My daughter is eight years old, but due to her cerebral palsy, she has the approximate mentality of a three year-old. She also has an extreme need for routine. Most of the time that isn't an issue at all, as our family has a routine anyway. Other times, it's a minor issue, such as one parent doing a certain part of the routine that the other parent usually does. That happens often enough that she complains a little, but deals with it.

Sometimes she gets fixated on something we can't or shouldn't provide, and no amount of distracting her with other favorite activities will change her mind. Does anyone have ideas for putting a one track mind on a different track? I imagine parents of autistic children have had similar challenges, but even successful tactics from parents of neurotypical but stubborn children would be useful.

  • 2
    I'd also like to see answers to this; my son falls under "neurotypical but stubborn," and will hold on to an issue (particularly if he lost out on something) for days.
    – Acire
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 14:29
  • Can you give an example or two of "something we can't or shouldn't provide"?
    – longneck
    Commented Apr 12, 2013 at 15:57
  • @longneck, like wanting to go outside late at night or in bad weather, wanting to play with a toy that got thrown away because it broke, asking for a person who is busy or not there. That sort of thing. Commented Apr 12, 2013 at 17:25
  • A suggestion is to take things lightly and mock the situation a little bit. Just as an example, my daugher is 26 months old (so mentality should be close) and now refuses to kiss me hello when I come back from work. I've found a good way to change her mood is to repeat while laughing "no kisses for dad" or something similar. After a while I start tickling her, she starts laughing out loud and I can get a kiss and a moment of good mood from her. Commented May 2, 2013 at 20:08

2 Answers 2


This article from Parenting magazine gives a number of strategies for dealing with stubborn kids. It suggests addressing behaviors from side-on rather than directly - the article refers to it as being "sneaky," but I would say it is clever, in that the approach helps stand-offs to move forward rather than becoming battles, and it respects the fact that children feel powerless and need a sense of control while also needing to know that ultimately you are in charge.

Some examples/suggestions from the article that might help you in this situation:

  • Play the "yes" game - ask several questions in a row that the child will answer yes to - it may put herin a more agreeable state of mind.
  • Offer options, as in two things to choose from that are both acceptable to you: "It's too dark for the park now, but would you like to go tomorrow morning or tomorrow for lunch?" "Grandma can't play. Would you like to play Lego with me or would you like to build something by yourself and surprise me?"
  • Be a broken record. State your answer to a request in as few words as possible, and each time the request is made, use the same basic words delivered kindly. They will tire of it eventually. "We're not playing in the rain today." "Sorry, we're not playing in the rain today." "It's too rainy to play outside today."

  • Play calming music.

Other thoughts:

  • If you are using time outs, treat repeated requests as misbehaviors. "I already answered that question. That's one." Child repeats request. "I already answered that question. That's two." Child repeats request. "That's three. Time out."
  • Connect through related questions/conversation that address the desire without fulfilling it, leading the conversation in a new direction. For the broken/discarded toy: "That was a fun toy. Do you remember the day that your friend Joanna came over and you played with it together?...We haven't had Joanna over for a while. Should we invite her over to play? Do you want to call her on the phone now, or shall we call her after your bath?" Or wanting to go outside at night: "Playing out in the dark would be fun and scary. It would sort of be like camping. Hey, want to build a tent in your room? I'll help you get started!"

My immediate thought is that it often helps to start out by acknowledging the wanted thing:

"I know you want to go outside right now."

By acknowledging the wish, you are also acknowledging their feelings which is often the first step in moving past whatever it is they are stuck on - knowing they were understood. Then observe or question about the thing getting in the way:

"Do you see how dark it is outside?"

It often works to present this observation as a question that causes them to observe as well. Another example might be:

"but aren't you hungry? I think it makes sense to have dinner first"

Finish by asking about an alternative and then follow through on the alternative:

"In the morning, we will make sure you get some time to play outside right after you have eaten your breakfast."

When you make "deals" like this, it is important to follow through or they will not continue to work - because your kids will eventually stop trusting you to follow through.

It is likely that if your child is perseverating, this won't end the conversation (especially at first) and you will need to answer the question again. However, by setting things up this way, you set yourself up to successfully become a broken record,

"Do you remember what I said last time you asked?"

"Do you remember what the deal we made was last time you asked?"

"What did you tell me we agreed on the last time you asked that question?"

This prevents arguing about it at least and puts the responsibility on the shoulders of the child to start to remember the limitation, rather than on you having to restate the bummer thing over and over again - preventing fights and tantrums at least to some degree about things. You can also restate an acknowledgement of the child's wish before your question such as:

"I know you really want to go outside. That sounds like fun to me too - but do you see how dark it is out there? What did we say could happen last time we talked about this?"

When you get tired of the whole broken record thing, you can also try impartial observation of your own recollections and feelings:

"I seem to remember answering this question before. . . Hmm what was my answer?"

Or the frank and completely honest observation (which works well once they've reached attaining the theory of mind developmental step (you know they've broken through this barrier when they start trying to "trick" you, have attempted bald-faced lying, or are starting to fully understand jokes based on words with double meanings.

"I am starting to think you are (stuck on, perseverating about, . . . said issue) this starts to be frustrating for me after awhile, what can we do to move you past this (want, desire, wish, thing. . . )?

Many people will recommend redirection - which is another useful way to go - but with kids with a neurological reason to perseverate on things, I have found it can actually make them go after the thing they want that much more insistently and intensely. I really find that first step of acknowledging feelings to be incredibly helpful and the big key so that if you take that first step and then try re-direction you are more likely to have better luck with the redirection aspect of things.

When the problem is that your daughter is upset with a role-change in your routine, you can use the same procedure, but involve the other parent and go through the procedure preventatively. i.e.

You: "I know you are used to mommy doing this part of your routine." Mommy: "I'm sorry I can't do that tonight, I am . . . tonight and can't, but I love you and will look forward to getting back to our usual way tomorrow night."

Then, when she brings it up in the moment, your question is,

"What did mommy say about why she can't do this with you right now?" and "When will mommy get back to the usual routine with you?"

Kids that struggle with this kind of behavior in the extreme are really a challenge, but they are a challenge because routine means security to them in a way we can't relate to. When Dustin Hoffman got ready for his role in Rainman, he spent quite a bit of time at the ICA (Illinois Center for Autism) studying to prepare (and donated quite a sum of money to the center to boot). So, you can be sure his acting here isn't far from reality (plus I've worked with these kids and while he depicts a fairly extreme case of a high-functioning sevant autistic, It is fairly true to life in my experience as well). There is a reason for the movie's success and it has a lot to do with the heart and care Dustin Hoffman put into his role as far as I am concerned. Point is, as hard as it is, patience and empathy with low emotive tonality and action is the key in getting your message across.

Hopefully, as she gets older and hits some of those developmental milestones that are more emotionally related, things will get a little easier in this regard.

  • Very nice. A reading that I think complements this approach is "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk". I am aware of at least one person who gives general workshops based on that book who also does a workshop focused on children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
    – eflat
    Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 1:25

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