Signs & Symptoms

Rigid Behavior

Is your child stubborn?

Some children are chronically inflexible, controlling, and stubborn. Any subtle change to the routine ends up in an earthquake-style meltdown. The child may tantrum because you forgot to pack something in his lunch.

  • He may refuse to go to school because his favorite shirt is not clean, and he won’t even think of wearing a different one.
  • She may insist on you driving a certain way home from school every day.
  • He may incessantly nag you about the schedule for the day.

Rigidity is a sign that your child has some lagging skills or a behavior problem. Most research shows that kids should start outgrowing their rigidity once they are through their toddler years [2]. If you child’s need to ‘call the shots’ is getting in the way of life and happiness, a concern worth addressing may be underneath these symptoms.

What do challenges with Rigid Behavior look like?

  • Controlling?
  • Resisting you being the boss?
  • Acting inflexible, unyielding, and relentless?
  • Refusing as you introduce a transition to a new activity?
  • Playing alone without regard for other children?
  • Ignoring other children’s interests and perspectives?
  • Insisting on having it her way?
  • Taking a ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ posture when setting up the schedule for the day?
  • Throwing a fit if plans have to be changed?

Why is Rigid Behavior happening?

Toddlers and preschool-aged kids tend to be a bit inflexible and this can be a normal part of development. It is time to be concerned when this rigidity continues on into the upper elementary grades or when it is causing extreme distress in your family. Listed below are some considerations if your child is rigid.

  • Goodness of fit: There may be a bit of a mismatch between the child’s personality and the mom or dad’s parenting style. Some children crave structure, predictability, and routine to feel safe and comfortable. If you are more of a spontaneous, ‘go with the flow’ type of person and your child is melting down when plans are changed, it might be important to consider structuring your child’s world. 
  • Need for structure: Setting up daily routines, schedules, and calendars that you actually follow, can go a long way to help your child’s behavior. Give your child ample warning before you need to stop doing one activity and shift to another. If you try these strategies and your child’s behavior continues to wreak havoc on your household, it may be time to consider other potential reasons for these challenges.
  • Giftedness: Some children who are gifted can be rigid. This is generally due to the fact that intensity is the key feature of giftedness. They get stuck on certain ideas and cannot tolerate the notion that it may not be possible to carry out their plans on a particular day. 
  • Anxiety: Another possibility is related to Generalized Anxiety, which can also lead children to be very rigid in their choices and to resist change. Being in control can reduce anxiety because the world is made more predictable. 

In addition to the above there are developmental disabilities like autism and ADHD that can contribute to rigid behavior. The most important factor to think about is, “does my child’s behavior seem to be getting better or not?” The reason this is so important is that many children will grow out of their rigid behavior after a period of time. This author remembers a preschool teacher commenting about, “all my 4 year old perfectionists” as a ‘perfectly normal’ pattern. It’s when the child continues with rigid behaviors that intervention might be needed. If your child is rigid, take care to be sure that you as a parent are modeling and practicing flexibility in your parenting style. If you are really struggling with this, child or family psychotherapy may be needed.

How can I manage Rigid Behavior at home?

An important consideration for families who have chronically inflexible children is parenting style. Often, children who are easily frustrated and lose their temper a lot are challenging to parent. You might catch yourself saying, “It shouldn’t have to be this hard. Why does everything have to be a battle?”

A great resource for learning to ‘pick your battles’ is offered by Ross Greene in the Explosive Child [2]. He teaches you how to be a ‘basket case’, which means that you put all of your priorities into three baskets.

Basket A is a small basket for non-negotiables.

Basket B is for issues that are important but for which you would be willing to negotiate with your child. In this case, you would be modeling, for your child, a rational and calm decision-making approach that results in a win-win solution.

Basket C is the ‘forget-a-bout-it’ basket.

This is approach is referred to as downshifting, which means that the parent demonstrates for the child how to calm down and and think rationally about what to do. A great children’s book that demonstrates the power of downshifting is offered in Llama Llama, Mad at Mama [5]. The mother in the story shows how a parent can meet a child’s needs while simultaneously holding the child accountable for improved behavior.

The little llama is out shopping, quite unwillingly, with his mother at the ‘shoparama.’ The little llama proceeds to throw a fit, hurling all of the groceries around the store and making a huge mess. The mother llama takes the time to understand how her little llama feels. She shows empathy and then expects the child to clean up his mess and to help her finish the shopping. This story is an excellent example of using supportive strategies to increase your child’s flexibility and behavioral compliance [5].

It is important to consider the degree of symptoms. If rigidity and inflexibility, tantrums, or focus on objects rather than people are significant concerns, it will be important to have a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation in order to assess Autism Spectrum symptoms as well as language, cognition, attention, and emotions.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Rigid 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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