‘He loved any kind of vacuum’: Why toddlers become so obsessed with things

Posted in Learning and Development.

When my first son was two he was obsessed with Disney’s Cars. The movie was on repeat daily, we had all the merchandise and we couldn’t walk down the street without spotting a (vaguely look alike) Lightning McQueen. 

I knew all the words to the songs and developed a (short-lived) soft spot for Mater – jokes aren’t funny after the 240th time. Naturally, he outgrew this obsession. But there were many more that followed.

Toddler obsessions

We had The Gruffalo, Batman and Lego. We had to read the same books over and over and over again. And, as he became more independent, he became fixated with putting on his own socks and shoes. Some mornings it took us half an hour just to leave the house.

With my second son – who’s currently two – it’s deja vu. He’s currently obsessed with Peppa Pig, only wearing pyjamas that have pockets (not easy to find btw) and pulling the plug in and out of the bath about 50 billion times a night. Breathe, mum, breathe. 

Speaking to other friends, I know this is a common experience. When I asked some of them for specific examples, the responses came in thick and fast. All were very amusing but there were some standouts.

Mum to one, Lauren, told me that her son was obsessed with vacuum cleaners. “He loved any kind of vacuum cleaner, whether it be the trusty household, industrial or pool vacuum,” she says. “For his second birthday he had a vacuum cleaner birthday cake and we took him to Godfreys for a birthday visit.”

Sophie’s son was a Bob the Builder groupie. “He’d use caution tape and witches’ hats to shut off areas of pathways on the street and sit down next to builders to watch them,” she says. “For a long time, he would only respond to being called Bob”

Another friend told me that one of her sons insisted on wearing his satin boxer shorts over his trousers everywhere he went, while her other one fell in love with the Spotlight catalogue – an affair that lasted months.

But, why!?

So why is it that toddlers become so obsessed with certain things? And what role does this play in their development?

Rachel Hard is a child psychologist who says that this behaviour is very common and a normal part of development. “Much of the challenging behaviour we see in toddlers (tantrums, refusal etc) is because they’re struggling with feeling out of control and these obsessions are a way that helps them manage that,” she says.

Toddler boy playing with dinosaurs - feature

Rachel notes that these ‘obsessions’ start as early as 12-18 months and can last right up until children reach school.

“In the toddler years, it could be anything that’s taken their fancy,” she says. “Usually they’ve found something particularly soothing or enjoyable about a particular activity or project or are simply repeating something until they master it. This repetition is self-soothing as it gives them a sense of security and comfort when they know what happens next and what to expect.

“Children’s brains are like sponges so they take time to fully process and explore something, so they can catalogue it for future use.”

Around the age of two, Rachel says that toddlers start becoming more social and really pay attention to what others are doing and start mimicking it.

“When children enter school or daycare they can become driven to be involved in what everyone else is doing, or have what others have,” she says. “It becomes about fitting in and being part of the group.”

Rachel notes that this development phase tends to end when children enter primary school. By then, they’ve been exposed to many objects, events and scenarios and so less time is needed for learning about new things.

“From early childhood to adolescence the next big development happening in the brain is about emotions,” she says. “So, their focus shifts and the next stage of development is really about socialising and finding their spot in a hierarchy.”

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