Thursday 22 February 2018

Help! Our toddler has a list of things she must say before settling

OUR three, almost four-year-old displays what we jokingly describe as OCD characteristics when going to bed. She has a series of questions and a list of things she insists on saying before she'll settle.

If she forgets one she'll get genuinely upset and scream at us to come back upstairs so she can say it.

For the most part, it's only at bedtime. I should say that babysitters do not seem to have this issue with her, we are told she goes to bed no problem.

However, I notice sometimes throughout the day that she tries to get us to say things three times.

At first, I thought she was just not listening and then I realised she was saying "what?" in order to fulfil this 'three times' requirement.

Should we just go with it or should we refuse to entertain this behaviour? It has only started in recent months.

We have a four-month-old son and wonder does this go back to when we told her I was pregnant?

We were probably ignoring it at the start but then as she became more dependent on these rituals, we became more worried about it and questioned it more.

Is this common behaviour? What should we be doing, if anything, to stop it?

IT IS certainly common for children to seek comfort and security going to bed. Your daughter's litany of questions sounds like it is both a comfort-seeking behaviour and a way to keep you and her dad close to her for an extra few minutes.

In terms of its comforting nature, the repetition of questions, for her, could be the equivalent of saying prayers for other children. It sounds like they are her way of reassuring herself that all is well in her world.

It is interesting that they are distinctly associated with you and your husband, since any babysitters don't get the same litany. This means it is a habit that she has built up in her relationship with you and her dad.

That is why it may also serve the function of trying to "hook" you for a few extra minutes at bedtime or even during the day. This might be her way of getting some special time for herself without her baby brother.

No doubt things have changed in her world since you became pregnant again and had her little brother. This change may be unsettling for her. It may even have provoked some anxiety.

Anxiety is at the centre of OCD and OCD can start at any age, from pre-school right up to adulthood. Typically, however, it starts between the ages of eight and 12 or between the late teens and early adulthood.

So, in terms of compulsive behaviours designed to assuage anxiety, it could be argued that her questioning or insistence on things being repeated three times is a form of OCD. What is missing, at this stage, is any sense of intrusive or obsessive thoughts.

Since she is just coming up to four years of age it will be hard to expect her to identify any such thinking or to explain her worries. So you will have to guess on her behalf.

I think that talking to her about the changes in her family, and about how she might miss the special times she had as an only child, will help her to know that you can understand how she might feel.

Do link her bedtime behaviour into this discussion. Perhaps you might comment: "I think you like to repeat questions to reassure yourself that everything is settled before you sleep. You also probably like it that me and dad stick around with you while you ask all the questions."

It does seem to me that this will hit on the main (unconscious) reasons she has for her particular bedtime routine. Empathy, in this way, will also be comforting for her and might even take away the need to go through her questions list.

You can go further and suggest alternative ways for her to get settled and comfortable, such as you and her dad giving her an extra five minutes of cuddle time just before she sleeps. You could also offer to check on her regularly after you turn out her light for further reassurance.

I don't think you need to panic about early onset OCD, but it is worth addressing her possible anxieties with empathy and reassurance.

Irish Independent

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