What is Rigid Behavior in Childhood?
Rigid behavior in childhood is the tendency to be inflexible, stubborn, and reluctant to adapt to the thoughts and ideas of others.
Rigidity is often called cognitive inflexibility or rigid thinking patterns. Rigid children may frustrate an adult easily because they do not readily compromise. Even when provided choices and only given necessary directives, a rigid child may still refuse. They may approach most situations with a “my way or the highway” attitude.
Some children are chronically inflexible in their thinking. Any subtle change to the routine ends up in an earthquake-style meltdown. This unyielding style could lead to aggressive behavior that may be unintentional because the child can feel overwhelmed by not being in control of the situation.
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Symptoms of Rigid Behavior in Children
- Controlling: taking a ‘my way or the highway’ stance
- Resisting you being the boss: arguing and refusing to do what you say
- Acting inflexible, unyielding, and relentless: acting very difficult or insistent on getting their way.
- Refusing transitions: resisting or running away as you introduce a transition to a new activity
- Avoiding others: playing alone without regard for other children, especially if peers won’t play things their way
- Ignoring others: unable to or unwilling to consider other children’s interests, perspectives, or ideas
- ‘No Tell Me’: taking a stance that adults are not supposed to be telling them what to do
- Tantrums: throwing a fit if plans have to be changed
Causes of Stubbornness in Children
Toddlers and preschool-aged kids tend to be a bit inflexible, and this behavior can be a regular part of development. It is time to be concerned when this rigidity continues into the upper elementary grades or causes 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. It might be important to consider structuring your child's world if you are more of a spontaneous, ‘go with the flow’ type of person, and your child is melting down when plans are changed. See our suggestions in the What To Do section below if you feel ‘goodness of fit’ is perhaps the issue in your home.
- Need for structure: Setting up daily routines, schedules, and calendars that you 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 gifted children can be rigid. Intensity is the key feature of giftedness. They get stuck on specific 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 generalized anxiety, a diagnosis that can also lead children to be very rigid in their choices and resist change. Being in control can reduce anxiety because the world is made more predictable.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or ADHD: can lead to rigid behaviors, resistance to change, intolerance for uncertainty, and a general lack of flexibility
What to Do About Stubbornness in Children
An important consideration for families who have chronically inflexible children is parenting style. Often, children who are easily frustrated and lose their temper are challenging to parent effectively. You might catch yourself saying, “It shouldn’t have to be this hard. Why does everything have to be a battle?”
One of our favorite tips is a hard one to implement. It is, ‘Resist the urge to become just as rigid as your child.’ Provide warnings, timers, and countdowns to signal a change in the activity. Stick to your plan. If your child tantrums over a shift in schedule, calmly wait for this behavior to end without engaging in a power struggle. It can take a long time to see a turnaround in your child’s rigid behavior, even when you do so.
“As a parent, do not expect immediate change or a spontaneous shift to occur in your child’s behavior. Rather, take the long view. Ask yourself, what skills am I trying to teach here?”
You may have many times when parenting your stubborn child that you have to consider how important this particular choice is to you.  For example, maybe your child constantly refuses to wear a coat on a cold day.
Ask yourself, “can I let this one go?” Make sure you consider how this choice is affecting you personally. Are you the one who will be embarrassed that your child wore a flimsy t-shirt on a snow day?  If that’s the case, there may be times that you can detach from your child’s behaviors and give yourself and your child a chance to be more flexible.
Other times, it may be that you cannot let the behavior go, but you can take a break. For example, if the child is refusing homework or chores, you may ask yourself, “Would it be more productive if I walk away for a bit?” or “Can I generously offer my child or teen a break while I take a break as well?”
Ross Greene offers an excellent resource for learning to ‘pick your battles’ in the Explosive Child . He teaches you how to be a ‘basket case,’ which means you put your priorities into three baskets.
Basket A is a small basket for non-negotiables.
Basket B is for important issues that you would be willing to negotiate with your child or teen. 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-about-it’ basket.
This approach is referred to as downshifting. As the parent, you demonstrate for your child how to calm down 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.  The mother in the story shows how a parent can meet a child’s needs while also 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 demonstrates flexible thinking. She shows empathy and then expects the child to clean up his mess and help her finish the shopping. After the mess is cleaned up and the items are purchased, she takes him out for ice cream as she promised. This story is an excellent example of using supportive strategies to increase your child’s flexibility and behavioral compliance .
When to Seek Help for Rigid Behavior in Children
The most important factor to think about is, “does my child’s behavior seem to be getting better or not?” This question is so important because many children will grow out of their rigid behavior after some time.
This author remembers a preschool teacher commenting about, “all my 4-year-old perfectionists.” This teacher saw rigidity as perfectly normal at this age. Sometimes, parents of preschoolers simply can patiently wait it out. Many kids do grow out of their rigidity.
Gifted kids may continue to be rigid throughout their childhoods. Remember that this rigidity can be totally normal, even though it is tough to parent them.
When the child’s rigid behaviors are getting in the way at home, school, and in the community, though, then intervention might be needed. If your child is rigid, take care to ensure that you are modeling and practicing flexibility in your parenting style.
If you are really struggling with rigidity, child or family psychotherapy may be needed.
It is important to consider the degree of symptoms. If rigidity and inflexibility, tantrums, or social skills are significant concerns, it will be important to have a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation in order to assess social skills, language, cognition, attention, and emotions.
Further Resources on Rigid Behavior in Children
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms that arise and help with social skills training and organization
- ABA therapist: to assess and treat behavior; may conduct a functional analysis and develop a behavior plan that can guide treatment
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment and to consider symptoms in mental health and behavioral contexts
- Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication
Similar Conditions to Rigid Behavior
- Generalized anxiety: rigid behavior may result from anxiety because being in control reduces anxiety by increasing the predictability of a situation. If you are in control, you know what is coming next 
- Social skills challenges: rigid behavior may result from social challenges because not knowing how to interact or read others can make social situations challenging. If a child has trouble taking others’ perspectives, they may not care about making others happy and may want to stick with their own rigid preference.
- Emotional challenges: rigid behavior may result from being irritable, sad or depressed. Children who have been traumatized can be rigid as a means to have some control in life or an outlet for pent-up anger.
References on Rigid Behavior
 Shefali Tsabary Ph.D. (2016). The Awakened Family.
 Dewdney, A (2007). Llama Llama Mad at Mama.
 Huebner, Dawn (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety.
Other Book Resources on Rigid Behavior
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.
Papolos, Demitri & Papolos, Janice (2002). The Bipolar Child: The definitive and reassuring guide to childhood’s most understood disorder.
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