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Magnificent Obsessions

Using Your Child's Perseverative Interests for Good


Magnificent Obsessions

You'll hear it from doctors, therapists, mothers-in-law, know-it-all friends: Your child is fixated on that item. It is impairing his development. She needs a variety of interests. Nip that in the bud.

You'll hear it. But that doesn't mean you have to listen.

Conventional wisdom is that perseverative interests are harmful to children, and that those fixated tots should be switched over to another track, forceably if necessary. Problem with that is, my kid's not conventional. I'll bet yours isn't, either. And if he's good enough to clue me in to something that fascinates and motivates him, I'm hardly going to throw it away.

Objects of intense interest to your child can be used in a variety of ways:

  • Reward: Let your child play with the desired object after she finishes a difficult activity.
  • Bribe: Get your child to engage in a difficult activity by making the desired object part of it.
  • Distraction: Use your child's fixation on the object to keep her from noticing things that might be distressing.
  • Occupation: Keep the object nearby to relieve boredom or fill long waiting-room times.
  • Development: Lead your child to broaden the uses and interaction with the object.
  • Communication: Encourage your child to ask questions or make statements about the object.
  • Relationship: Interact with the object along with your child to create some together time.
  • Comfort: In times of high emotion and distress, use the object to calm your child.

For my son, the object of obsession has always been keys. Since he was little, he's loved staring at keys, holding keys, watching them twirl, removing keys from the hands of people in waiting room and examining them with great fascination. Over the years, some of the professionals working with him have hated those keys. Others have used the keys to lure him into therapy and distract him into going places and doing things he otherwise would not have done. Guess who I've chosen to listen to?

At home, I observed that I could also use the keys to get him to do things, or to occupy him when I needed him occupied. We'd had trouble getting him to start talking because there wasn't that much he wanted to know, but curiosity about keys eventually got the better of him and he started talking to us, to therapists, to strangers clutching his objects of devotion. Now, he often impresses onlookers with his ability to identify the make and model of a car just by looking at the key.

If your child has an item of intense interest, instead of fearing that intensity and seeking to tone it down, use it to your advantage. Your child probably doesn't give you many "keys" to his inner self. Cherish what you few you get.

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