3 Year Old Control Freak /OCD

Updated on January 22, 2014
R.G. asks from Halethorpe, MD
23 answers

My three year old daughter seems completely normal except for she has some control issues. For example, last night my husband put her to bed and covered her up three times. None of them were the correct way according to her. He eventually left her room, came to our bedroom where she followed him and was screaming and acting like a complete maniac. Another example, yesterday she made my husband sit in a certain spot on the couch while putting her shoes on or one evening she made me sit in on my bed to put her nightgown on. Please, tell me this is normal. I found myself googling things at 1 am about OCD. Need advice, she is the youngest of three and I didn't experience this with the others.

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answers from Honolulu on

They get like that, at that age.
It is normal.

Also at this age... they also like to "categorize" or group their things/their toys etc. they may line them up by type or by color or by whatever way they are wanting to.
They get particular at this age.
But it is a phase.
Both my kids did that, at that age.

At this age, they want to do things a certain way, but might not be able to do it, but they don't have full communication skills, nor coordination, they need to be taught... coping skills and OTHER ways of doing things.... by showing them. So that they learn, that things can VARY.

And you don't always have to, give in.
Especially if she is screaming about it.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Richland on

Ah, that is a discipline issue, not OCD. She sounds controlling and spoiled.

Stop giving into her demands and it will sort itself out.

4 moms found this helpful

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answers from Los Angeles on

Hi R.! Good news! You have a 3 year old!
She is independent and she is testing her limits! You are very blessed.

She can THINK... for herself and wants others to see things her way. She is SMART... enough to know what to do to get what she wants. She can SEE... how easily it is to get others to do what she wants. She KNOWS...what she can get away with and what she can't.

More good news! Because she can think, is smart, can see and knows... she is COACHABLE.
When it comes to blankets - get in her bed and say to her "show mommy/Daddy how you want to be covered".
sitting on the couch: ask her: "where are you going to sit so that I can find the right place to help you with your shoes"
Sitting on your bed to put her night gown on...well I have nothing for that...she should be in her own room putting on her own nightgown.

Here is what IS NORMAL: you are the parent, you make the decisions. She does not rule you. Period.


8 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

it's fairly common for littles who are trying to figure out their worlds to push the control boundaries. it's right and appropriate. they NEED to know where the boundaries are, and they can't really know unless they bump up against them. parents who do not give boundaries are not the free spirits and 'nice guys' they think they are. boundaries help promote feelings of safety and security, and keep their little worlds manageable.
i would firmly tell this little person that if she is not happy with her blankets, i'll sit with her for 2 minutes while she gets them right, and then it's kiss goodnight. under no circumstances would she be allowed to follow me out of the room roaring. and while i might good-naturedly permit being 'placed' on the couch in the context of a certain let's-pretend game, i'd nip more controlling behaviors in the bud by replying 'sweetie, i'm the mommy and i will sit/stand/work where i need to. and right now i need YOU to stand right here while i put your nightgown on. i can see you don't like that. i know it's frustrating sometimes. right here. and hold still, please.'
she may be OCD, which will increase the need for understanding and good boundaries. but most littles just need to know.

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answers from Washington DC on

Please step away from the Google....

Three is the classic age for kids to be very picky and, yes, even "controlling" in adult eyes - but remember, that's in your adult opinion. It is not uncommon, weird or a "diagnosable condition" to be three and to want what you want, the way you want it, THIS instant. I have seen plenty of kids this age do things like say "you have to sit right here while I do this" or "The blanket has to be put on this way and not that way and do it again until it's right."

Making the huge, unwarranted leap from the tiny handful of things you describe to worrying about OCD is only going to give you an ulcer. Stop the online diagnosing (where everything is geared toward scaring the heck out of parents over every tiny thing) and get some good books from the library on child development. A bunch of them. They will give you far better advice and be more reassuring than any "10 Signs Your Child Has OCD" stuff online. You need to read up (and talk to your pediatrician about) the stages that all kids, not just yours, go through.

At three, children are learning that they are independent beings with their own wants -- but they are still young enough that they have no idea WHY they want what they want, so your child probably can't sit there and answer you much when you say, "But why does daddy have to sit only there?" She may come up with something like "Becuase that's where my teddy bear wants him" or anything. Don't fear that she's OCD because she wants daddy there, or that she's hallucinating because the bear is telling her what to do. She's being three and trying to take control of a moment in her day. At three they want control of even tiny things because they know that the adults control everything else -- they are well aware that you tell them when to get up, what and when to eat, when you are all going out the door, when it's time to nap or play, etc. And they want a tiny amount of control. That is not OCD; it's growing up, to want to assert themselves just a little, even in something that seems insignificant to an adult.

