Signs & Symptoms

Repetitive Behavior

Is your child flapping arms, flicking fingers or spinning in circles?

Some children have repetitive motor behaviors that they feel driven to complete. Many children will say that they need to bounce or flap and cannot control it. Some behaviors may be subtler, like finger flicking or brushing fingers across one’s face.

Other behaviors like bouncing and repetitively spinning, can be very noticeable in a movie theater, library or at the park. These behaviors will appear repetitive and seem unusual when your child does them in public.

A toddler who is playing by laughing, smiling, looking at you and bouncing or waving her arms is not exhibiting this behavior. Repetitive behaviors look more compulsive, and your older child may or may not feel embarrassed by the behavior.

Children are generally aware they are engaging in repetitive behavior, but many find it challenging to control.

What do challenges with Repetitive Behavior look like?

  • Repetitively spinning in circles?
  • Bouncing, flapping his arms, or pacing when excited?
  • Constantly tensing muscles, clenching hands, making faces?
  • Moving in circles to match the movements of the ceiling fan?
  • Unintentionally doing these repetitive behaviors?
  • Challenging to interrupt when doing these behaviors?
  • Causing other children to ask what he or she is doing?

Why is Repetitive Behavior happening?

Repetitive behavior may include flapping, rocking, spinning, or banging rhythmically. Repetitive behavior is repeating certain movements or sequences that do not serve an obvious purpose. These tendencies are sometimes called ‘non-functional routines.’ The child may repeat the same motion with a small object or drum fingers on a table constantly. The individual generally knows that they are doing the behavior and they feel a strong need to complete the behavior. Repetitive behaviors can be very challenging to stop because they can provide a sense of balance or regulation for that person. You may notice these behaviors increase in times of stress and excitement.

How can I manage Repetitive Behavior at home?

If you suspect your child has repetitive behaviors that may be interfering with his or her functioning in any way, it would first be important to consult with a Psychologist regarding your concerns. Having diagnostic clarification and identifying any areas of difficulty will help a comprehensive treatment plan be developed.

If a Tic Disorder is suspected, it is recommended that you consult with a Neurologist and potentially a Child Psychiatrist to assist with medication management.

In terms of strategies for someone who struggles with repetitive behaviors, it may be helpful to guide your child to participate in another motor behavior when you see the repetitive behavior. Encouraging bouncing on the trampoline, squeezing a stress ball, playing with putty, or even clapping may help your child direct the motor behaviors into something more acceptable.

Some children benefit from time and space at home to have repetitive behaviors; as well as, sensory breaks with an Occupational Therapist at school that involve opportunities for frequent movement. Sometimes with these allowances, a child can refrain from flapping/bouncing/finger flicking/posturing in class or other social situations.

In other situations, it may be helpful for your child to share with friends that, “I bounce when I’m happy.” This way other children expect this behavior and may be less likely to be alarmed by it. Peers tend to get used to seeing the behavior when a child is open and transparent about it.

If your child’s motor needs are high, it will be important to involve the school. Providing frequent movement breaks and OT consultation can help to make things go more smoothly during the school day.

At home, you may consider medicine balls, a trampoline, and incorporating activity like swimming, biking, or hiking, to increase motor output. If your child meets criteria for Autism, AD/HD, Tourette’s, OCD or Developmental Coordination Disorder, he or she may need an IEP or Section 504 Plan to provide additional supports and services at school. It will be important to share any diagnostic information or reports with your School Psychologist to get the ball rolling.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Repetitive Behavior?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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