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Thursday, January 1, 2015

Stuck, Stubborn and Always Right? Changing Patterns of Rigid Thinking

From Special-Ism

By Kimberly S. Williams, Psy.D.
December 29, 2014

Bobby screams if daddy makes scrambled eggs instead of mommy. For some children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), extreme adherence to rules and routine creates conflict.

Gabby plays Legos for hours and cries when it’s time to stop to eat dinner. Children with executive functioning disorders, like Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), often hyper-focus on activities and struggle with transitions.

Stella believes anytime her mom visits her school, peers will start rumors she’s in trouble. Many kids with anxiety have negative or unrealistic ideas and cannot see rational perspectives.

These children are “stuck” because their thinking is rigid and inflexible.

Recognizing Rigid Thinking

Children with rigid thinking struggle to consider alternatives to the current situation, optional viewpoints, or new and different problem solving strategies. They respond to their own immediate needs with minimal ability to shift between ideas and actions.

Rigid thinkers have less-developed executive functioning processes. Because this aspect of their brain has not matured, they lack the cognitive skill to appraise a situation, understand options, judge severity, or understand the effect of their behavior on others. Limited in inhibiting impulses, they may not think before acting. Poor impulse control lowers frustration tolerance leading to meltdowns when expectations suddenly change.

Coinciding with less developed executive functioning is emotional dysregulation, which causes negative and overwhelming emotions to come out of seemingly nowhere. This dysregulation makes it difficult for a child to immediately capture the appropriate thinking tools to calm down.

Recognizing Thinking Styles Improves Positive Outcomes

Black-and-White Thinking

Black-and-white thinking occurs when children perceive the world in polar opposites. Situations are either one way or another; without perception of alternative gray areas.

Parent Approach
  • When stuck in this thinking pattern, logic and reason doesn’t work; it actually exacerbates frustration and anger. Wait to speak with the child later.
  • When the child is calmer, broach the topic and suggest possible solutions. Write down all possible good and bad ideas, then list pros and cons. This visual display of other viewpoints makes it easier to consider alternative perspectives.
  • Practice appraising the situation. Coach them to ask, “Where am I?” “Who is with me?” “What is expected of me?” “What is different that could change my expectations? Offer situations in which a regular routine may have to be altered.

Rule-Oriented Thinking

Some children miss the concept, ‘exceptions to the rule.’ They believe all rules should be followed at all times. This is problematic when the rigid thinker sees others break rules. Rule-oriented thinkers frequently tattle which damages relationships with peers.

Parent Approach
  • Encourage child to request guidance when questions arise about rules or how someone has acted in relation to the rules.
  • When you see this child getting frustrated, step in and intervene.
  • Emphasize that life is constantly changing and circumstances are more important than “rigid rules.”
  • When rules must be changed, give clear, concise information and allow the child time to adjust so there isn’t a rapid shift.

Nothing-But-The-Truth Thinking

The truthful thinker has trouble understanding other people’s feelings and doesn’t understand the misstep in being bluntly honest.

Parent Approach
  • Teach that, “saying I’m sorry,” doesn’t mean their honesty is wrong, but is necessary when someone expresses hurt feelings.
  • Encourage the child to keep opinions about others to themselves. Develop this through role-playing or a social story.

Perseverative Thinking

This child will repeatedly ask questions about one topic. Perseverative thinking is not obsessional thinking since these thoughts are disturbing and unwanted. Perseverative thoughts are pleasing, often about the child’s interests.

Parent Approach
  • Interrupt the pattern of thinking. Create any distraction like, “ Let’s walk the dog” or “Wow, look at this interesting thing!
  • Assigning active complex thinking tasks (looking, listening and action) like Wii games can be a helpful distraction.

Perfectionist Thinking

When some children strive for perfection and it’s not achieved, they become extremely frustrated. For example, a child cannot complete an assignment because he is too busy erasing his imperfect letters. The accuracy of the task becomes more important than the goal of the activity.

Parental Approach
  • Before beginning the task, remind the child it’s ok to make a mistake.
  • If the task already started, disturb the rigid thinking by suggesting a break or creating a distraction.

Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic thinking occurs when a minor situation seems incredibly terrible to a child and they believe the bad situation will go on forever.

Parental Approach
  • Encourage expression of feelings and offer empathy.
  • Give the child time and space to recover.
  • After the child feels more secure, they will be more amenable to logic and reasoning.


Parents, remember that rigid thinking, regardless of your child’s ASD, ADHD or anxiety symptoms, is different from being stubborn; don’t blame children for choosing to be difficult.

While it takes time, kids can gradually learn to make transitions and understand change as a comfortable part of life. Learn to practice empathetic and calm approaches to your child’s emotions. Become proactive by providing structure and planning ahead. Choose battles and redirect your child without antagonist demands. Don’t reward bad behavior.

While your child may be stuck, stubborn, and always right, it is patience, consistency and these strategies which strengthen fluid processing and self-mastery of emotions.

About Kimberly S. Williams, Psy.D.

Dr. Kimberly Williams is a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and adults with psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and disruptive behaviors, as well as learning disorders, developmental delays, executive functioning issues and social deficits.

When Dr. Williams isn't in her Great Neck and Brooklyn, NY offices helping kids get ahead in their academic and social development, she is consulting and providing workshops and training in issues related to Autism, Asperger’s Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Special Education and Parent Advocacy. Visit her site at Dr. Kimberly Williams.


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