Anxiety, Obsession, and Rules

Kale is a really, really linear kid. He likes rules, clear instructions, and following them. He likes order, rituals, and lining things up. He tends to get bent out of shape when other people, especially other kids, don’t follow the rules. I have watched him shout at other kids “NO SHOUTING!” and run after other kids to tell them running isn’t allowed. He needs rules and structure even during creative play:

“Kale, let’s colour this page however we want! Even if we go outside of the lines or make it messy.”

“So, the rules are that we can be messy?”



He gets a bit out of sorts when he believes he has not followed an instruction properly, and tends to be sad and beat himself up if that’s the case. We regularly need to reassure him that he did fine, and it’s nothing to worry about, and it’s not a big deal.

He fusses about the order he eats his food, whether food can touch on a plate, what pattern his shirts have (plaid = okay, plain = not okay, saying or printed character = okay, but only if it isn’t too big or feels too plasticy or too scary), what sort of clothes he wears (hoodies  = NO because he says he doesn’t like the way they feel on his wrists???), how he lines up things like his plate, napkin, and water at the table (all in a row), what order he gets dressed (underwear socks pants t-shirt), and what order he gets ready to leave (shoes jacket hat). When it goes out of order he gets distressed.

His most recent report card, a glowing essay on what a great kid he is, mentioned that he takes time in the morning to get out whatever equipment he needs and line it all up. His wonderful and amazing teacher sees this as a good thing – that he spends the time needed to be organized so that he can most efficiently work.

But sometimes I worry that what Kale does is bordering on anxiety and obsession. I’ve googled “Does my 5 year old have OCD?” and I’ve read a lot, both online and in books by experts. I will say I’m reassured by what I read. I’m pretty satisfied this cataloging, ritualizing, checking-in, rule-following behaviour is developmentally okay, and it does no harm except sometimes annoy me and I’m pretty sure it will all be fine. Sometimes I do joke about his need for organization in his life, and all the rules he sets for himself.

But it’s black humour because I know where he is coming from: I am obsessed with time. Being on time, scheduling my time, scheduling my downtime, accounting for my time, knowing how long things will take, controlling my time, and knowing these things about my immediate family members. I drive Ross bonkers with text messages “What time will you be home? When will you be done? What bus are you catching?” even if the day is just like any other day and the answer is the same as any other day. I harass him to more closely define what “normal time” is – what does that mean? 6? 6:10? 6:30? Because yesterday you didn’t come home till 6:30 and I thought it was a normal day.

Meetings without an end time also make me really uncomfortable because I can’t plan for what happens after the meeting. I work around this by blocking large blocks of time for things that are less rigorously scheduled and I have taught myself to not worry about certain things – I manage my anxiety about time really well.

So when I see my wonderful, loving, sensitive, curious, smart kid obsessing over what the rules are, what the order should be, and what the instructions mean, and checking in 50 times about these things, I find myself both exasperated (“FOR THE TENTH TIME, STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR SOCKS!”) and totally and completely empathetic because HOO BOY DO I GET YOU, KIDDO.

A few weeks ago, Kale went to a party at The Stage New Westminster, where he goes to movement class. If we’re friends on Facebook or connected on Twitter, you’ve probably heard me rave about this class before. It follows the Musikgarten philosophy, which believes that all children are musical and provides a structure to age-appropriate learning around music and movement. Kale adores this class- I think he likes it because it feeds that need to express himself but also because there are clear rituals, rules, and processes that every class follows. And because the wonderful Ms. Stefanie lets him just be him.

They are celebrating one year in business and they had a party. They brought in a particularly amazing clown, named Korki who is an expert balloon twister. And Kale asked for, wait for it… a backpack.

A thing you use to keep your stuff organized.

I *so* get you, my son.

So proud. Thanks Daniel for the picture.
So proud. Thanks Daniel for the picture.


8 years ago