Toddlers and OCD

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.


9 responses to “Toddlers and OCD

  1. Cheryl June 28, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    I needed to read this today! We’ve been on a rollercoaster of our own for the past few weeks. Our battles have been over food, mostly, and the tantrums resulting from my push to get B to eat. Today, by the way, was a great, peaceful meal. Yay! But that in itself proves your point: these little monkeys can go from happy to angry to sad and back in minutes.

    I needed to be reminded that he is not a mini-adult, no matter how well he can converse 😉 I also need to not expect too much. Just like you said: “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.” Uh huh.

    So, I will paraphrase you and repeat this to myself in moments of madness: “Tantrums are normal. Tantrums are normal.”

    • amoment2think June 29, 2010 at 6:37 pm

      Food battles suck. They just suck. I try to stay out of them, following the ‘we decide what to offer her and when to offer it to her, she decides if she wants to eat, and how much.’ Its a good rule, but hard to follow especially for dinner because the last thing you want is a 3am wake up for hunger. However, if we stick to that rule we typically get out tantrum free. Except if she wants a cookie. Then we are screwed.

  2. Sophie June 29, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Very interesting thoughts, and as I was reading I thought it would also apply to ADD. Kids cannot focus their attention like (most) adults do, and although I know that ADD is a genuine concern for many schoolchildren, it cannot be diagnosed too early because toddlers and preschoolers are SUPPOSED to have the attention span of a butterfly and run around the house like crazy and have difficulty controlling their impulses…

  3. Perpetua June 29, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    I have had the same thought, especially about E’s obsession with the light switch. He just can’t get enough of turning lights on and off! And part of me wonders if it really is “early OCD”.

    As if we don’t have enough to worry about just getting to eat their damned food. 🙂

  4. Perpetua June 29, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    I have had the same thought, especially about E’s obsession with the light switch. He just can’t get enough of turning lights on and off! And part of me wonders if it really is “early OCD”.

    As if we don’t have enough to worry about just getting them to eat their damned food. 🙂

  5. Ginger June 29, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Interesting post–it all seems to make a ton of sense when you lay it out this way! I’m not to full-blown toddler hood yet, but Jackson has things already that he’s somewhat OCDish about (he MUST play with my hair while he’s nursing. Or he freaks the eff out), so I’m sure that this will intensify as he gets older.

    I also REALLY like your point that kids aren’t mini adults. I try really hard to keep this in mind, and to remind my husband of it, but sometimes it slips. But he shouldn’t be expected to react to things at 10 months, or 3 years, or 13, the way I do at 30. That’s not fair to him, and I think if parents can remember that they could save some (but not all) of their battles.

    • amoment2think June 29, 2010 at 6:40 pm

      Thanks. I think realistic expectations are the key. It is just hard as a first time parent without a PHD in child physiological development, to know what is a realistic expectation at each age.

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