Many kids get fixated on an idea once in a while. But if your child has ADHD, sensory processing issues, anxiety, a nonverbal learning disability or executive functioning issues, you might find yourself regularly saying, “Enough already! Nobody else wants to talk about that anymore.”
What you’re seeing when your child “gets stuck” on a topic or an idea is called perseveration. You may have heard the term in regard to kids with autism, but it can affect kids with certain learning and attention issues, too. It’s a challenging behavior that can be frustrating for kids—and for their parents and teachers.
Here’s what you need to know about perseveration, and the best ways to respond to it.
What Perseveration or “Getting Stuck” Looks Like
Kids who perseverate often say the same thing or behave in the same way over and over again. And they do it past the point where it makes sense or will change anything. It’s like they’re stuck in a loop that they can’t get out of.
Picture this scenario: Your child is crazy about dogs, and he has studied different breeds and the history of the species. On his birthday, he gets an encyclopedia of dogs. He’s so excited that he doesn’t want to put it aside to open other presents.
For the rest of the day, all he talks about is dogs. And no matter how often you tell him it’s time to talk about something else or that not everyone is as interested in the topic as he is, he just won't stop. So you end up getting irritated.
But the issue isn’t really that he won’t stop. It’s that he doesn’t know how to stop. He may not even know he’s obsessing over the topic in the first place.
Kids who perseverate aren’t being defiant or stubborn. They have specific challenges that cause them to get stuck. They might struggle with managing stress, processing information, shifting attention, or being able to put the brakes on certain behaviors or thoughts.
It’s important to know there’s a difference between perseverations and obsessions. Obsessions are more severe, and are part of a mental health condition called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In some cases, kids may have both OCD and learning and attention issues.
More Than Just Endless Talking
Perseveration isn’t just about being fixated on a topic and talking endlessly about it. Kids can get stuck on their emotions, actions and thoughts, too. And that can show up in different ways.
A child might:
- Worry about something that might happen because it happened before. For example, not wanting to go outside because the neighbor’s dog once got loose and scared him, and “it might happen again.”
- Have trouble getting past being angry or scared.
- Continue to ask the same question long after getting an answer.
- Go over previous conversations or interactions in his mind. (This is sometimes called “looping thoughts.”)
- Fidget or repeat an action over and over again, such as zipping and unzipping his coat or lining up all his toys in a row.
- Repeatedly talk about something that happened a long time ago. For example: “Remember when Grandma gave me that new toy car? She hid it and I found it when I was looking for something else. That was great. Remember that?”
- 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.”
For some kids, perseveration can be a coping mechanism for when they feel overwhelmed, anxious or not familiar with a situation.
The Role of Learning and Attention Issues in Perseveration
There can be a number of reasons why some kids with learning and attention issues get stuck. Many are related to weaknesses in executive functions or information processing. Some reasons include:
For kids with sensory processing issues, getting stuck can often be a sign of a sensory overload. That kind of overload makes it even tougher to get “unstuck” and may lead to a meltdown.
How to Respond When Your Child Gets Stuck
It can be frustrating to try to reason with your child when he’s stuck, or to try to move on when he’s not ready to. But knowing that he’s reacting to a challenge can help you see it in a different light. It can also help you find ways to respond—both in the moment and proactively.
Here are some ways to help your child with perseveration.
- Talk about it. It’s important for your child to know that he’s getting stuck. Talk to him about it when he’s not perseverating and describe what you’ve been seeing. Describe situations in which it can cause problems and how other people may react to it.
- Respond with empathy to reduce anxiety. It can be hard to be empathetic, but it can go a long way in reducing your child’s anxiety—which can reduce yours, too. And since getting stuck can be a response to being anxious or overwhelmed, being empathetic and calming may help in getting your child unstuck.
- Encourage self-monitoring. Knowing that he’s getting stuck is key in being able to learn how to let go and move on. Self-monitoring can be hard for kids with learning and attention issues. Help your child by asking him to consider things like whether what he’s doing is helping him, getting him anywhere or causing issues with other people.
- Help him make connections. After a bout of perseveration, take some time to reflect and then revisit it. Talk to your child about what happened, and help him recognize what went wrong. That includes what started the loop and ways to handle things differently next time.
- Identify the appropriate stopping point. Even if it’s after the fact, teach your child where the point is that he needed to stop. He needs to know how far is too far.
- Create a “stuck signal.” It can help to have a phrase or action that can let your child know when he’s stuck. It can be as simple as saying, “You seem to be stuck on this,” or a signal like putting a hand in the air.
- Have a plan for getting “unstuck.” Talk about things your child can do to stop when you give the signal. It may be that he needs to take a break to regroup. Or it might be that you tell him you’re ending the conversation. Keep in mind that when he’s stuck, he may not be willing to hear you, so it’s important to make sure he knows the plan isn’t negotiable in the moment.
The ongoing experience of having people be irritated and annoyed at your child can take a toll on his self-esteem. Learn ways to teach flexible thinking and coping skills to help him begin to get unstuck. And recognize the signs that your child may be experiencing anxiety. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s doctor if you have concerns.