ADHD and Perseverating

Perseverating is most commonly associated with autism. It’s very common with kids with ADHD though, trust me. My child is quite skilled at perseverating. He’s quite skilled at falling over the edge when annoyed, into the spiral that seems like it may never end.

 

per·sev·er·a·tion

noun \pər-ˌsev-ə-ˈrā-shən\   (Medical Dictionary): continual involuntary repetition of a mental act usually exhibited by speech or by some other form of overt behavior

As I type this, literally, I am listening to Ricochet, my 11-year-old son who has ADHD, go on and on about how much he feels he should not have to empty the dishwasher. He is on a never-ending diatribe, complaining about every little item he has to remove from the kitchen appliance (I love so dearly). And with each item, he gets more irritated, then more angry, then downright volatile and disrespectful. By the end, he’s slamming dishes, throwing pots, and sometimes even breaking items on purpose (I have two coffee mugs now handleless this week alone). He doesn’t perseverate about this chore every night, but it happens 40-50% of the time.

His perseverating causes me to perseverate on how to stop the perseverating. Vicious cycle anyone?

I should note that often times perseveration is much more annoying than harmful. A child with ADHD or autism might become fixated on a particular episode of his or her favorite show, or on the many wonderful qualities of a particular species of dog. I find with Ricochet though, he usually gets this deep sort of fixation when his thoughts get stuck in an inflexible, irritated mode. He just doesn’t have the skills to manage frustration well or to accept that there are some things we have to do, whether we enjoy them or not.

Don’t let our experience with perseverating freak you out though. There are ways to curb perseverating and we are working on it with Ricochet. Of course, as with most behavioral interventions, these strategies are often easier said than done, and they take a lot of time and consistency.

  1. Ignore the behavior: Boy do I have a hard time with this. I’m often sitting in the kitchen when Ricochet is emptying the dishwasher, for example, and I just can’t let him slam a stack of glasses or throw dishes. What I need to do is walk away. I am giving him sensory stimulation by arguing the point and doling out demands. Queen Ignorance is on her way (hey, that didn’t come out right).
  2. Give a time limit and a place for the topic of perseveration: If your child is going on and on about something, you can set a time and place to guide them to appropriate sharing. For instance, if your child is perseverating on owl pellets, you can say, “Sweetie, I love that you are fascinated by owls and how they eat. That is really a topic to be discussed at home and for only 15-20 minutes. After homework this afternoon, I’ll give you 15 minutes to tell me all about owl pellets.” Kids with ADHD and autism don’t know the social appropriateness of the topic of discussion or the length of discussion on the same topic usually. This method teaches that.
  3. Address the anxiety or frustration: Perseveration is often caused by anxiety and/or frustration. If I am nervous at a social gathering, I might pick one topic I know well and go on and on about it. And a feeling of frustration can easily turn to fixation (just ask my husband about my many rants). Use calming techniques like belly breathing, manipulating therapy putty, or lying under a weighted blanket to ease the stress of the situation.

I’m realizing now, as I research for this article, that my son’s obsessive chewing could actually be a form of perseverating too. He is always, always chewing on a small bit of something — paper, plastic, metal, ink pen parts… You name it, I’ve found it in a chewed wad eventually spit on his bedroom floor. No matter how much we’ve talked about the FDA and how  only foods are tested to see if they are safe for you to eat, this behavior doesn’t stop. It’s a subconscious coping mechanism, I’m quite sure.

We keep working on perseverating and many other troublesome behaviors, one day, one hour, one minute at a time.

What does your child perseverate about? How do you help them break the repetition?

Share your thoughts.

16 Comments
  • I am struggling with my 7 year old who has ADHD. This is a great example that just happened yesterday. He wasn’t feeling well Wednesday Jan 11 and he wanted to stay home. As the day went on he kept asking the time. At about 1:45 he wanted to back to school because he couldn’t miss PE. I explained to him school was almost over and he couldn’t go back no. He ran into his room got dressed, grabbed his backpack and said take me now. I if course engaged and we battled about this most the night. I had my husband pick up my sons favorite dinner to help get him off this topic. I had to plans leave the house that night and the rest of the night went fine. Next morning he starts up with I’m not going to schoolbI want my Wednesday back. UGH we had another awful crying fighting battle that I am not proud of. Eventually we both were calm and he just snapped out of it like nothing happened. How do you handle perseveration get when it gets out of hand to the point of them refusing to go to school or do what they need so you can make appointments. I often find myself giving into him because we have “somewhere to be”. Often times I have nothing to bargain with and we are just stuck in tantrum screaming throwing stuff anger mode. Anything thing you have to share is greatly appreciated.

