For your reading enjoyment, this is one that I have been percolating for a while on. A friend suggested as much in jest, but it got me thinking. Here goes:
Toddlers and OCD.
As in, I think all (most?/many?) Toddlers have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). And also, maybe also Bi-polar disorder.
First off, the disclaimer. (Because every potentially controversial post needs to have one). I am not making light of the real struggle that people with OCD or bipolar have. I understand it is real, serious and devastating. This post is written with one part tongue-in-cheek and one part ‘this is kinda interesting when you think about it?’ Please don’t misinterpretation me to think I am making light of mental illness. I am not. Promise.
Okay now, consider your toddler or any toddler you have spent a reasonably lengthy period of time with. Then think about the constant, repetitive things said toddler does. A’s current list looks something like this:
- opens and closes doors over and over again
- every time she gets into our bedroom she MUST press the buttons on our clock radio or ELSE
- this behaviour is then followed by walking over the to door to the patio and trying to open it, followed by returning to the clock radio
- when eating meals she must get up and down from her chair at least 20 times
- she can often be found moving an object in and out of a container over and over again
- she is obsessed with washing her hands. Actually, more accurately, she is obsessed with running water and she MUST touch the running water
I am sure just about any toddler can be witnessed doing similar things. In general, I would speculate they do this as a part of the process of exploring their world. Adults, on the other hand, use obsessive behaviours more as reaction to anxiety. (Please note, I have a very elementary understanding of OCD, probably gained from watching Dr. Phil. Ha! So feel free to correct me if I am wrong and refer to my disclaimer above). However, with a toddler, the anxiety does seem to play a role when they are thwarted from completing their repetitive action to their satisfaction. I have taken many random objects away and the result is always the same: screaming, pointing at said object, stamping of feet, crying.
In my opinion, a key similarity is that toddler OCD and adult OCD have a lot to do with control. I think toddlers behave this way partly to explore their world, but also in an attempt to control their world. Similarly, adults with OCD often are trying to have extreme control over something in their world in order to help reduce their anxiety. When I started thinking about this, it made me kind of re-think the process of purpose for both the toddler and the adult obsessive behaviour.
Okay, so what’s the difference then? Well, OCD in adults is disruptive and emotionally challenging. Okay, never mind, that is the same for toddlers. The real difference is that toddler OCD is normal. And to be expected.
Here is my point in making the comparison. What is normal and abnormal in the world of adults is not comparable to what is normal and abnormal in the development of a child. And why is this an important statement to make? Because we expect too much of our children in terms of adult behaviour.
I will give you an other example. I was talking with my father (who was, pre-retirement, a child psychologist. Yes, I know, knowing that piece of information makes me make a lot more sense to you.) recently about a debate within the mental health community about diagnosing kids with mental health illnesses like, for example, bi-polar. The theoretical example he gave is of a pre-school child whose moods dramatically shift to polar extremes, thus promoting parents to take the child to health care professionals, wondering if the child has bi-polar disorder. But being a pre-schooler (or a toddlers, for that matter) is all about dramatic mood swings. I don’t know about your kid, but it is completely typical for A to go from giggling hysterically to screaming and stamping her feet in 1.2 seconds flat. Wash, rinse, repeat, and you have a typical 1/2 hour span of time in the typically ‘scary’ hours of 4-6pm. So at what point are these mood swings normal development and at what point are they abnormal?
We need to be more aware and accepting of the normal development of babies/toddlers/kids/teens. They are not mini-adults. What is normal for them is not normal for us. And as hard as it is sometimes, there is nothing wrong if your toddler throws temper-tantrums every 3 minutes for 5 days straight. Normal. Sucky. But normal.
And yet. As a parent of a toddlers who is getting more challenge by the day I have two struggles. (Well, I have more then two struggles, trust me, but two relevant to this conversation.)
1) Well I know logically that some frustrating and challenging behavior is developmentally normal, that doesn’t stop my brain from contemplating if I am screwing up, doing something wrong, or just generally a bad mother. Yes, I know, I shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t either. But we both probably do. Just part of the emotional fun of parenting.
2) Just what is developmentally normal and what behaviour should I try to discourage? For example. I know it is developmentally normal for A to hit me sometimes. But that is not acceptable and therefore I will not let her hit me. (I block all attempts and then say no and put her down and walk away) But what about throwing food on the floor? Developmentally normal, yes. But worth trying to change her behaviour at this point? (I asked my father, he said no, so I defer to his good judgment on the matter). My point is, with all the things these kids throw at us, how do we know what is normal, what is not and if we should try to impact the behaviour? I don’t want my kid to be able to ‘get away’ with everything, but I also want to have realistic expectations. What exactly is realistic? Especially because what is realistic for a 12 month old is potentially very different from what is realistic for a 15 month old– they change so quick!!!
So, moral of the story is that, hard as it is, we should give our kids and ourselves a break. Growing up is a rocky roller coaster– it can’t be easy for them. And well we have to constantly work to figure out what realistic expectations we should set for them, we also need to remember that they are kids. OCD and Bipolar tendencies are just par for the course.