Find out about the stage and you'll also get good advice on handling it. If you turn these little things into battles you are in for a nightmare and she will dig in and be more stubborn. Doing what she wants once will not create a spoiled or controlling monster. And telling her after the second rearrangement of the blanket that she's a big girl and can move her blanket around however she wants once you leave the room (and not coming back to fix it when she calls again) will not scar her for life, either.

Please do not compare her to the older children. Ever. As the youngest she may indeed try hardest of them all to control little things because she has not only mom and dad but also two older sibliings to run her day and her life. Expect it, read up on ways to deal with it, and don't obsess over OCD at this point.

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Reading on

That's not OCD. That's three.

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

Okay, she is normal -- three year olds get bossy. Please DO NOT read OCD into this--that's about you jumping to an unfounded conclusion. She is just emulating her parents-- you and your husband likely direct her a lot (most parents do direct their kids) and she's trying it out on you.

When she gets uppity, like the bed thing-- put her back in bed. Good heavens, just do it, no long explanations, just "bed" and march her back to bed. Over and over if need be.

She is not the boss. Do not let her be the boss. I worked with little ones for a long time, and so sometimes, they would tell me to 'sit there' or 'okay, you drink the cup now" (tea party play) or whatever... and I'd play along merrily. But when it was time for me to take over and move us along and be in charge, I did it. "Oh, we are done playing that you are the mommy now. Now I'm the grown up again. It's time to wash your hands for lunch. Do you want to do it in the bathroom or at the kitchen sink?" If you are confident in your own authority, adopt an authoritative style- and do read up on three year old development. Sorry, but I really wonder why all these new parents slap their kids with 'control freak/OCD' labels (and I hear it a lot) when it would be so much easier to just educate yourself that this is really normal behavior for the age. Over-dramatizing something typical only makes parents look like *they* have the control issues.( I have a family member who deals with OCD-- at times, it takes over their life. If you are going to compare a child's behavior to a disorder, please at least research three year old development to the fullest first. Do NOT slap a label like this on your kid without having a professional evaluation. That is so damaging. ) This is not OCD-- this is a kid being three, learning to be more autonomous and asserting both strong preferences and trying out what it's like to be 'in charge'.

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Austin on

Nah, she is 3. They like schedules and repetition, they like knowing what to expect.

Children this age have such limited control and vocabulary. She needed and wanted something, was over tired and just had a big old melt down.
Very normal.

When they are tired they get picky and fussy.

This is the hard part. You will have to stick to your guns and explain to her that she needs to go to bed. You need to keep taking her back to her room and not speak a word to her. The tantrums need to be ignored and you need to just leave her alone with no reactions..

Purchase ear plugs. Keep them around the house. They will not block out the noise but will help take the sting out of it.

You must be strong. She is testing the 2 of you and you to be in control and tell her how to behave and how to calm down.

I used to repeat what it was our daughter was saying she needed and then give her a big hug and tell her, I love you, you need sleep. Or You seem frustrated, give mommy a hug. You need quiet time, Or you need some books (her favorite thing in the world).

She soon learned how to do these things on her own.

Give her the words and options so that she can understand what she is feeling and what options she can choose from.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Norfolk on

She likes routine - which is normal.
BUT she doesn't get to call the shots about everything.
Don't fear the tantrums - just choose your battles.
Sometimes she'll get her way and sometimes not.
She can do her screaming in her room and can come out when she's finished.
Get some good ear plugs.
In a year or so she might grow out of it.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

If you keep doing what she tells you to do, her behavior will continue.

I think this is just a three year old being a three year old. Please re-read all of your replies below- you have some awesome advice here.

There is no way on earth that I would ever allow my three year old to demand where I sit, and if a screaming fit ever followed, she would be in their room until it passed.

It is perfectly acceptable to be upset if the world doesn't make sense to them, but as SB said, they have to ask for things nicely/respectfully. My husband would have been out of the room after the first request of fixing the blankets.

When my daughter was three, she wanted ALL of her stuffed animals in bed with her and they had to be in very specific order/spots/places on her bed. That lasted one night with us and from that point forward, she put her stuffed animals in place by herself. We didn't take away the need or desire to control her environment, we just told her, "no problem with the animals, just do it yourself." And she did.

This too shall pass... good luck!

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

The examples you give of your daughter sound like issues of CONTROL not compulsion (the "C" in OCD is for compulsion... feeling like SHE HAS to do particular little rituals or like SHE CAN'T do things a different way... not being bossy). So the good news is, it doesn't sound like you're dealing with a disorder. It DOES however sound like you're dealing with something that needs to be corrected... quickly.