  • Hi Sandy!

    Perseveration and stuck thoughts really are very difficult to manage. Especially at a young age like your son where he doesn’t yet have the self-awareness and self-regulation skills to improve how he handles these situations.

    In the moment, it’s best to show empathy, instead of trying to reason with him or engaging in a battle. Say something like, “Oh Buddy, I know missing PE is really hard for you. Sometimes when I don’t feel good, I have to miss ________, and you know how much I like that. I know how it feels to miss something you were looking forward to. How can I help you? We can’t go to school this late in the day, especially when you weren’t feeling well, but let’s work together to think of something we can do to make this feel a little better.” If he refuses or refutes your empathy and continues to want to battle, just disengage and remove yourself until he is calm. You can say, “I want to help you. I hate that you’re hurting. But, I can’t help you until you can talk to me calmly, and listen to what I have to say.”

    Remind him when he will have PE again.

    Now, school refusal is another beast, but definitely tied to perseveration and stuck thoughts, as well as anxiety and fear. My son has struggled a great deal with school refusal, starting in 4th grade. My theory is that is when he realized school was never going to get better and teachers were never going to understand him, no matter how many new school years and new teachers he had. Then, he was stuck in the fear of being called out in class, or not being able to succeed at something, or teachers constantly telling him to try harder when he’s already trying as hard as he can.

    To change school refusal and avoidance, you have to get to WHY they are trying to avoid that environment and experience and address it. There have been days my son was willing to give up electronics for eternity if that’s what it took not to go to school — and he lives for electronics.

    I hope that helps!

  • My 11 yr old son gets upset and asks me the same question over and over. For example if he got in trouble in school that day for talking out he will not stop telling me that other kids did it too and asks why didn’t they get in trouble. He will ask it maybe 20 times! It is only when he gets upset about things. Would you call that perseverating? And how do you think I can handle it better?

    • Could be perseveration. Could be a form of stemming, which happens when anxious. I imagine it’s probably perseveration. One way to make it a little less overwhelming is to set a time limit for how long your child can talk about the same thing. Give him 15 minutes to ask questions and get it all out. Then help him get his mind on something else.

  • My 8 year old son who takes adhd medicationtakes everything to a whole other level. He plays a video game and it’s the nonstop topic from day to night – he draws the characters creates stories mimicked the sounds – it’s nonstop fixation on whatever it is for that time . His friend and family tell him to stop it’s annoying we don’t want to talk about this over and over again. We have taken away his tablet because he became obsessed with it – he refused to go by time limits a literal breakdown. His fixation when he sparks an interest in something scares me it’s nonstop !! Please help

    • What is likely happening with his obsession with the tablet and the like is that the device and/or game is providing the stimulation his brain is deficient in. His fixation on subjects may just be who he is (it’s typical of those with autism, but I don’t know if your son has that diagnosis). I suggest trying to make life more routine. Certain hours on weekdays for screen time, etc. And, schedule a time for him to talk about something, instead of shutting him down when he wants to share with you. Say, “I can’t listen about your game right now, but at 3 pm, I will listed to 15 minutes all about it. Then no more about it for the day.” And, before he starts screen time, ask him what he’s going to do when screen time ends — making a plan for the activity he’ll enjoy next can ease the transition.

  • Hi Penny. Thank you for this article. My son is 16. ADHD, impulse control disorder and ODD are past DX given. Last night was exhausting. He is on those games or YouTube talking to his friends with his headset for hours every night. He gets his homework done but I still think it’s too much. I haven’t reduced his time because I did not want to get in yet another yelling match which always occurs when he is not happy with a change (normally something he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t think is fair to him). So last night I checked his homework and some things were not correct. I asked him to check his work and he said he can just ask the teacher tomorrow ( he doesn’t this often and does the bare minimum to get by). I told him that he needs to take a few minutes to check his own work before he automatically goes to the teacher. He went in his room upset and came back about 4 mins later with it corrected. He gave me much attitude when I attempted to use this as a lesson. The attitude he gave me upset me. He always gives me attitude and I have been ignoring it to avoid conflict. But this time, I decided to address the attitude and the fact that he is on those games way too much. Well that turned into a two hour nightmare of what I have always called him obsessing over something. I have not heard of perseveration until I did some research tonight. My son CAN NOT stop himself from asking the same questions over and over even after I explained the reason why I am taking the computer away during the week for a couple days so he can focus on other things. Because he doesn’t think it’s fair, he won’t or can’t stop talking about it and trying to convince me that what I am doing is not appropriate. I try to keep my mouth shut and ignore but it doesn’t work. He will say , “Of course you don’t care about me,” he will compare himself to me as if we are in the same level. “ Well you’re watch TV when you get home from work to relax!”. I tried to do a countdown to say I am done talking about this 5.4.3.2.1. It worked! he did storm to his room and bang on walls a few times. He did however eventually came back out to start up again. Is this perseveration? I feel that he is too old to be doing this and he is 6’2” and I am a single mother, so it is hard to manage him and these behaviors. He refuses medications or help of any kind. I am forcing him to go to counseling. Our first session was last week for a whole other issue (anxiety). My leverage is is cell phone so he is going to therapy because I threatened to take that away, not because he feels he needs it
    Sorry so long. Thank you

    • Remember that ADHD is a developmental disorder. Your 16-year-old is functioning at a 13 or 14-year-old level in many ways. This requires us to adjust our expectations accordingly. What you describe could be perseveration. It could also be that he’s getting emotionally overwhelmed and stuck — what some call amygdala hijack. Punishment doesn’t work well for kids with ADHD. Impulsivity causes them to act before thinking, where punishment requires thinking before acting to be a deterrent. What I would do is just require that homework is checked and some corrections are made, if necessary, before he gets on the computer. That addresses the actual issue. My son has always gotten very upset about having to go back and review or correct work. In his very literal mind, when he gets to the end he’s done. It’s tough to change that thinking. I hope that helps!

  • Hi – I also see her issue being obsessive like with the games YouTube etc. my son is getting kicked out of conversations at school because he obsessively draws tells stories talks about a video game non stop . Last time it was about fidget spinners and on and on and on – he is 8 years old . He will interrupt a conversation with others and start talking about his obsession as if people know what he is talking about .

  • I’m so broken how do I handle this for an 8 year old – it’s day and night and nonstop I’m becoming sick physically with it. I’ve gotten to the point where I ignore him, then I take away things, argue , explain why it is bothering people ( would u like to eat and talk about pizza nonstop every day? ) please help any advice

    • Ahhh I relate so strongly. I’m NOT a professional, just a mom but I can share some of my thoughts for you and anyone else who maybe could find them helpful. My son and I are both autistic and both perseverators. Even people who are not autistic or ADHD can develop this behaviour, especially as a way to cope. I don’t know if I can give any insight but I can try to share my thoughts and what has helped us a little. This article is awesome in my opinion so I would try all the steps. I wanna say first, breathe, you are doing great mama. It is VERY hard to have a child who is atypical in any way, when society shoves judgment on us and doesn’t “get it”. You are asking for advice and help and that proves you are a great mama. Most people don’t even notice or think about it til its too late and they have a depressed or raging teenager, or maybe never if they get lucky but the kid ends up struggling alone. You can do this. Keep reaching out.

      This post is gonna be really long sorry, but your post caught my attention because that was me nonstop 2 years ago, and I was so stressed every second of every day. I was having stomach aches, I felt like my son and I were not as close as before, I was struggling at work, crying myself to sleep, dreading going home and feeling guilty… Yeah. I still have those moments but it’s starting to get a lot better. My son is almost 7 but in some ways, he is like a teenager because he is very clever and beyond a typical kid his age. In other ways, he is emotionally still like a 3 year old. So it’s complex. But I have learned to trust that even if he doesn’t understand now, still keep teaching and he will get it.

