Are Your Preschooler’s Attachments Normal?

When your child's fixation on an object or routine becomes worrisome, it can be hard to know what to do next. We turned to the experts to find out what's normal, what's not, and when to seek help

By Liz Bruckner
From the print edition, October 2011

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Illustration by Hyen Lee

When my son, Oliver, now four, was gifted with a fuzzy blue teddy bear on his second birthday, I assumed it, like the rest of his stuffed animal crew, would find its final resting place at the back of his closet. Not so. Following his party, not only did Oliver dig through the remnants of wrapping paper, cards and toys to rescue “Teddy B,” he rarely let him out of his sight. He hauled him along to daycare, waited anxiously by the washer and dryer while Teddy B was groomed, and, yes, even insisted on taking him to the loo.

Five-year-old Paige Gildon-Comier of Peterborough, Ont., also knows what it’s like to be fixated on something. Since the age of two, she’s had a flattening habit; her mom, Dana, says her daughter insists on laying her blankets, towels, sheets and any paper she’s colouring on completely flat. “I once tried to hurry her to put her doll to bed before we left the house, and when I rushed her along, she pitched a fit because the blanket was not ‘just right.’ Since then I just leave her to do her thing.” But Gildon-Comier says if the habit were ever to start interfering with her daughter’s quality of life, she would do something about it. “At this point I’m not very concerned. It is what it is and it’s what makes her who she is.”

Part of the Routine
At this age, it’s perfectly normal and expected that children will have routines about tasks and events in their daily lives, says Dr. Abaya Venumbaka, a child psychiatrist in Medicine Hat, Alta. “Some kids like to eat foods in a certain order. Others want to always put the right shoe on before the left.” While it might come across as ritualistic, these steps help give children a sense of control and it’s very age-appropriate, says Dr. Venumbaka.
Concerned your child may suffer from more than just a transitional attachment? Dr. Venumbaka explains what’s normal, what’s not, and when to seek help.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions
You might find your child’s behaviour odd but it’s often not until a child reaches the age of seven that doctors will consider diagnosing an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) issue. “Parents should try to look at their child’s symptoms this way: If the behaviour isn’t disabling or proving a detriment to their daily life, chances are it’s not a concern,” says Dr. Venumbaka.

Try Changing His Perception
If you notice your preschooler getting anxious about always needing a certain item or that a task be performed just so, try to gently challenge his perception. In a supportive way, ask him what he thinks would happen if he didn’t bring the item or follow the routine as he normally does. “Whether they decide to try something different or insist on following through with their established ritual, by asking the question, you help a child realize there is more than one option.”

Step in When Necessary
If a behaviour is hampering a child’s development—for example, he doesn’t want to go to school because he can’t leave a toy at home—parents should offer reassurance, but not give in to the demands. “Treat the situation as you would a temper tantrum,” says Dr. Venumbaka. “You would stand your ground in that circumstance, and doing the same here is just as helpful and effect-ive in the long term.”

Get Help
If a child’s ritual becomes time consuming (more than a hour), if he is becoming compulsive about a fixation (such as washing his hands until they’re raw) or if he shows a high level of distress (such as screaming, excessive crying or powerful resistance if a ritual is interrupted or prevented), it may be an indication of early onset of OCD. These types of obsessions can be problematic not only for daily routines, but can also interfere with normal social interactions and potentially cause problems in other areas of a child’s life, says Dr. Venumbaka. If you spot these signs, talk to your child’s doctor about a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist trained in treating OCD.

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