Understanding the Causes: Why Do Children Ask Repetitive Questions?
Repetitive questioning is a common challenge faced by many parents of children. It can be common in autistic children or those with communication difficulties. While frustrating for the adult, it is likely more frustrating and distressing for the child. It’s important to understand the potential reasons behind the driver of the need to ask the same thing over and over. This article will explore the main causes of repeated questioning and provide actionable, evidence-based techniques parents can use to encourage more effective communication.
Common Causes of Repetitive Questioning
Before we go too deep into causes of repetitive questioning it is essential to look at the child’s context and environment. Often our children, particularly in a school setting have very little control over their day. Even choices are tightly controlled and too often tokenistic.
- Reassurance Seeking – Insecure children repeatedly question to get reassurance about uncertainties, making the world seem more predictable. They often ask questions about the immediate future that provokes anxiety when unknown. The questioning serves as a coping mechanism to gain a sense of security.
- Anticipatory Anxiety – Some children experience strong feelings of anticipation and excitement about upcoming events. The emotion fuels repeated questioning as a way of attempting to manage these intense feelings. Children with severe anxiety may become very distressed if questions go unanswered.
- Fixation on Interests – Children who get stuck on a particular topic or interest can become repetitive in their questioning as they hyperfocus on gathering more information about that subject. They may not know how to seek information in a more constructive manner.
- Connection Seeking – Repeatedly asking the same questions can serve as a way for some children to initiate adult interaction. This often occurs when children lack appropriate skills to gain attention or do not get a desired response using other means. It is just a learnt phrase that gains a response.
- Working Memory – Not all children have the working memory capacity we presume they do. It may be as simple as they can’t recall asking the question or your answer.
- Stimming – There is a possibility that the child especially if they are autistic uses the repeated question as a verbal stim. They may enjoy saying it, the feel or sound of the words, it may be a comfort and they do not require an answer. It may also just be their link or association to you. “I always ask them what is for lunch”.
Techniques to Reduce Repetitive Questioning
These should be tried only once you at least have an idea of what is the driver behind the need to ask repeated questions. For example answering only once is just cruel if you know the child doesn’t have the capacity to recall that they have asked the question before let alone that you have answered it. You may want to try a couple of strategies at a time, link gradual decrease with a checklist or visual answer. Just make sure they are developing a communication system including AAC that is functional for them.
8 Strategies to Reduce Repetitive Questioning
- Expand the Conversation – Provide a direct answer to their question, then expand the conversation by offering additional information about the topic. Ask the child open-ended questions to redirect focus beyond the initial question. What you are doing here is really just practicing retrieval practice in a context that is meaningful for the child.
- Answer Only Once – Explain clearly that you will only answer the question one time. Stay consistent in following through with this limit. Shake your head to indicate “no more” without additional verbal responses.
- Gradually Decrease – For children who have difficulty stopping at one answer, gradually decrease the number of times you will respond. Start with their typical average, then reduce the limit over time.
- Reflect the Question – Repeat the question back to the child until they provide the answer themselves, rather than giving them the answer directly.
- Written Answers – Write the answer or provide another visual representation and instruct the child to refer to it when asking the same question repeatedly.
- Motivating Activites – Whether at school or home ensuring the child has plenty of stimulating and engaging activities that motivate them will act to reduce the need to focus on one thing. If you can find a way to help your child achieve flow state this will help even more.
- Redirect Verbally – Redirect the conversation to a new preferred topic. Prompt and expand discussion of the new topic, this might be a child’s special interest. Use a photo book to help you come up with prompts and demonstrate genuine interest.
- Validate the Answer – Explain how you know the answer to improve credibility. Provide strategies so the child knows you are being truthful i.e a timetable or poster. For example “The film starts after lunch, look here is the app for the cinema”
Supporting your child with the need to ask repetitive questions requires a patient, consistent approach. We need to avoid invalidating the child’s attempts to communicate. Over time, repetitive questioning can be reduced through evidence-based techniques while fostering more reciprocal conversation skills.
Hamdy, R. C., Kinser, A., Depelteau, A., Lewis, J. V., Copeland, R., Kendall-Wilson, T., & Whalen, K. (2018). Repetitive Questioning II. Gerontology & geriatric medicine, 4, Free access but dementia focus on repetitive questioning.
Woodcock, K., Oliver, C. and Humphreys, G. (2009), Associations between repetitive questioning, resistance to change, temper outbursts and anxiety in Prader–Willi and Fragile-X syndromes. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 53: 265-278 Free Access