      This is a collection of stuff that I read online, was taught by a therapist, and developed myself from my own experiences as a child. So here goes:

      So first… Taking things away completely is punishing him for a behaviour he cannot (yet) control. It will just cause more frustration and if he’s anything like my son, he’ll just amp up the level of behaviour and it can escalate to shouting, throwing things, etc. It’s not going to help either person. The only time that I think it is helpful is obviously if the child is hurting themselves with the object OR if they are not respecting the rule and nothing else has worked after giving it time.

      Why Stuck – The first step for me when my son gets Stuck is figuring out WHY, and what he is needing. Weird example: I did have to temporarily take away a computer drawing game because my son was using it to make fire pictures like people running out of a house on fire. During this time, he kept talking about fire and I was upset because I thought omg, he’s gonna be one of those kids…. But no – he’s not a sociopath, he was obsessing and worrying about house fires and his way of coping was to talk about fire nonstop, ask about it, draw it, etc… just obsess because his brain was stuck. I was so worried til we worked out with a dr that he was actually anxious because he saw a house that had a fire weeks before. He regained use of the game when he agreed to not make any fire pictures, and proved it by using it properly after that.

      If it’s just that he enjoys a topic….

      Rules –

      For topics he likes (pizza, etc) … At this point I would try the time limit and replace the conversation with something else that is engaging to him. Or if the obsession is over eating or doing the same activity…

      If it’s pizza, it may be anxiety around trying new foods, may be sensory issues with certain foods but pizza always feels “safe” to him, he may associate pizza with positive memories, or he may just really freakin’ love pizza. (For me.. it’s coffee…)

      Set a rule for each issue (like… we can have pizza “this many” times a week) starting with 1 or 2 rules at a time. Do not bend on it even once. The reaction may get worse in the beginning, that’s normal. But when he realizes the tactics (arguing or raging or pleading) don’t work, it should improve. A lot of kids (especially autistic, not saying your son is though!) actually like rules and routine because it is comforting to their brain to know what to expect – overall this will reduce anxiety and reduce expectations that cannot be fulfilled. The idea is that if the rule is you always have pizza on Fridays, they will look forward to it on Fridays, but also know that on Tuesday they can’t have pizza so eventually they will accept that and not be bugging you about it or obsessing in their own brain (which can even be stressful to them).

      I am almost embarrassed to admit – I set rules for myself still. I think lots of people do. Where I feel different is that I can’t bend on my rule or else I start falling apart. (Example: I can have two or three cups of coffee a day. If I let myself have four one day, I start drinking too much again.) Being stubborn isn’t always bad lol. But for our kids, they need us to do this for them.

      Arguments are not going to help (I know you know that, and it’s not that easy. My son and I still argue way too much and I feel so bad about it and stressed by it, but I’m trying to get better at stopping myself). A lot of kids who perseverate may even enjoy the argument. Not enjoy it in that they want to fight with you, but it provides sensory feedback and they are getting a reaction from you. So they will continue it. It may make them feel satisfied to continue to discuss the issue. (Especially if they get into a rant about something annoying. I think even as adults a lot of us do this, even not autistic or ADHD people). Like this article says, sometimes you need to remove yourself from the situation either literally leaving the room (if its safe for the child obviously) or removing yourself from the conversation by not continuing it.

      Once I have responded and acknowledged him, I sometimes will ignore it if I can tell he is trying to argue. I don’t say anything (or will just say “I don’t want to talk about that right now”). I try to change the subject but if he keeps trying, I will tell him “I need a break from (that topic) right now so I am going in the other room. When you feel like talking/playing/doing something else, come find me and we will play together!” Firm but not punishing. If he really needs it, I try to give him a simple, honest reason like “I don’t like to think about cars blowing up. It makes me sad because it’s bad for the environment” (sometimes it’s a random reason lol but I attempt to try to share emotions with him so he understands others have emotional reactions to what he says and does). But I won’t discuss it any further or justify my feelings. Stop means stop.

      If you are changing the subject, try a visual. It sounds overly simple but sometimes a visual helps better than saying “let’s do something else”. Example, grab a different activity and hold it up to show him. “Hey let’s do this instead”. Show him a visual reminder like a clock with a gentle reminder “Hey buddy you’ve been playing Minecraft for an hour. You need to rest your eyes because it’s not good for them to be staring at the screen. Let’s choose something else, and you can play Minecraft again for 20 minutes after dinner” (or whatever).

      Anxiety or stress – Sometimes when I am stressed about something, it will keep repeating in my head and I keep obsessing. (random examples: Someone at work blamed me for something I didn’t do, or my neighbour was playing loud music and kept us awake all night, etc.) It may also happen when I am anxious about something (random examples: my son needs a specific kind of shoe and I can’t find it at any stores or he has a cough and I need to know what’s causing it, etc.). I will sometimes talk about it for hours with anyone who will listen and get stuck in loops trying to find a solution to the problem. Sometimes I even repeat the same sentence in the conversation without realizing at the time. I know it annoys or bothers people but at the time, I can’t control it. I am starting to become aware that I do this (at almost 30 years old) and that it is not helpful to me or to others. I find it helpful if someone stops me and points out I am stuck on the topic, acknowledges that I am feeling upset and validates my opinion/feeling (or even if they say “I don’t understand or I don’t agree but I see it’s important to you”), and then reminds me that it’s going to stress me out more to keep talking about i. Now this doesn’t happen very often. A lot of the time it’s in my own head. But it does still happen. Normally if someone looks bored and annoyed or rolls their eyes or if they say “ok stop going on about it”, my reaction was to get upset and feel hurt or even a little angry… but now I understand why. I still don’t think that reaction is helpful and in the moment, it still upsets me… so I can guess that maybe my son feels the same way if I don’t acknowledge him and just jump right to trying to stop him.

      For my son, the first step is that he wants to be acknowledged and validated about what he is feeling whether it’s happy, sad, annoyed, angry, etc. That can be “Wow yeah, that game is SO COOL! I can see you really enjoy it.” or it can be “That was very rude when that boy at school shoved by you. I’m glad you didn’t get hurt even though you were worried you could have been hurt.” I try to help him identify the feeling and what caused his brain to get stuck. And then we work on replacing the behaviour with a positive expression.

      This can be sensory feedback, relaxation or mindfulness or breathing exercises or yoga video (at first my son thought it was dumb but then loved it), playdo or clay, etc. He may need calming strategies or he may need stimulating strategies (like “heavy work” – look that up and see if it sounds like it may help him).

      If it is anxiety or stress topics, I don’t stop him from sharing his feelings. He may take it too literally and stop talking about his feelings… So I try to be careful about limiting my son on these topics. I don’t do time limits for this, but instead try to help him express it in a more positive way after he has shared it for a little while, and try to work out what he is feeling about it, why is it bothering him etc. If he does get stuck in a rant, and he is not receptive to positive coping methods, I will put a temporary stop and say “We are going to talk more about that later. We need a break right now to think about something good.”.

      Signals – You can also come up with a signal that only the two of you recognize. I read this tip a while back and it’s really helped. Even though my son is chatty, he sometimes has a hard time expressing verbally when he is upset. So we do a subtle gesture that means “I’m stuck on this” which means that he can’t stop thinking about it (a head tap). We have another one (sideways hand wave) that is a reminder I do if we are in public and he is stuck and I don’t want to embarrass him. When he does his signal, it means that he needs help so that usually means walking away together and taking a break from the situation, or talking it out. You could even get teachers or other adults in his life to be a part of this. It’s important to me that he is not embarrassed by people as he already may be dealing with criticism from other kids on it. Encouraging self esteem is really important as a lot of people don’t understand perseveration and may be mean about it without knowing it.

      Social – In the big picture, talking about pizza all day… is not really hurting anyone. So sometimes, he may just need to talk it out to feel happy. However, I understand that it can affect him socially and can affect behaviour at home too. I used to annoy other kids by talking on the same topic all the time (usually dogs or ancient Egypt) and it was hard to make friends until I found a friend that liked the same things, or we’d take turns talking about our interests. That is a valuable thing to teach a child anyway – taking turns with topics. He may not be fully aware he is obsessing or that other people are annoyed or bored or upset by his topics. What helped me was I had a teacher who taught me that. She said something like “I hear you love dogs. Let’s talk about dogs for 15 minutes. But I really love cats! After your turn, I want to talk to you about cats for 15 minutes.” (just a random example) I do this with my son. In my experience with ADHD and/or autism (or really, kids), future rewards may not work as well. He needs the immediate positive reinforcement. So I give him what he wants by letting him talk about his topic (immediate reward) but also fit in the lesson (practising patience, empathy that others may want to discuss a topic or not hear his topic). And make it fun and positive.

