Is your child unable to let things go?

Is your child:

  • Constantly nagging you for something?
  • So persistent that you can predict what his going to ask for next?
  • Sounding like a broken record?
  • Asking you to stop after school for a snack, repetitively?
  • Repeatedly asking if you are going to be on time to pick her up from school?
  • Always having an ax to grind with someone or constantly wanting to ‘right a wrong?’
  • Struggling to let things go?


Some kids have a very hard time letting go.

Your child may seem to always be pushing an agenda. ‘Mom, can we go get a doughnut after school?’ for example. It’s like a song playing on infinite ‘loop.’ Mom, can I have a playdate this weekend? Dad, can you take me to Target? When are we going sledding?

Those types of questions typically indicate intensity (a.).

Another type of repetitive pattern is one where the child is constantly seeking reassurance (b.). For example, a child may ask if you will be on time to get her from school, if you remembered to sign the permission slip, or if the cafeteria will really be serving pizza for lunch.

Some of these thoughts may even get outlandish or highly implausible. The child may worry that the world is going to end, that your plane is going to crash, or that the rainstorm may flood the house before she gets home from school. These thoughts are called intrusive thoughts (c.)

Another type of repetitive thought pattern is what we call perseveration (d.). This thought pattern occurs when a child obsesses over a certain topic, movie, or game. For example, ‘mom, can we hurry home so I can play Minecraft? I want a Minecraft toy for my birthday. Mom, these Cheetos are shaped like Minecraft creepers.’

The final type of repetitive thought pattern is thoughts about something scary, unnerving, or sad. These thoughts may be memories of something sad, such as a trauma event that happened, or they could be more of a negative lens, the type of thinking where the glass is always half empty. In psychology, we sometimes consider these thoughts to be a sign of cognitive distortions (e.).


Having some repetitive thought patterns is common in most people; having an encumbering, intense amount of repetitive thoughts is seen in many mental health conditions. If that tape keeps playing over and over to the point that it gets in the way of day-to-day life, it could be something more serious, requiring treatment.

The child may feel stuck in a rut.

Depression can result from a looping tape of negative thoughts. These repetitive thoughts may lead to a recurring sense of hopelessness or despair. For example, ‘I feel like a failure because of what I said in class today…which reminds me of other times I have failed…which reminds me that no one likes me…which reminds me that life is hopeless.’

These repetitive and intrusive thoughts are the result of neuron connections that have been ‘wired’ over time. It’s like drawing a circle in the sand and running your finger over it, time and time again, until it is a rut. This stronger connection happens because neurons that ‘fire together, wire together.’ Our brains tend to make associations between events and ideas that evoke similar emotional states.

Of the types mentioned above, the following clinical issues may be present.

a. Intensity. Some children who are gifted have particularly intense interests or incessant desires. They may really want to buy something, to make a project they saw on YouTube, or to discuss an idea. Although this intensity does not indicate a disability, intense children can be challenging to parent.

b. I think I can’t. I think I can’t.: Kids who constantly worry about what may happen are showing signs of anxiety. Anxiety involves excessive worries and fear over things that may happen in the future. Fears about the parent leaving or failing to be there may be related to an attachment disorder or separation anxiety.

c. Intrusive thoughts. Constant thoughts of something disastrous happening. Kids with intrusive thoughts may be showing signs of anxiety or depression.

d. Perseveration. The tendency to obsess over objects or interests. Children may have an insatiable need to talk about dinosaurs, Thomas the train, volcanoes, or Minecraft. When interests become obsessions, an autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental concern may be present.

e. Cognitive distortions. People with anxiety or depression often unwittingly ascribe to ‘cognitive distortions.’ It is as if the child views the whole world through a camera lens that can only see the bad side of things. For example, “catastrophizing” is an almost exclusive focus on worst-case scenarios. They ‘make mountains out of mole hills,’ making small problems into big problems. Another cognitive distortion is ‘black and white thinking,’ which is failing to see the neutral aspects of an event or situation.

Trauma: If the child is constantly sad, worried, or hypervigilant, he or she could have a history of trauma. Some children may have experienced the following: abuse, an intense and immediate concern about dying, or the potential death of a loved one. The child feels trapped in these thoughts. This cognitive distortion could be a sign of trauma or PTSD.

Justice Seekers: Some children feel that they are the police for the world. They have an interaction that does not go well with a peer, and they are incensed. ‘They never say die.’ They may feel they can’t let it go until something is done about the situation. They may seek revenge. This thought pattern may be a sign of depression or a behavior disorder such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Intermittent Explosive Disorder.


A lot of potential causes for intrusive repetitive thoughts are possible, and some of these causes can be serious conditions. Certainly, some children have a natural borne intensity, particularly gifted children, and this intensity may not be cause for concern. In this case, supports and interventions are available that you can put in place at home.

