When I was a little girl, I was certain there was a monster hiding under my bed, waiting to grab my feet and drag me under the bed! To fool him, I would take a running leap onto my bed at night. Sometimes I thought that I jumped too close to the bed, so I would do this over again, until I was sure I jumped from far enough
away. This little ceremony would repeat itself every night.
At a young age, children can become obsessive and compulsive, behaving in ways that are quite illogical. I’ve spoken to parents whose children’s compulsive behaviors are baffling and appear in many different ways:
- One 4-year-old girl obsessed about the star behavior chart her mom made for her. She talked all day long about winning stars. “Will I get a star?” “Will you remember to give me star?” “If I do it again, can I get another star?” Her efforts to win those stars became quite compulsive.
- One 5-year-old boy became obsessive about the color green, the same color as his table in kindergarten. He insisted on wearing green slacks, eating from a green plate, drinking from a green cup, and on and on.
- One 9-year-old girl developed an obsession about a girl in her class. She had to play with this girl exclusively in and after school every day, she forbade her to have other friends and her life focused around activities with this girl.
- One teenager was obsessed about not gaining weight. She studied herself in the mirror regularly, checked the calorie count on food packages, and counted her calorie intake over and over again throughout the day.
What all of these children have in common is a persistent feeling of alarm and insecurity. Our brains are equipped with a delicate alarm system that is intended to alert us to things we should be cautious about. But we can only be careful and cautious when we know where the threat or danger is coming from. When we’re not aware of what is making us anxious and alarmed, our brain invents an explanation.
Sometimes the true source is camouflaged, because it’s too much to bear and the mind has to make up something because the real thing is too overwhelming. When “Mommy has to go to work” is too much for a child, her brain may invent the monster under the bed. When “The teacher doesn’t notice me” makes a child feel unsafe in kindergarten, the green table he sits at each day is the “safe zone” and the color green becomes the “safe color.”
These obsessions and compulsive behaviors provide cognitive back-fill and keep the true source of our alarm and anxiety at a distance. But then they keep repeating themselves, because they only give some temporary fleeting relief from the alarm and anxiety rather than address the true source, and so the alarm and anxiety keep returning and the obsessive-compulsive behavior repeats itself in another attempt to find relief.
Little by little, children discover that they can’t always hold us close, that Mommy or Daddy have to leave, that bad things can happen, that things we care about can spoil or get lost, that death is part of life. Children can’t really explain why they feel unsafe, and we should not try to force them to talk about their insecurities. We should certainly not use these things to scare them into being good for us, such as, “I’ll give you the green shirt as soon as you put your toys away.” This only serves to increase the alarm.
We need to normalize our children’s worries and fears and help them express these vulnerable feelings. Children need plenty of room for this within the context of a safe and secure attachment relationship. We need to let them know we’re here for them and that we’re on their side.
One of my favorite stories is about a father whose daughter couldn’t fall asleep, because she was afraid of “the monster in the house.” He brought out his tool box and held the hammer in his hand while he gave her a screw driver to hold. Hand in hand, they went all around the house to search for the monster. Then they went outside and circled the house together. No monster.
“We must have scared him off,” the father concluded. Then the two of them sat down together, and he told his daughter about the monsters he confronted when he was a boy and how courage grows. At least for a while, this little girl slept soundly. The experience helped her feel that her strong father was holding her close in his heart and protecting her.
And that’s the best thing we can do for our children — not only when they get obsessive, but all the time.