      Even an intelligent and empathic and caring child or adult may have a hard time understanding that their thoughts do not match others’ thoughts… it sounds obvious to some of us but it can be complicated for them. It takes time for them to get to the point where they can recognize non-verbal or verbal reactions from other people and have the ability to change what they are saying/doing that is causing it.

      I know it may also affect their focus at school and for myself, my focus at work. But from the inside, it can feel frustrating as well for the person whose brain is obsessing. This can be a struggle throughout life but it’s not hopeless.

      Social Skill Talks – When he is in a calmer mood and not in hyperfocus or obsess mode, we talk about things like how different people have different interests, how certain topics upset some people but may not upset him (example: the titanic sinking, talk about war or fires, etc.) and that certain topics are not polite to discuss in public (“the bathroom talk rule”), etc. I have found there is no point trying to have these discussions if he is already repeating or obsessing.

      The Positive – Many children who perseverate are actually very intelligent. They may want or enjoy examining every angle of a subject. They may also have worries that are beyond a typical child’s because they are smart enough to think of all the possibilities and need reassurance.

      If they are able to put hyperfocus to use as a skill, they can excel at a certain topic or area of study as they get older. My son is so knowledgable about many topics that kids his age wouldn’t know and it has helped him at school. It also makes me quite good at my job (just a secretary but still) because it helps me to be thorough and detailed. Because my brain processes a lot of information quickly and turns it around so I can learn new things pretty quickly if I am able to focus on it. It’s not all bad even though it can feel that way when your child is young and you are trying to manage everything. It also helps me manage my personal life. I get things done because I focus on them til they are done right. Your son may in time find ways of focusing this ability into a positive skill.

      If the thoughts are anxious, negative, upsetting, or if your child is having low self esteem from other peoples reactions to their perseverating, I would seek professional help in ANY way you can, even if it means getting on a wait list for now (my city is like this.. long long waits unless you can afford to pay high fees which I can’t). It can also be a sign of anxiety or depression or other mental health struggles, even in a young child. But in the mean time, I hope you can find ways to help him and to reduce your stress as I know it is very painful and stressful as a parent to watch your child struggle with this and to try to get everything done yourself when your child is stuck on something. But there really is hope for improvement. I wish you all the best.

  • How can you help a child who gets stuck on others using certain words.

    • Are they words the child feels are bad? Many kids with ADHD and/or autism are very black and white, literal thinkers. If they think something is wrong, they can’t help but try to correct it. If you can provide an example, I might be able to help more.

  • I have a son who is five years old. I’m doing the same and googling anything to do with perseveration. It’s a constant battle everyday. Yesterday it was about an apple he couldn’t have during a telehealth session, the day before that it was about wanting to go home a different way while on a bike ride. He was going on and on for about 10-15mins all the way home. It must be very tiring for them not to be able to stop and their minds just running on the same topic for so long. Whenever I hear it, literally it’s like my ears are ringing, because he is going on about the same thing over and over again. We have tried ignoring, showing empathy, trying to get him distracted, but most of the time we just let him run the course out, and it’s very tiring. He is in the process of a diagnosis for autism. My question is, how can we teach them to stop it before it even happens? Really appreciate your help. We are starting to reflect and revisit after the incident is over to discuss how we all were feeling.

    • Perseveration and inflexibility are symptoms of the brain kind of being stuck. In a child with ADHD or ASD, their brain works differently and they are much more prone to getting stuck like this. It’s dysregulation. At age 5, your son does not yet have self-awareness to be able to see that it’s an issue and regulate. So you have to help him get regulated. When he starts showing signs of possibly getting fixated on something, try some activities that help him regulate and calm.

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I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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