Wacky Toddler Behavior: Toddler Obsessions

Your child's endless fascination with red cars or fairies is amusing, but is it normal?

child in fireman costume
Photo: Kim Cornelison

It never fails. Every night at bedtime, your son wants you to read a book about one particular subject: trains. So after you put him in his train pajamas and tuck him beneath his train blanket, you read one of the 10 train-related books he has on his bookshelf. By the time you're through reading, you're tired of Thomas the Tank Engine, the Little Engine That Could, and any other locomotive. Whether it's all things trains, princesses, space galaxies, or cartoon characters, your child is probably obsessed with something.

Toddlers and preschoolers have one-track minds for a few reasons. One is that they're seeking routine and security during a time when they're experiencing a lot of changes, such as giving up second naps, moving to a big-kid bed, or starting preschool. Fixating on one thing brings comfort and gives them a sense of control in their ever-changing world. Another is that young kids can't help wrapping themselves around things more intently because they're hardwired to focus on only a few things, says Stan Spinner, M.D., the chief medical officer at Texas Children's Pediatrics in Houston. But as they get older and their brains evolve more, they'll be able to appreciate more interests. Finally, toddlers are little copycats. When other kids at day care or preschool talk about a specific cartoon character or wear a certain item, like a tutu, other children will take notice and want to copy them because it's fun, and because they want to fit in and be like the others, says Blythe Lipman, author of Help! My Toddler Came Without Instructions. So if tiaras or dinosaurs are all the rage among your child's peers, your little one might become a huge fan too.

Though it's great for your child to have interests, being obsessive about them can be disruptive to her (and the family's) daily life. She may also be so focused on a particular object or activity that she isn't interested in trying or learning about anything else. If your child's obsessions are becoming a little too much, here are tips to deal with them.

Roll With It

Although you may be tired of hearing about rabbits or little yellow minions, try to be patient. Never shame your toddler or try to force her to give up her obsession. "Drawing attention to the behavior will make it bigger than necessary," Lipman says. Instead, grin and bear it. If your toddler has a strong interest in kittens and starts to crawl around on all fours while saying "meow," let her do so and join in with her! Going along with your child's interest will also help the two of you bond more. But if you feel the behavior becomes out of control, try and redirect to another activity, Lipman says.

Seize the Opportunity

If your kiddo is all about Curious George, use it to your advantage as well as his. Regardless of what (or who) your kid is gaga over, use the obsession to help encourage good habits such as learning, hygiene, and healthy eating. Pick up Curious George books at the library or bookstore to fuel your child's obsession and spark his interest in reading. Or buy a Curious George toothbrush to help him be less resistant to brushing teeth. And because George loves eating bananas, your tot may be more open to chomping down on fruits and veggies himself.

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Set Limits

Just because your son is an Iron Man fan doesn't mean he has to have every costume, book, bed set, fruit snack, and action figure that relates to Tony Stark's alter ego. It's okay to treat your kid to something special every once in a while, but trying to indulge his every request will cost a lot of money and could kick his obsession into overdrive. You may also want to set boundaries for when and where your kid can go all-out with his passion. For example, tell him, "It's okay to wear your Iron Man costume here at home, but you have to take it off when it's time for school because it's against school rules. It might be too distracting to your classmates and teacher."

Expand the Horizons

Sometimes kids get stuck on one thing because they don't know much about other things. Introduce your child to new people, places, things, and experiences. Read books to her about various characters, check out the exhibits at the children's museum, and encourage her to explore different but related interests (for example, if she's really into fish, nudge her to get to know birds). If she has a variety of options, she may be more willing to try new things.

Don't Stress

As long as your toddler is engaging socially with you and others, a fixation on one thing is normal for kids in this age group, Dr. Spinner says. If your child does seem to have trouble interacting with others, or the obsession is so disruptive that it affects his daily functions or his engagement with the family, talk to your pediatrician to find out if there's a more serious issue. Generally, though, kids' obsessive behavior fades by the time they enter kindergarten.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.

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