Is My 3 Year Old OCD?

Updated on November 26, 2011
J.S. asks from Gilbert, AZ
16 answers

Hi Moms. I don't know what to do anymore. I need some advice. My husband and I are exhausted because our 3 year old boy has been out of control lately. Every time we put him to bed, down for a nap, go to the bathroom, close a door, or even go upstairs he has to say, "good bye love you too" but he doesn't stop at that. He will say it over and over. We told him to only say it once and he still wants to keep saying it. If we don't feed into that he has an all out melt down, screaming and freaking out. It is especially bad at bedtime and naptime. He wants everything "fixed" meaning he wants everything in place; closet door closed, llight on, rug flat, star soother turned a certain way, etc. I feel like he is just trying to keep us in the room longer. When we leave the room after saying "love you too" once like we told him we were going to do, he freaks out after the door is shut, crying, screaming, and banging his blinds against the window. We are worried he is going to break the window so we have to go in there. We have taken things out of his room, tried time-outs, I even tried a positive reinforcement "bedtime bucks" for being good. It works only once in a while. He is otherwise a very good, sweet boy. He is extemely smart. I just wonder if he might have OCD or something else, or maybe he's normal. I'm very lost and don't know what to do. I would love some positive advice. Thank you so much in advance.

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So What Happened?

Thank you so much for your helpful responses! It is great to know there are some wonderful, loving parents out there with some great advice. It honestly never occured to me that he could be scared of being alone in his room. I don't know why, it just never did. I jumped at the assumption that it was just an obsessive/behavior "thing" and that I was feeding into it and making it worse by letting him say it over and over. Now I realize that it must have been his way of saying, "I'm scared, don't go". Poor kiddo. We tried leaving his door open last night and he did great. We will see how he does in the future. Thanks again Moms!!!

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answers from San Francisco on

Have you tried leaving his door open, or partially open, since that seems to be the trigger? Maybe that's it (hopefully it's as simple as that!)



answers from Denver on

Sounds like typical separation anxiety. Maybe you can linger a bit longer, or as someone suggested "play along a bit". Help him ease into the "goodbye". Although it seems easy for us and we know we are right there, he's struggling with the separation. Also at 3, they begin the control phase... it's "fun". And since you said he's very smart, he can be more challenging. In some situations let him make the choice and feel in control and assert his independence - when warranted. Maybe ask him after you say good bye, do you want me to leave the door open a bit or close it? Either is fine with you, but he gets to choose. Best of luck.

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answers from Seattle on

Most 3 year olds are too young to be diagnosed with OCD. Some kids with developmental disorders like autism for example will exhibit behaviors similar to what you might call OCD in an adult - but most "normal" preschoolers will also exhibit control issues. Kids that age don't have a whole lot of control over their lives, which is very frustrating to them and many kids deal with this by turning activities that cause them frustration or anxiety into a ritual. This is normal and a phase that can last and vary in intensity for many years.

Is it possible that he is scared being alone in his room? Why do you have to shut the door? My 4 year gets scared if she is in a room by herself with the door shut, so we leave it open. No big deal!
The reluctance to let go (saying goodbye over and over again) is also fairly common.
Personally I am not in favor of "tough love parenting". I prefer to listen to my child and learn about what is on her mind, what scares her and I will ask her how she wants me to help her. Then we find a compromise that we both find acceptable. Some nights that means I rock her for 5 minutes, others she will tell me a story that she just needed to get out... again other nights we say "good night" 100 times. I mean saying "I love you" 10 more times... not the worst thing you could do, is it?!

If you are really concerned about certain patterns of behavior though, you may want to call you ped. You can't really tell whether a behavior is normal or not without taking the child's entire development into account.
Good luck.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Houston on

My son was exactly like that at 3 - To be honest he does have a lot of OCD even at 9, and also ADHD, a healthy portion of it. He was definitely different from most other 3 yo's
When he went to bed, he had to have, in a certain order - stars on, ball on, fan on, the door a certain amount closed, a certain kind of pajama, with the label cut off. etc.
I don't believe we are giving in, just making our children feel comfortable and secure.
Kids like ours are hard work though, but my son is a lot easier at 9, he was a difficult 3-7.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from San Francisco on

I think this isn't all that abnormal for a 3 year old, actually. I'm also wondering if maybe he gave up his afternoon nap recently, and/or is going through a growth spurt, or something that's just making him a little bit more cranky than usual? I'd move his bedtime back by half an hour and see if that doesn't end some of the meltdown at bedtime. If you're putting him down at 8, try 7 or 7:30 for a while.

I agree with Rosebud also, why not just do what he wants? It's bedtime. He's tired, and he enjoys having a routine every night. He may also be afraid of being alone in the dark. My younger daughter is still like that, and she's 6. She has always had an extremely active imagination, and thinks there are monsters in the closet, dragons under her bed, all kinds of wacky stuff. So we leave her door open and the hall light on until she's asleep. No big deal.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Williamsport on

If you have firmly disciplined tantrums every single time he tried it since they began (well over a year ago if he's normal) and NEVER allowed him to manipulate you or carry on with fits, but yet, despite the firm consequence EVERY TIME after ONE calm clear warning, at three years old, he's still totally out of control..that is AFTER over a year of firm discipline and never LETTING him bang the blinds etc and scream in his room if you dont' do his bidding without a serious consequence, then he may have a disorder.

As for wanting everything a certain way-normal. My third, now two, has a laundry list of specifics a mile long for bed time we do for her. She also loves to say "I love you" back and forth 7000 times. She's not allowed to throw fits though and she knows that would not be wise.

If you feel he may not have had firm discipline for fits absolutely consistently (you don't list anything firm here), try that before fearing for his neurological health. This book is great "Back to Basics Discipline" by Janet Campbell Matson. I have three non tantrummers 5, 3 and 2. They all tried it though. It's absolutely normal to try it and to let it escalate out of control if no one effectively teaches them to control it.

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answers from Chicago on

I think all 3 year olds are OCD.

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answers from Phoenix on

Hi, J. -
If you have a serious concern that your child may have OCD or some other issue, I would suggest you consult your pediatrician right away. Your son sounds much more strident about things, but my three girls (now 7, 4, 4) still go through similar routines at bedtime. It's just a difficult transition for kids, somehow. One of my daughters has to have her blankets fixed just so, the closet door closed, the nightlight in a certain place, the bathroom light on, a certain number of kisses and a certain number of hugs - the list goes on and on. I think it truly is just keeping you close for as long as possible. My thought is that it will just pass, but if you are truly concerned, please do ask your pediatrician. I'm certain they've heard it all and can tell you whether there is any reason to be alarmed.
Good luck, Mama.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Miami on

Hi J. S,
I remember reading at the time my son was around 2 in the "What to Expect" series about toddlers...that this is normal toddler behavior. That toddlers like a certain routine and order and things in their places etc.
My son just turned 3 and some of these types of behaviors have subsided. To the extent that he likes to 'mix things up'. He likes to now put CDs in the wrong jackets! LOL -- on purpose. So it could be in time, some of these things just fade on their own...

When you go for a normal pedi check-up i would ask any further questions as well.

HTH. Jilly

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answers from San Francisco on

Why don't you just let him keep saying it? Does he want you to keep responding to you?

I suggest you play along a bit more. Say it back to him like, 5 times, and then just let him keep saying it. Say, "okay" and then go about your business. Don't tell him he can only say it once.

At three they often have little rituals, so I don't think it means he is OCD. Fix things the way he wants it, and give him a good, solid one-on-one for 15-20 mins. at bedtime. Let him keep saying I love you etc. as long as he wants.

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answers from Seattle on

When in doubt... get an eval.

Worst case scenario is that they/it (the behavior "it") is COMPLETELY NORMAL.

Why worst case?

Because best case is that there IS something wrong and you've caught it early and can begin using coping mechanisms that are soooooooo very different from how one parents a neurotypical child. You've just saved yourself YEARS of making things worse or banging your head against the wall.

The thing about neurological disorders is that you can describe ANY of them, and they can sound totally normal. People use terms like OCD and ADHD or Gifted (and all the rest) very very loosely to describe a totally normal person doing a totally normal thing.

What makes a disorder a disorder is that it takes a common thing (learning for example) and amplifies it a thousand fold. All kids learn, soaking up info like a sponge. Some kids have a disorder that makes them gifted.

Of course, all disorders come with a LOT attached to them.

ADHD isn't JUST not being able to pay attention. In fact to actually BE ADHD, one has to have *extreme* attention in certain times/areas. If a kid CAN'T pay attention at all, to anything, it's not ADHD. ADHD also comes a combo of with sensory issues, giftedness, arguing issues (NOT ODD, alhough many ADHD'ers are getting both SPD and ODD lumped onto them, it's not. it's very very very different... in fact, it stems from the giftedness part of the disorder; seeing different possibilities coupled with impulse control issues), and many many other facets.

Jo W cracks me up. She wrote a FANTASTIC post about xmas lights a bit ago, and swore up and down she's not OCD. :) She's right. ADHD'ers can get VERY hyperfocused and perfectionistic. Which can LOOK like OCD, but isn't even in the same ball park. The causality is completely different. ADHD hyperfocusing/perfectionsim on any kind of aesthetic (or any sensory thing for that matter; visual, audial, taste, smell, etc.) is pretty legendary. It stems from being able to imagine 50-500 different possibilities, all at the same time. It takes a lot of work to DECIDE which of those to go with, and each decision spawns 50-500 MORE possibilities. A very "simple" thing turns into a HUGE undertaking -mentally- and any deviation from the visualized plan is actually painful. Creates even more possibilities, feels "wrong" -because decisions aren't made at random, etc. OCD people, otoh, CANNOT imagine things differently. There is one way, and one way only in which something is correct. If something is "wrong" in either ADHD or OCD it creates high levels of anxiety, but the cause AND the fix are 2 TOTALLY DIFFERENT THINGS.).

((Ahem. Tangets are also classic ADHD. Sorry. While i have a psych backgroung I understand ADHD best, hence the much longer example. But the same is true for all disorders. We all hear voices. We do. Common sense, warnings, stray thoughts, our "conscience", our "imagination". But someone who is schizophrenic hears them very very very differently. We all crave a certain degree of order in our lives, OCD people crave it very very very differently. We all argue, ODD people... etc.))

HINT: When getting evals do NOT ask for an eval for ONE specific disorder. It's a bad idea. There are DOZENS of common disorders, and you really really don't want to pigeon hole into getting dozens of evals!

The thing to do is to get a general evaluation and THEN move onto a specialist in that area (who will conduct a 2nd eval just to be sure the other psychologist or developmental ped knew what apples and oranges look like... and then you can move into "treatment". Which is 90% coping mechanisms/ ways to do thing better.

But yeah. To ME... what you wrote sounds like totally normal toddler schtuff. But I'm not there, can't see him, and am not qualified to diagnose anyone.

Hence... if your mom gut says something is off... get it looked at.

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answers from New York on

I vote for normal. you've gotten pretty good advice already, but some practical tips I've found work: Pick a number for a repetitive habit and make it a game. This is especially great when they are learning to count, although as they can count higher the number of repetitions tends to go up! For example, my daughter loves to count, but first everything had to be done three times, then 5 times, then 10 times, and now she can count to 20, so that trick will become untenable soon!
Also, figure out a VERY specific routine for bedtime that takes care of his needs, step through it while saying each step every time "next we do what? Right, we fix your rug. Then we turn on the light.." Just try not to let him add to it (she keeps coming up with new items, and we have to push back).
I personally believe coming up with a manageable way to make them feel secure and in control now can avoid future problems, because adult OCD is basically from the same causes as childhood (normal) OCD - trying to take control of a small part of a world that feels overwhelming and unpredictable.
Good luck - this too shall pass.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Seattle on

Someone else just asked this question the other day, my answer applies to yours as well..

Sounds more like she just wants a routine and to control things, which is very typical of that age. My daughter lines things up, put things away a certain way, has to touch a wall before walking or running somewhere, and holds a small ball of play dough when she's nervous, much more OCD than you describe, and I get it because I am too :)



answers from Phoenix on

TOTALLY normal 3 year old behavior. It's not OCD, it's him pushing to see how far he take things, it's him trying to control the situation (and you). I don't know that I'd be punishing over most of it, honestly, since it's normal behavior. I'm sorry, but, spanking when your kid is already screaming & crying is the worst advice you could get. I mean, really, he's not really doing anything wrong, other than trying to work you.

My advice? Let him get upset when you leave the room. Don't cave. He will soon figure out that he won't win & stop.


answers from Minneapolis on

sounds like tantrums more than OCD. Though with his repetitive nature about phrases, and room order, it wouldnt be a bad idea to visit a behavior specialist. Best to nip that in the bud, however people with these tendencies always have them, its easy to get rid of one and another just pops up. If he is found to have this he will need professional help for a while to curb that desire. Sorry not much more of a help, but at this time I think he is just having 3 year old tantrums.



answers from Kansas City on

Well I'm not sure if he is too young to determine that, but I would definitely seek some advice from your doctor, because my son has it, and he acted somewhat in that fashion when he was little, and in my opinion, I would have loved to have known something earlier on in his life, instead of finally seeking help when he was in his teens. It's hard on a mom. Good luck to you.

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