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Anxiety and Stress Disorders (Children)

Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviors in Children

06/05/2006

Question:

My son is just over 4 and a half and displays a huge need to control his environment. Here are some examples: He insists he has to watch a light turn green, if he misses it he will cry inconsolably and have a tantrum. He is intolerant if a large vehicle is in front of us. He has to watch the toast pop up or we have to start over. He has to turn the coffee on. He has to know in advance before either myself or his father does anything--take a shower, get the newspaper, clean a room, etc. I could go on like this. He is also shy and has separation anxiety. When I describe this to his doctor, she just shrugs her shoulders. I feel like I am indulging him by giving in, but honestly, I don`t have a choice. Obviously, I can`t control traffic or red lights, but I have thrown away perfectly good toast before. please advise.

Answer:

Obsessive-compulsive behaviors are common in 3-5 year olds as they struggle with mastery over their environment.  It is also quite common for separation-anxiety to be a problem at this age as well. Typically children grow out of this phase and relax about being separated from parents about the time they enter school, though this can be a trying time for parents.  I suggest considerable patience but carry on with your life as you normally would, most of us sadly realize that we are not the center of the universe and get on with our lives and your son will too.  I seems that most personality is determined by genetic factors and the "anxiety" genes determine how long and how strong these tendencies persist.  If these behaviors persist or become developmentally inappropriate I would seek professional help, but not at present.

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Response by:

Floyd R Sallee, MD
Professor
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati