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My Kid's Quirks Make Me Insecure!

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Our pediatrician reassures one worried mom.

concerned woman and kid yelling

Recently, one of our momlogic community members asked readers if her 8-year-old son's twitching was anything to worry about. Our pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson told the concerned mother that his twitches or "tics" are completely normal. But as parents, sometimes it's hard to decipher between what's normal and what's not. Here, another mom shares her concern:

Guest Blogger Samantha: Ever since I can remember, my toddler has been obsessed with lights. Whether we're at home or out even at the park, he points to a light and shouts "on, on!" He'll be in the middle of playing and then all of a sudden point and get distracted by lights. Everyone that meets him notices this "obsession." For the most part, we blow it off, but recently I've wondered if I should be concerned. I've also noticed that he loves to rub and tug my shirt sleeves -- especially when he gets upset. It almost seems like a calming thing he does, but it's very repetitive and, again, somewhat obsessive. Should I be concerned? Do I need to bring this to his pediatrician's attention? What IS the difference between a quirk and a red flag? Please help!

Here's what Dr. Cara Natterson had to say:

Let me start by saying that I think we all (and this even includes me) use the word "obsessed" too casually and often inappropriately. Many people throw around the term OCD as a descriptor, not much different than saying the sky is blue. In reality, OCD is a diagnosis, and many fewer people carry the diagnosis than we may give credit to.

Toddlers and young children have a healthy sense of curiosity. When they discover something new, they like to explore it and re-explore it. This is totally normal. It's not much different from adults learning a new word -- doesn't it seem like we are suddenly hearing that word everywhere? So turning on and off the lights over and over after discovering the light switch is normal, and this exploration may last several days (even weeks) before the novelty wears off. (Frankly, if the parent reacts to the behavior, it is often likely to last longer.)

Yes, certain habits are soothing. Tugging on shirt sleeves, chewing on stuffed animals, biting nails, even for some young children head-banging -- all of these are soothing or self-stimulatory behaviors. Most of the time, these behaviors are normal.

Pediatricians have some objective criteria for your "red flags," but they use just as many soft signs, behaviors that they have come to recognize in subtle ways when they see children in the office. This is what we call the art of medicine -- it is the pediatrician's ability to identify subtle behaviors or symptoms. Some people want a laundry list of behaviors to look for, especially in order to identify autism. But it isn't that simple. There are many behaviors -- like hand flapping -- that can be normal or abnormal. It really depends on everything else going on with a child.

My best advice is to let a kid be a kid. If a behavior is repetitive but it doesn't bother you or disrupt the other kids at school or cause teasing, then ignore it. If you must point it out (because you cannot help yourself), then do it in a gentle way. If you have concerns, call your pediatrician before Googling the "symptom" yourself. After an hour on the internet, you will likely have scared yourself to pieces, and probably unnecessarily. And if there is something worrisome going on, your doctor really needs to be involved.

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1 comments so far | Post a comment now
anonymous February 17, 2009, 6:06 PM

I’d like to add that you need to follow your gut on this. Kids do go through phases but sometimes these phases can be a clue to underlying issues. For example as an infant my son was extremely sensitive to bright lights and sound above normal, even slightly and certain materials made his skin red. After help from our pediatrician and a few good appointments with a really good occupational therapist we’ve learned how to adapt and help him learn how to deal with his sensitivities. He wears transitions lenses in his glasses, if loud noises are too distracting in class he can ask to work out in the hall or bring school work home… and no itchy clothing… Oh I’ve also noticed that he gets over emotional when he’s had too many sweets or things like syrup or honey… so we don’t keep those in the house. I know these are all minor things that easily adaptable … but my first born didn’t cry at the sight of the sun or when the radio was on or pull at every tag in every item of clothing he wore….or act like an emotional basket case after eating chocolate chip pancakes… that was a fun day… so I knew something was going I just couldn’t pin down what it was or exactly how to deal with it. Oh and these ‘symptoms’ weren’t overly dramatic but they were enough to cause almost daily disruptions. I never realized that they were all connected because everyone I mentioned this to told me it’s just a phase, he’ll grow out of it. But by half way through the year in kindergarten I realized we had to do something. I sought help 1st with his doc who referred us to an occupational therapist. He’s now in middle school and doing just fine so I’m glad I followed my instincts and got some additional help.

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