My 2-year-old twin boys both insisted on wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts every day—and went into tantrum mode when their cherished garments were placed in the wash. One day, their preschool teacher commented on their "uniform." When I explained their fixation with the shrunken, faded shirts, she told me it was common, adding, "If toddlers were adults, they would be diagnosed with OCD."
It's natural to worry a little if your child wears nothing but purple, never lets go of her special furry friend, or insists on reading the same book every night. "In reality, these objects and rituals give a toddler comfort and security in what can seem like a scary world," says Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of The Whole-Brain Child. That doesn't make these obsessions any less challenging to deal with, especially when her lovey gets ripped in the washing machine. But there are proven strategies to deal with (and maybe even dial down) her passionate preferences.
Kids this age need transitional objects to feel reassured, says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., author of How Toddlers Thrive. Having one boosts your toddler's ability to keep it together when he gets dropped off at child care or walks into a crowded birthday party. Clinging to a lovey is a phase that will pass (though he may still need it at bedtime for several years). "Be accepting of your child's obsession so he knows that you understand him and that you empathize," Dr. Klein says.
Toddlers are particularly sensitive to stress and use favorite objects to cope, in part because they can't verbalize their feelings of anxiety. For example, when you're hurrying to leave the house in the morning, your child may insist on bringing along her stuffed bunny. Or at bedtime, you may be pushing to get her to sleep on time, and that's when she demands to wear a particular pair of pajamas. "By identifying the triggers, you may be able to eliminate a lot of upsets," says Linda Sonna, Ph.D., author of The Everything Toddler Book. For instance, try starting your morning or evening routine earlier so you're not rushing her.
As a parent you try to plan for everything. Yet the day will inevitably come when your child's favorite Dora plate breaks or you forget to bring his beloved Spider-Man sunglasses. Your best play in such situations: Try to distract him with a toy or stuffed animal you know he likes. If that doesn't work—and your kid starts freaking out—acknowledge what he's going through, says Carrie Contey, Ph.D., a psychologist and early-parenting coach in Austin, Texas. Say something like, "I know you love those glasses, but we don't have them with us right now. I understand why you're upset." Then stop talking and let him gradually return to a calmer state.
If your child's distress escalates into a tantrum, simply let it happen. "Toddlers need to work through their feelings in order to get back into balance," says Dr. Contey. Keep in mind that your kid's fixation with the object will fade over time. By then, he'll likely have moved on to some other baffling behavior.