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Compulsive behavior in six-year-old

by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

See Aletha Solter's book,Attachment Play, for more information about helping children overcome a fear of making mistakes.

Question:

My daughter, age six, has started to show signs of compulsiveness in her clothing and school work. Her socks HAVE to be the same length, or her skirt is the wrong color, etc. Even when we choose clothes the night before, some days it takes the entire family just to get her dressed in the morning.

At school, she will spend so much time perfecting one assignment that she runs out of time to complete the rest. How do my husband and I teach her the importance of task management without squelching her desire to do her best work? Thanks.

Answer:

I suggest, first of all, looking for the underlying causes of your daughter's behavior. I'll begin with the first part of your question: compulsiveness in regards to her clothing. I can think of several possible reasons for this behavior.

  1. Children who are under stress sometimes become compulsive in their habits. They try to exert control in certain areas of their life (and sometimes even adopt rituals) when they feel powerless, confused, scared, or guilty about bigger issues. So that is one possible cause to consider. Has there been unusual stress for your daughter, such as starting a new school, a move to a new home, birth of a sibling, or parental stress of any kind?

  2. A difficult social situation at school could also be the cause of this behavior. Is your daughter being teased or excluded by other children at school? Compulsiveness in her clothing could be an indication that she is worried about "fitting in" at school to be accepted by her peers. Getting dressed slowly could be a strategy to delay having to go to school.

  3. You mention that it sometimes takes the entire family to get her dressed in the mornings. Perhaps this is your daughter's way of drawing attention to herself. This would imply that she is not getting enough attention. If this is the case, then spending some extra time with her, individually, on a daily basis, would help to fill her legitimate need for good quality attention and reduce her need to seek attention in inappropriate ways (such as dawdling).

  4. Sometimes parents give young children too many choices, and overemphasize the importance of those choices. The children begin to feel overburdened with the decisions they must make. Limiting the choices to two items of clothing might help this situation and be a relief to your daughter.

  5. This could also just be a stage she is going through. Perhaps she is becoming aware of clothing styles and her personal appearance.

Choose a moment when both of you are relaxed and unrushed, and talk with your daughter about the dressing problem. Express your needs, and ask her if she has any ideas for ways to make the morning routine go more quickly. Perhaps her motivations and needs will become clearer if you give her a chance to talk. Try to find a solution together that satisfies both of you.

As for your daughter's perfectionism in school, I don't see that as a problem, but rather as an asset. As a child, I was very much like your daughter: slow and thorough in perfecting each assignment in school. My first grade teacher noted this on my report card, stating that she would like to see me working faster. My father wrote a note back to the teacher saying that he considered this to be a valuable trait, and that he did not want me to be rushed! (This quality has served me well in life: many people have told me that they appreciate the depth and thoroughness of my books.) Schools often rush children from one activity to another, with the result that the children learn to complete their work in a sloppy and superficial manner. Such a system discourages creativity, depth of thinking, neatness, and conscientiousness.

Having said that, I do think that you can help your daughter learn some task management skills. I suggest that you have a conference with her and her teacher and that you begin by validating her for her conscientious approach to school work. Together, you can then discuss ways to prioritize tasks. Perhaps the teacher can let her know what is most important to do first. She should certainly not be denied recess or have to stay after school, nor should she be given more homework than other children. That would be punishing her for her urge to do her best. Ideally, she should be given fewer tasks to complete than other children, although such an individualized approach might be difficult in a traditional school setting. Children have different learning styles and approaches to schoolwork, which need to be recognized and accepted. Perhaps you can find an alternative school that would better meet her needs to work at her own pace.

Your daughter may be more sensitive to criticism than most children. A relaxed, accepting attitude towards your daughter's mistakes (of any kind) at home would be beneficial. In regards to school, it might help if you and her teacher could let her know that "rough drafts" are sometimes okay, and that a few mistakes are not harmful. Teachers feel it is their job to correct mistakes, but in your daughter's case, perhaps this is not helpful. For writing assignments, some teachers now encourage young children to use an approach called "invented spelling." The children are told to guess how words might be spelled, and their errors are not corrected. Instead, the children gradually learn to spell words simply by being exposed to books and other forms of writing. Children notice their own mistakes, and their spelling eventually becomes correct. This is similar to the way in which children learn to talk, and many teachers have reported good success with this method. You can encourage this kind of writing at home, even if your daughter's teacher does not use this approach. The important thing is to refrain from correcting her mistakes.

One final suggestion is to play a silly game with your daughter at home in which you act incompetent, stupid, and forgetful while pretending that you have forgotten how to do simple tasks such as tying your shoe. Or you can purposely make silly mistakes while playing a game with your daughter or while doing some routine household chore. The purpose of this game is to get your daughter to laugh. Through laughter at you, she will release some of her own anxiety and tensions about being perfect. Incidentally, this is why we laugh at clowns: they play out our very worst fears about being stupid or clumsy, allowing us to release tensions and embarrassments about our own imperfections. This game would be especially good for your daughter if you or your husband are compulsively perfectionist yourselves in your work or personal habits. If this is the case, you are providing your daughter with a role model of perfectionism. This is not all bad, of course, but it would be good for her to see you make some mistakes and to be able to laugh about that. Whether you are a perfectionist or not, it would also be beneficial for her to see you struggling to learn something new (such as a musical instrument) and accepting your own mistakes as part of the learning process.

It sounds as if your daughter is a highly sensitive child. The behaviors you describe are typical for highly sensitive people, who often agonize over decisions and who are painstakingly conscientious and slow. Sensitive children are also very creative and aware of other people's feelings. If your daughter's behaviors are indeed an indication of her innate temperament (rather than some underlying emotional problems), you will need to accept her the way she is and realize that she will do better in life, and also feel less stressed, if she is not rushed.

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Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.

Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.

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This page was last updated on March 8, 2013. Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. When babies display emotional, behavioral, or medical problems of any kind, parents are strongly advised to seek competent medical advice and treatment. Some of the suggestions in this article may be inappropriate for babies suffering from certain emotional, behavioral, or physical problems. Aletha Solter, The Aware Parenting Institute, and Shining Star Press shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the information contained in this article.