In psychology, when a child is presented with what parents or carers describe as “obsessions”, there are a few things that we need to consider before deciding whether the obsessions are in the realms of “normal” or whether there is a need for treatment. In other words, we need to think about when something is a passion and when it is an obsession. We also need to consider whether the child’s obsessions, compulsions or restricted interests are part of a broader diagnosis like obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, or giftedness.
It is normal for children to repeat play and have fads from time to time. In fact, repetition is one of the ways that we learn. Practice is essentially repeating something over and over again to improve our skill or mastery. The drive behind practice or passion is about self-improvement or a desire to be good or gain mastery over something.
Fads are usually short term fashions that are shared with other friends. Interest spreads across the playground and can be quite contagious. These days there are many trademarked fads that come with a barrage of cleverly targeted marketing behind them as well – think trademarked Loom Bands, yo-yos, footie cards, Pokemon.
There is some social “cred” with these activities and fads often serve to help a child fit in as well as being a source of pleasure.
These days, fads might extend to the cyber world as well and I am well aware of the “MineCraft” phenomenon taking over the headspace of many children.
Fads or obsessions become a problem when they start to interrupt, repeatedly and in lots of ways, the daily flow of a child’s life. If there are repeated massive tantrums or melt-downs if access to the desired object is blocked, there may be some need to take a closer look at what role the fad is playing in your child’s life and whether it has become a clinical obsession.
When people talk about obsessions being a problem for children, they often start to think about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In OCD, a very debilitating condition that effects about 1 in 200 children, it’s not usually the obsession that we see. We usually get to see the compulsive behaviours – like hand washing, checking, switching things on and off. A person with OCD, like with many anxiety disorders, usually knows that the behaviour does not make sense or is not rational, but still finds themselves driven to engage in the behaviour. The less–obvious but insidious obsession is usually a thought, idea, image or urge that causes great distress. The distress is neutralised by engaging in a behaviour. For instance, the obsession may be about germs or death or something very unpleasant but there is always a strong need to neutralise or get rid of the feeling that the obsession causes.
Compulsions are an attempt to neutralise the feelings that arise from the obsession – hand washing might rid us of any concerns about germs.
However, attempts to neutralise distress using compulsions doesn’t stop ideas popping into our head for long. So, the next time the obsession pops in, the distress returns and the drive to engage in the compulsive behaviour returns. If I had a thought about germs killing me and my family and I neutralised the thought for a short time by hand washing, next time I get that thought, I’m going to have to wash everything again.
A very vicious and debilitating cycle can occur and it can take great courage and supportive treatment to try to break the cycle.
In autism, a neurologically-wired problem, the obsessions usually take the form of repetitive behaviours or quite rigid interests and the child can become quite an expert in a very specific topic or interest. For someone who is on the autism spectrum, obsessions can serve to sooth them when they are distressed. To stand in the way of them can antagonise and become quite distressing.
Gifted children also can turn to obsession to sooth them and to channel their intellect into something that feels rewarding.
Just like adults, children will look to avoid bad times and sooth themselves with things that feel good. The challenge for parents is helping children to find balance in their time and help them accept or deal with problems rather than to avoid them with too much of a pleasant activity.
So, while your child’s obsession with paper planes, MineCraft, Loom Bands or whatever might be filling your house with paraphernalia and costing lots of pocket money, this is likely more of a nuisance than a cause for concern.
If, however, your child is becoming very distressed when you rationally explain why they must cease an activity or put things away for awhile, and if this is happening repeatedly, then it may be worth seeking out some assistance. Your GP is a good place to start.