma: If the child is constantly sad, worried, or hypervigilant, they could have a history of trauma. Some children may have experienced abuse, intense and immediate concern about dying, or the potential death of a loved one. The child feels trapped in these thoughts. This tendency to focus on or re-experience scary or sad events could signify trauma or PTSD.
- Autism: Kids with autism have trouble with social interaction and social communication. They tend to get stuck on specific topics, interests, or requests and find it hard to see another person’s perspective.
- Intensity: Some gifted children have particularly intense interests or incessant desires. They may really want to buy something, make a project they saw on YouTube, or discuss an idea. Although this intensity does not indicate a disability, intense children can be challenging and they will often perseverate on certain ideas or desires.
- Justice seekers: Some children feel that they are the police for the world. They have an interaction that does not go well with a peer, and they are incensed. They may feel they can’t let it go until something is done about the situation. They may seek revenge. Kids with this style of coping tend to get in trouble often and may have a diagnosed behavior disorder.
What to Do about Perseverating in Childhood
Some children have a natural borne intensity, particularly gifted children, and this intensity may not be cause for concern. In this case, supports and interventions are available that you can put in place at home.
DO be patient with your child. Hear the concerns, even if they seem unreasonable.
DON’T refute their statements. Rather repeat these statements with a “you feel” in front of them. For example, “This is a disaster; they are out of bubble gum ice cream,” can be replaced with, “You feel sad because you really wanted that ice cream…what do you think we can do about this?
DO allow your child to share worries or feelings. Listen to your child. If the repetitive thought is about a video game or toy, work to shift the activity rather than engage in an argument. Take a different approach and give choices of what they can do, where they can go, or what they can snack on now.
DON’T be as rigid as your child. Be careful not to get into a test of wills. For example, rather than “I told you no!” try “You can play your game when we are done with dinner.” Often, rigid children like to win a fight with logic. If you set down the rule but then engage in logical dialogue, the child will think they can convince you to change your mind. Teen years are particularly tough in this regard. Teenagers love to engage in an argument, and it is best to talk when everyone is calm and can be heard.
DO be clear in your expectations. Tell your child exactly what you want and what they will get. Say something like, “when X gets done, you get Y.” Use natural consequences. You lost your tablet because of a messy room. When the room is clean, you may have tablet time. Be sure to define your request operationally. This term means that you are very clear about what success looks like for your child. You can say, “A clean room looks like your clothes are hung in your closet, and the floor is vacuumed.” Once the room is clean, you can have what you want.
DON’T repeat yourself or over-explain the rules. Resist the urge to engage in an argument after stating the rule clearly. It is okay to provide a rationale and allow your child to ask questions. However, once you have kindly explained the rule and set the boundary, it is okay to drop it. Walk away if you need a break. You do not need to convince your child that your rule is the right decision.
When to Seek Help for Perseverating in Childhood
If your child seems to have significant difficulty in this area, resulting in frequent meltdowns, anxiety, anger, or depression, it is recommended that you seek professional help.
Referring your child for a comprehensive evaluation means that a psychologist will meet with your child for several hours and administer different assessments to help tease out the most significant symptoms and provide you with a profile for your child’s strengths and needs. Most psychologists will make diagnoses and recommendations to treat the associated symptoms.
Professional Resources for Perseverating 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.
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat symptoms of anxiety or depression
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment
- Pediatrician: to prescribe medicines and treat mental health conditions; this treatment is often effective when combined with psychotherapy
- Psychiatrist: to diagnose mental health conditions and to provide and manage medication
- Parenting consultation with a psychologist: to help with parenting strategies and to set up a home behavior program. Some children may be more challenging to raise. Behaviorally-challenging kids may need extra support from parents
- ABA therapist: to teach behavioral skills in a step-by-step progression, using reinforcement. ABA is essential for kids with extreme behavior problems
Similar Conditions to Perseverating in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for other related symptom areas.
- Anxiety: children with excessive fears of the future, or anticipatory anxiety, often have repetitive thoughts
- Depression: children who are depressed often have thoughts that are on a ‘negative loop;’ one bad thought leads to another. The child feels plagued by a barrage of negative thoughts, despair, and hopelessness
- Rigid behavior: children who ‘can’t let it go’ may have repetitive thoughts because they struggle to ‘shift’ to other topics or ideas
- Flexibility: children with weaker executive functions in the area of ‘cognitive flexibility’ often have repetitive thoughts
- Cognitive distortions: children who tend to focus on the ‘half-empty’ part of the glass may have cognitive distortions that lead to these repetitive thoughts
Resources for Perseveration in Childhood
Resources on social skills for parents and professionals
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
Resources for kids who talk a lot
Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function).
Cook, Julia (2006). My mouth is a volcano.
Stein, David Ezra (2011). Interrupting chicken.
Resources for parents of gifted kids
DeVries, Arlene R.; M.S.E. & Webb, James (2007). Gifted Parent Groups: The SENG Model.
Galbraith, Judy (2013). The survival guide for gifted kids: For ages 10 and under.
Galbraith, Judy & Delisle, Jim (2011). The gifted kid’s survival guide: Smart, sharp and ready for (almost) anything.
Anxiety books for kids
Huebner, Dawn (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety (What to do guides for kids).
Zelinger, Laurie & Zelinger, Jordan (2014). Please explain anxiety to me.
Helsley, Donalisa (2012). The worry glasses: Overcoming anxiety.
Cook, Julia (2012). Wilma jean and the worry machine.
Cook, Julia (2012) Wilma jean and the worry machine: Activity and idea book