Be patient with your child. Hear the concerns, even if they seem unreasonable.

Do not refute their statements, but rather repeat these statements with a “you feel” in front of them. For example, “This is a disaster; they are out of bubble gum ice cream,” can be replaced with, “You feel sad because you really wanted that ice cream…what do you think we can do about this?”

Allow your child to share worries or feelings. If the repetitive thought is about a video game or toy, work to shift the activity rather than engaging in an argument.

For example, rather than “I told you no!” try “You can play your game when we are done with dinner.” Often, rigid children like to win a fight with logic. If you set down the rule but then engage in logical dialogue, the child will think he or she can convince you to change your mind.

Do not feel you need to engage in an argument after you have stated the rule and explained kindly what you mean.

If your child seems to have significant difficulty in this area, resulting in frequent meltdowns, anxiety, anger, or depression, it is recommended that you seek professional help.

Referring your child for a comprehensive evaluation means that a psychologist will meet with your child for a number of hours and administer different assessments to help tease out the most salient symptoms and to provide you with diagnoses and recommendations to treat those.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Anxiety: children with excessive fears of the future, or anticipatory anxiety, often have repetitive thoughts
  • Depression: children who are depressed often have thoughts that are on a ‘negative loop;’ one bad thought leads to another. The child feels plagued by a barrage of negative thoughts, despair and hopelessness
  • Rigid behavior: children who ‘can’t let it go’ may have repetitive thoughts because they struggle to ‘shift’ to other topics or ideas
  • Flexibility: children with weaker executive functions in the area of ‘cognitive flexibility’ often have repetitive thoughts
  • Cognitive Distortions: children who tend to focus on the ‘half-empty’ part of the glass may have cognitive distortions that leads to these repetitive thoughts


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Generalized Anxiety (Anxiety Disorders): pervasive worries that get in the way of day-to-day functioning
  • Separation Anxiety (Anxiety Disorders): intense upset upon separation from caregiver that does not dispel after a few minutes
  • Attachment (Trauma and Attachment): lack of trust and security in caregivers due to an earlier experience of neglect, abuse, or perpetual separation from a primary caregiver
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: poor social skills, repetitive thoughts or restricted interests, sensory sensitivities
  • Gifted and Talented (GT): children with IQ scores in the top 5% of the population tend to be intense or passionate, leading to repetitive thoughts and questions. Although not a disability, giftedness generally requires special supports and accommodations
  • Trauma or PTSD (Trauma and Attachment): anxiety, fear or sadness after experiencing the perceived or actual threat of own death or death of a loved one. The child has repetitive thoughts about it happening again, avoids situations that evoke the memory, and these repetitive thoughts get in the way of daily life


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat symptoms of anxiety or depression
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment
  • Pediatrician: to prescribe medicines and treat mental health conditions; this treatment is often effective when combined with psychotherapy
  • Psychiatrist: to diagnose mental health conditions and to provide and manage medication
  • Parenting Consultation with Psychologist: to help with parenting strategies and setting up a home behavior program. Some children may be more challenging to raise. Behaviorally-challenging kids may need extra support from parents
  • ABA Therapist: to teach behavioral skills in a step by step progression, using reinforcement. ABA is particularly necessary for kids with extreme behavior problems

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • BRIEF-III: for executive functions
  • BASC-III: for emotional symptoms
  • MMPI-A: for personality and mental health
  • Roberts or TAT: for personality and mental health
  • CTMT: for executive functions and cognitive flexibility


Resources on social skills for parents and professionals:

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.


Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.


Resources for kids who talk a lot:

Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function).


Cook, Julia (2006). My mouth is a volcano.


Stein, David Ezra (2011). Interrupting chicken.


Resources for parents of gifted kids:

DeVries, Arlene R.; M.S.E. & Webb, James (2007). Gifted Parent Groups: The SENG Model.


Galbraith, Judy (2013). The survival guide for gifted kids: For ages 10 and under.


Galbraith, Judy & Delisle, Jim (2011). The gifted kid’s survival guide: Smart, sharp and ready for (almost) anything.


Anxiety books for kids:

Huebner, Dawn (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety (What to do guides for kids).


Zelinger, Laurie & Zelinger, Jordan (2014). Please explain anxiety to me.


Helsley, Donalisa (2012). The worry glasses: Overcoming anxiety.


Cook, Julia (2012). Wilma jean and the worry machine.


Cook, Julia (2012) Wilma jean and the worry machine: Activity and idea book


Image Credit:
Description: Little daughter bothering her father falling asleep in cafe
Stock Photo ID: # 146361701  (Big Stock)
By: pressmaster
Previously Licensed on: May 21, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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