Some obsessive kids struggle to overcome fixations, which can get so bad that kids experience separation anxiety if barriers are placed between them and, say, a fidget spinner. That can mean crying or throwing a fit unless daddy reads that same book for the 300th time. It’s an unpleasant phenomenon. Luckily parents have tools they can use to help a child navigate overwhelming desires.
When kids become absorbed by something that fascinates them, it can be difficult to get them to switch focus but a healthy preoccupation with something they love can be really rewarding for them. “In the normal course of development, kids can have personality styles where they get very deep into their topic of interest,” says Dr. Tamar Chansky, founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety and author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. “This is a reflection of the child’s interest, fascination, and temperament, and unless it is detrimental in any way then you can enjoy it along with them.”
Childhood fascinations — Chansky is keen to make the distinction between healthy preoccupation and obsessive behavior — can be triggered by pretty much anything. Witnessing an incredible goal can lead to a fixation on soccer players, and an awesome book about dinosaurs can lead to months of careful and precise rearrangement of the same dinosaur toys.
Sometimes, the act of learning can be the motivator. “They may have a wicked strong memory,” Chansky says, so they love the process of memorizing everything about a certain topic. Parents should encourage this behavior because kids who concentrate on one thing so intensely are not only learning a lot about the content, they’re also learning about the process of how to learn.
A fascination with something can be positive for kids, especially if they get a lot of enjoyment from it. But when a kid is so laser-focused on their interests that it stars getting in the way of forming proper friendships, it’s time to broaden their horizons.
“As with anything, part of what we’re doing as parents is to cultivate interests and foster fascinations, but also teach our kids about flexibility,” Chansky says. While they may find a friend who shares the exact same interest as they do—allowing them to have the best time ever—they probably have other friends who begin to lose interest after repeatedly hearing about their passion.
Four Ways to Help Manage Childhood Fixations
- Manage transitions better. When it’s time to switch activities, give plenty of warning and reminders to mitigate stress and ease the transition.
- Roleplay social interactions. If a fixation becomes detrimental to relationships with other kids, show your child how they can recognize when they need to dial back their enthusiasm among friends.
- Recognize obsessive behavior. If your kid seems to be constantly stressed while engaging with their fixation, it could be a sign of a clinical disorder such as OCD or anxiety.
- Encourage their interests. Whatever their fascination, they’re consuming and retaining a lot of information. This helps them hone learning methods that can help them in the future.
Parents can help kids navigate those social interactions by giving them rules of thumb. Does the friend stop making eye contact when you talk about your thing? Do they seem uncomfortable in their seat while you go into detail? This signifies that it could be time to stop talking about John Cena or trains or kangaroos, switch gears, and change the conversation.
“It’s so hard to think outside of your bubble,” Chansky says, “because why wouldn’t everyone want to hear about what you’re most passionate about?” Chansky says that role play can be effective for illustrating this for kids. She says that she’ll have a parent explain in-depth something they are interested in, but that holds no interest at all for their kid. This can help kids recognize body language cues by observing their own reactions to boredom.
Fascinations can sometimes affect how a kid reacts to transitioning between activities. When it’s time to get ready to leave for school or help with chores, the bubble has to burst. This can be distressing for some kids, Chansky says, especially if they have no forewarning. Parents can coach their kids to handle those transitions better by giving them notice of the transition. “It’s important to set reasonable limits to give reminders about when that activity needs to end,” Chansky says. Providing them with a time limit and several reminders of the upcoming transition can help reduce some friction.
Kids who are laser-focused on a single interest might seem locked out of everything else, but when it begins to take on a life of its own and create anxiety, Chansky says, that’s a different story. The dimension psychologists look for is whether the child is happy and whether they feel in charge of their fixation.
“What really matters is the level of distress that is caused when they aren’t allowed to continue an activity,” says Dr. Bridget Walker, a specialist in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and author of Anxiety Relief for Kids.
Walker says that exposing kids to different experiences is important. “If you never give the kid the opportunity to switch between interests, you never give them the opportunity to learn that they’ll be OK.”
Walker says that anxiety issues in the US are really common, with around 30 percent of the population, including kids, affected by them. Understanding the underlying cause of a behavior is important for recognizing whether the interest is caused by anxiety, she says. “You have to look the whole picture of the whole kid to determine whether it’s something they’re really into and whether they get distressed when they can’t do it.”