With Christmas around the corner, I’ve had many family members ask “What are the Kids into these days?”. They grow up fast and when shopping for gifts we all want to please. This question is often easy to answer because young children quickly develop obsessive interests in concepts and characters such as space exploration, princesses, dinosaurs or trucks. But do these interests become obsessions because we as parents encourage it, or is it a natural part of growing up? If the latter is true, what purpose does it serve in development?
What Do Kids Gain From Obsessive Interests?
Attention from Adults & Peers
Kids naturally seek attention from parents and those older than themselves. As a busy mom of three, I know how easy it is to brush off conversations sparked by my daughter with a quick “yeah, that’s great” response. I’m not giving her my full attention at all times because in all honesty conversation with children is not always deeply interesting to adults. However, if a child surprises with an impressive display of knowledge or interest on a subject they can quickly capture an adults attention.
In describing a 4-year-old boy’s intense interest in dinosaurs, a 2007 study reports:
He peppered his parents with detailed questions about dinosaurs— how they lived, what they ate, how they hunted, and so on.
I would argue that obsessive interests are fueled by the attention they receive from friends and authority figures such as parents and teachers. Kids like to impress… who doesn’t?
Increased Focus and Concentration
Studying and collecting information is a mature skill, and we have to start somewhere. By obsessing over an interest in trains, a child can quickly develop their investigative skills. It requires focus and concentration to sit quietly studying a book on dinosaurs or repeat the same video game until it’s complete. Although we naturally seek new knowledge and skills, it takes some time to understand the benefit of hard work. Through an intense interest, children begin to understand the fulfillment of in-depth knowledge. If only this level of focus was easy to apply to homework!
Why Do Many Kids Share the Same Obsessive Interests?
My boys are a bit of a clique; they love dinosaurs, trains and dump trucks. Why are so many kids obsessing over the same things? Is it us as parents pushing a stereotype, or do children naturally find these things interesting for good reason? Why do we find certain concepts so fasinating?
At around 18months my daughter developed a severe phobia of airplanes. Not riding in them, but hearing and seeing them in the sky. She became obsessed to the point she no longer wanted to go outside into the garden because she was worried one would fly overhead. However, alongside this phobia grew an interest in the planes themselves, and she loved any pictures, toys or stories about planes. It seemed to develop as a coping mechanism… a need to understand the very thing she was scared of.
I have heard the same said of the common interest in dinosaurs. It’s their scale, ferocity and unusual appearance that sparks the imagination. A mild sense of fear that encourages intrigue to learn more.
Particularly applicable to older children, it is natural to want to impress our friends with an exceptional interest in the latest craze. It may be a popular band, Disney movie, or video game. Maybe it’s a sports team or fashion statement. As an extreme follower of a current trend, you gain social status as your peers are wowed by your collection of memorabilia or memorized song lyrics.
It’s totally cool to have a unique interest, but it’s also normal to enjoy sharing your interest in a competitive manner. Proving yourself as the ultimate fan can become an obsession in itself.
I have worked with hundreds of boys who were fascinated by dinosaurs or some form of weapons. Perhaps these interests involve issues of power, fierceness, and control. Girls who have a fascination with princesses and horses may reflect themes of beauty and authority. (Psycologist Randy Kulman, Toca Boca Magazine)
I believe all the obsessive interests described above can be grouped into the concept of power. A beautiful Disney princess is just as powerful as a Tyrannosaurus Rex when it comes to authority, a digger and a horse both powerful beasts. I suppose fear, social status, and power are all concepts we learn as we grow up… all required to understand the mechanics of society.
Are Obsessive Interests Healthy?
Although it is natural for children to develop obsessive interests, things can get out of hand. Intense interests (sometimes called ‘restricted interests’) are often associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). One of the characteristics of autism is for children to obsess over an interest or object to the point of withdrawal from social interaction.
Children with autism may be so consumed by their interests that they don’t pay attention to social information… children with autism fail to develop social skills because they lack interest in all things social. (
This does not make playing an XBox all day a diagnosis of ASD, many children find a intense interest without any long-term impact on their social development. But it’s worth considering where the line is between an avid interest and a socially destructive obsession.
The prevalence estimates of intense interests in NT [Neurotypical] children show these behaviors are common, particularly in boys, with a developmental peak occurring during the preschool years. (Cambridge University Press. Research paper: Interests in Higher Functioning Austism)
It is difficult to know when an obsessive interest should be encouraged and when parents should try to redirect activities to encourage healthy behaviors. There is no definitive line between a healthy interest and an obsessive one, so all we can do is use best judgement and seek medical advice if we’re concerned.
If you’re looking for advice on mental health or need help looking for a therapist, find more information on therapists near you and online at BetterHelp.
I love seeing my kid’s interests grow, it allows us to watch their personalities develop and creates opportunities for discussion and play. I believe staying active in kids’ interests helps them remain open and social, and reduces the chance of withdrawal and obsession. Plus you get to be a big kid yourself by joining in!