The other thing that jumps out at me, is that your daughter's issues of control are about HER controlling YOU. While it's "normal" at this age in that it is typical for children to WANT to exert control over their environments, NONE of you will be happy if you continue to let her call the shots in your household.

My advice is that you find ways for her to have some of the control she craves giving her reasonable authority in limited situations, but STOP letting that authority extend over the way that YOU or your husband do things... ever. "Do you want to tuck yourself in, or do you want me to tuck you in?" but she may not dictate the correctness of your tucking technique... if she's not happy with the way you tuck her in, she can tuck herself in. Let her choose which shoes she'd like to wear, but do not engage in any conversation about where YOU must sit in order the help her put them on. She is a 3 year old.

Hope this helps.


4 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

So normal for that age.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

I wouldn't panic just yet. I think many three year olds show some OCD like behavior. Both of my children had similar issues like you are talking about. If I didn't straighten my daughter's bookshelf a particular way before bed time, it was melt down city! My son had to sit in a certain spot for his shoes every day. I had to give him time to park his hot wheels cars each night before bed. He "couldn't sleep" if they weren't in color order.

I always thought it was just their way of making sense of the world. Understanding how routines work. They are creating their own structure. Pushing boundaries. Kids love order and structure (how many times have you heard kids need a schedule?) Adults can understand changes and alterations in things, but kids sometimes have a hard time reconciling these changes.

It is maddening. A few months ago my daughter was in a phase where her water bottle had to be in an exact, specific spot each night. One millimeter off and she freaked out. Like all of her other OCD phases, this one has passed. ( I just wanted to mention, that we comply when the request is made nicely.Manners are still expected)

It may be something to keep and eye one. It's possible that your daughter's behaviors are indicative of a larger issue...but I wouldn't start playing Google doctor just yet. Your daughter sounds normal to me.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Appleton on

Just keep telling her 'oh Honey it's fine, it doesn't need to be perfect'. Repeat often until she understands it's okay to not be perfect.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

Totes normal.

I also have a 3 year old. It is ALL about control at this age. And they will take it where they can get it. And have a meltdown over the weirdest things if they don't get it. I just walk away mostly when that happens.

Happened twice so far today. Apparently I flushed the toilet at the wrong moment while helping her in the bathroom, and also was not supposed to lift her into her car seat even though her hands were full of rocks from the park. I get read the riot act, pre-schooler style, for the lamest stuff.

But yeah, have to use the exact placemat she wants, silverware, cups, do things in the exact order, etc.

It does get better, I have a 6 year old she went through this weird stuff too.

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answers from Dallas on

Oh man, my son has to have people sitting in a certain spot or he goes ballistic. His way or gge highway. He's 3 1/2.. and its very normal.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

Oh my gosh sounds like me!
No it is not obsessive compulsive disorder. It is three year old syndrome. I don't think it is googable yet. And our kids aren't always all alike. She sounds like most little people at that age. Don't worry, this too shall pass. However, I would definitely reestablish that it is you who are in charge and if you want to stand on your head while you put on her nightgown so be it. There are always consequences. And in that case it may be that she doesn't get to wear the nightgown but flannel pajamas!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Killeen on

My daughter did this at three and still has her quirks at 14, but at least now she is somewhat reasonable about it. :)

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answers from Oklahoma City on

She's just exhibiting independence. If it lasts a long time then you might seek some professional help for an evaluation but I think it's pretty normal, to "some" extent at this age.

My 10 year old would walk through the store "fixing" the canned goods and if we didn't let her finish we'd almost always leave. So, we did the canned goods isle when she wasn't with us.

The 7 year old was dogmatic over the bread isle. He wanted to arrange it over and over. That wasn't allowed because people really like non-squished bread. His was more of a compulsion though. He had to do it, not wanted it done his way by him.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Minneapolis on

That's being a three year old. Just ignore it! You do not have to follow every instruction a three year old gives you. Walk away!

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answers from Norfolk on

Hi, R.:

What kind of correction discipline do you use?
Seek professional help.
Check out a Narrative Therapist.

This is not normal behavior!
Good luck.



answers from Pittsburgh on

Normal. There is so little in life that 3 year olds can control. Give her the choice on the things that just don't matter. Since it is developmental, she will grow past it no matter how you handle it.



answers from McAllen on

I agree that it's about control. My 3yo wants his shoelaces tied a certain way, to wear only certain shirts, everything to be his idea, etc.. I find that he is most particular when he is tired and can't go to bed, like in the early morning when we're heading out. Once he's been up for a while, he's more amenable.

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