It started with a broken crayon.
This wasn’t just any crayon (apparently), but a Crayola that was the exact color my daughter needed for a small section of the picture she was coloring. I tried to explain that the half-crayon was still perfectly good to use, even though it was broken, but she was not able to hear this. She was sure there was another fully-intact crayon of that exact same color somewhere in the house. She frantically overturned other bins of crayons and markers, spilling them on to the floor. When she couldn’t find it there, she went into her brother’s room, sure she had seen this exact color in his room. I tried to explain to her that her 13-year-old brother no longer has crayons in his room, that he hasn’t used crayons for his artwork in years. But she could not be deterred.
She was stuck in her perseveration.
Perseveration: persistence in doing something to an exceptional level or beyond an appropriate point, often associated with damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. It is an inability to interrupt a task or shift from one strategy or procedure to another. In speech and language, it is the abnormal or inappropriate repetition of a sound, word or phrase.
When we can view perseveration as a symptom, it can diminish our reactivity to it.
Perseveration is a common behavioral symptom in kids (and adults) who have brain-based differences, and it can be confusing, exhausting and frustrating for the parents supporting them. However, when we can view perseveration as a symptom, it can diminish our reactivity to it, facilitating a “think brain first” approach and leading to accommodations that can assist our child in gently transitioning out of the perseveration loop.
So how does perseveration show up, exactly? What do those behaviors look like?
Here are a few examples:
Getting stuck in behavioral loops - This could be a repetitive behavior that is inappropriate, irritating, unsafe, or disruptive, something you’ve talked to your child about a million times, explaining why it’s not okay, and they “do it anyway.” Maybe you’ve tried to “consequence it out of them” or even shame them for it, but the behavior continues. It often will grow more intense when you try to get them to stop (which can look like increased intentional defiance) or when they are experiencing greater anxiety or overwhelm in their life.
Getting stuck in verbal loops - This could look like repeating the same sound or word or phrase over and over again. It could be asking the same question dozens of times, despite getting the same answer, each and every time.
Not being able to “let go” - This could look like not being able to transition off a certain task until it is completely done (whatever that means for that person). It might mean not being able to let go in an argument. It could look like not being able to deviate from the normal routine without a great deal of distress. It could mean needing everything to be “just so,” and if it is not, becoming obsessed over small, seemingly insignificant changes, and being unable to settle as a result.
When we look at these behaviors and see them as symptoms of our child’s brain-based disability (versus intentional behavior, such as “they are selfish and always need it their way” or “they never listen when I tell them to stop” or “they don’t care about anyone but themselves”), we can slow down our human reaction and think brain first. When we can create that space between the behavior and our knee-jerk reaction, we then have the opportunity to think clearly enough to develop accommodations that help our child settle and, as time goes on, experience more flexibility and less perseveration.
Here are a few ideas for accommodations that can help our child get unstuck from their perseveration:
Not engaging in power struggles. When we understand that because our child’s frontal lobe works differently, that they are cognitively stuck and not willfully defying us, it diminishes our desire to “win” or power our way through a situation. We begin to recognize that our child only gets more stuck and escalated when we do this. When we disengage from the power struggle, we are on the path to helping them with this distressing symptom.
Using distraction and/or play. What does your child love more than anything else? What can make them laugh every time? Is there a game or book or shared activity that always captures their attention? How can you use those ideas to help them get unstuck?
Adjusting expectations when we see they are perseverating. In the example I shared at the beginning of this post, about my daughter and the crayon, adjusting our expectations was an accommodation we had to make in the moment, knowing it was what she needed to be able to move on with her morning and have a successful day (versus having the crayon breakage throw off the entire day). We had to put aside our timelines, support her in what was a distressing event for her, and work to find some satisfying resolution, instead of using our authority, power and control to insist she do what we felt took priority. Remember: if they could do better, they would.
Making it visual. When a child is perseverating over a question on their mind, and we respond with a verbal response, they may not be able to hold onto that information and integrate it into their understanding. This could be because they are overly preoccupied on the actual question that is puzzling them or because they have slower verbal processing — or both. In any case, sometimes if we explain the answer visually, (for example, drawing a picture, posting a graphic reminder or writing down the response) they can then see it, refer back to it over and over again, and feel satisfied that they have the information they have been seeking.
The most important thing to remember is that your child doesn’t want to be stuck in this loop — it’s actually deeply distressing. If you’re able to employ one or more of the strategies above, it might be just the thing to break the cycle and provide the necessary off-ramp from perseveration.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.