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What is perseveration?

By Amanda Morin

At a Glance

  • Some people can get “stuck” on thoughts or getting an answer to a question.

  • This behavior is called perseveration.

  • People don’t do it on purpose or to be defiant or stubborn.

Many of us get fixated on an idea once in a while. But with some people, it happens more often. Perseveration is when someone “gets stuck” on a topic or an idea. You may have heard the term in regard to autism , but it can affect others, too.

People who perseverate often say the same thing or behave in the same way over and over again. But they can get stuck on their emotions, actions, and thoughts, too. And they do it past the point where it makes sense or will change anything. 

It can be frustrating for everyone involved, especially the person who’s stuck. It’s not that they won’t stop. It’s that they don’t know how to stop. They may not even know they’re perseverating in the first place. It’s like they’re stuck in a loop they can’t get out of. 

There’s a difference between perseverations and obsessions. Obsessions are more severe and are often part of a mental health condition called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In some cases, people may have both OCD and other learning and thinking differences, like ADHD.

People who perseverate aren’t being defiant or stubborn. They have challenges that cause them to get stuck. They might struggle with managing stress, processing information, shifting attention, or putting the brakes on certain behaviors or thoughts.

Perseveration can also be a coping mechanism for people when they feel overwhelmed, anxious, or not familiar with a situation.

Dive deeper

Signs of perseveration

Perseveration can show up in different ways. Kids or adults may:

  • Worry about something that might happen because it happened before 

  • Have trouble getting past being angry or scared

  • Continue to ask the same question long after getting an answer

  • Keep thinking about previous conversations or interactions (This is sometimes called “looping thoughts.”)

  • Fidget or repeat an action over and over again

  • Give the same answer to a different set of questions, even when the answer doesn’t make sense

  • Look for a lost item in the same place without looking anywhere else because it “must be there”

Getting “stuck” on emotions is common in people with ADHD. Learn more.

Why people perseverate

There are a number of reasons why people get stuck. They include trouble with:

For people with sensory processing challenges, getting stuck is often a sign of a sensory overload. Learn more about sensory overload and why it makes it hard to get “unstuck.”  

How to respond when kids get stuck

Knowing kids are reacting to a challenge can help you find ways to respond — both in the moment and proactively. Some ways to help include:

  • Talk to kids about getting stuck. Talk about it when they’re not perseverating and describe what you’ve been seeing. 

  • Respond with empathy. It can go a long way in reducing kids’ anxiety — and yours, too. And since getting stuck can be a response to being anxious or overwhelmed, being empathetic and calming may help in getting kids unstuck.

Keep in mind, though, that when kids are stuck, they may not be willing to hear you. 

How to help yourself get “unstuck”

to know when you’re stuck is key in being able to learn how to move on. Try to: 

  • Reflect and revisit. Think about what happened and try to recognize what started the loop.

  • Ask for support. It can help to have a phrase or action you can use to let people know you’re stuck. It can be as simple as a signal like putting your hand in the air.

  • Have a plan for getting “unstuck.” Identify what can be done to stop perseverating when you recognize it’s happening. You may need to take a break to regroup. Or you may need someone to tell you they’re ending the conversation. 

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom