Your obsessed toddler

When my daughter was 2, she developed a fascination with snowmen. We lived in New York at the time and it was an unseasonably warm winter. We weren’t making any actual snowmen, and when we did they weren’t to her liking. 

She favored round, perfect snowmen drawn on paper, and she asked me to draw them every day. 

“Draw snowman with dog, Mommy. Draw TWO snowman!”

Don’t get me started on the singing, jingle bell-wielding, perfect, round snowmen at the Hallmark store. We got one. She played with it endlessly — the song an aggressive earworm for those outside the realm of snowman fandom. 

Bed, Bath & Beyond had a nice collection, which they kept out — 75 percent off — well past Christmas. 

My daughter wanted to go every day to watch them dance. She would straighten their little black hats, marching up and down the aisles and taking inventory. It got to the point where I’d have to go out of my way to avoid B, B & B, because passing it by brought on tantrums.

“SNOOOOOOWMAAAAAAAAN! STOP MOMMY! SNOOOWMAAAAAAN!”

It was a phase that left me a little baffled as a parent. Why snowmen? What’s the deal? Do I indulge her whimsy and spend endless afternoons at Bed, Bath & Beyond? Do I limit snowman related activity? You know … everything in moderation?

When she counted to 10, which I was, of course, very proud of, she did so like this: “One, two, three, four, five, six, snowman, eight.”

Cute, right? And strange. 

My son, too, had his things. “Ball” was his first word and his first — let’s call a spade a spade — obsession. Ball pits would frighten me, because he’d become so overwhelmed with the experience — looking in every direction, trying to grab as many balls as possible — I thought he might have a nervous breakdown. 

Of course, there were other phases — fanaticism over princesses, later to be aggressively shunned. Dinosaurs. All of them, everything about them, all the time. Thomas the Tank Engine, for both my kids, until my daughter proclaimed that Thomas had “naughty eyebrows.” 

What weird and wonderful creatures, these toddlers. As you move through first interests and as first interests bring about compulsive tunnel vision, you might worry: Is this normal? 

Google “toddler obsession” and you’ll find a thing or two about autism. Know that the obsessiveness that can come with Autism Spectrum Disorder tends to be different — such as fixation on cars in combination with playing with them in a very specific way, such as organizing them nervously by color or spinning the wheels endlessly. Just liking Elmo a whole lot isn’t any sort of diagnosis.

What may help you better accept the inevitable obsessiveness of toddlerhood is the knowledge that they’re biologically wired to hyper-focus. For one, they’re going through dozens of rapid changes — learning to walk, starting to talk, potty training, changing beds, trying new foods. 

Obsessing over one favorite thing is a comfort measure, a way to establish a sense of routine in an otherwise evolving life experience. 

Furthermore, toddlers don’t have the bandwidth yet to multitask. Everything is new; everything is learning. It can be overwhelming. Learning about one particular thing until a certain expertise is developed is much easier than “taking it all in.” 

As you and your toddler move through their “things” — be it Thomas or panda bears or Mars — you may, like me, wonder if you should limit obsessive behavior. 

It’s really up to you. If obsession seems to be getting in the way of family life — sure, set some limits. If not, roll with it. Hey — better yet — exploit it! Dinosaur stickers on the potty, anyone? One episode of Elmo for trying a new food? 

“One, two, three, four, five, six, snowman, eight.” There was a time when a snowman display would stress me out. Well, we’re never getting out of this store. Now, of course, I miss it. I tell the stories. I count the count. The obsessions have become our memories.


Jen Wittes lives in St. Paul and is a mother of two. She’s helped many Twin Cities families in her work as a postpartum doula. Send questions or comments to jwittes@mnparent.com.