Over Obsession: What to Do When Our Kids Hyperfocus On an Interest

Sistine ChapelMichelangelo's over obsession with painting resulted in the beautiful artwork in the Sistine Chapel that we can still enjoy today.

When our kids have an over obsession in an interest, it can often seem to take over their lives. Should we stop them from their fixation or allow them to engage in the activity as much as they wish?

This is a continuation of a discussion we started on the first page. If you haven’t read it, what we’re discussing here will make a bit more sense if you read all that we’ve said up until this point. 

So to get the scoop on the pros and cons of over obsession, click here to read the first page, and then you can be prepared to come back here to read the rest of the article.

Of course, we all want to do what is best for our kids. In the case of our kids’ fixations, how should we handle it? Shall we stop our kids from obsessing over one thing, or should we allow them to indulge in their interests as much as they wish?

The Answer Is, It Depends

I believe what each parent may want to decide will depend on the situation and on whether or not their child’s over obsession is causing negative consequences for themselves or for their families.

If your child’s hyperfocus helps her cope with anxiety or depression, you may decide to allow her to spend as much time as possible on whatever she is interested in without interfering with other family activities or other commitments.

I’m sure that in some cases the over obsession isn’t so severe as to be debilitating. Some children may show a major interest in something without allowing it to take over their lives. If that’s the case, then Mom and Dad may want to allow their child to explore and engage in their fixation to their heart’s content. As long as it doesn’t cause any major problems.

But if the over obsession creates any negative consequences, we want to teach our kids what it means to have balance in their lives. It may be necessary to limit their obsessive focus to some extent.

Helping Sam live a more balanced, normal life might involve teaching him that it might not be socially appropriate to speak to people about sports statistics for too long at a time. In this case, parents are balancing the encouragement of the child’s interests with reminding and teaching him about good social skills. 

In Leah’s situation, Mom and Dad would need to teach her that if she is going to be a great piano player, she will need to take care of herself. She will need to learn that getting enough sleep, practicing good hygiene, eating a healthy diet, and occasionally getting out of the house will actually help her perform much better as a pianist. 

But with that said, I believe it would be a serious mistake to completely prohibit a child from engaging in her fixation that interests her the most.

I’m a firm believer in allowing our kids to do what they love to do the most. I’ve always told my son to do what he loves to do, and I wouldn’t want to discourage him from pursuing his dreams and interests. 

On the other hand, if he was neglecting his health to pursue his talents, I would have a talk with him about taking care of himself and being responsible. 

But I would want to be very careful not to discourage him from practicing his skills. Who knows what he could accomplish if allowed to pursue his dreams as much as he can?

If your child appears to be stressed or anxious as a result of her over obsession, that may mean that her interest is fear or anxiety-based. In that case, you may need to stop her from engaging in her fixation altogether.

But in the case of Timothy’s over obsession, Mom might want to consider blocking certain websites or otherwise making it impossible for Timothy to look up information about whether or not it’s wrong to play video games. While it is good to want to do what is right, there is such a thing as being too paranoid.

In Timothy’s case, Mom and Dad should consider having a talk with him and explaining what is right and wrong and whether or not they think it’s okay to play video games.

Why should Mom stop him from looking up such information? Because in Timothy’s case, his fearful over obsession is not based on a talent to be encouraged, but on a fear to be discouraged and avoided. 

His habit of excessive searching on the web is actually hurting him and causing more fear and paranoia to take over his life, which is obviously not healthy.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder experts say it’s actually good therapy to resist performing a negative obsessive behavior rather than giving in to it.

What is more, we should understand that Timothy is not looking up the information on video games because he enjoys it. In his case, the interest is a fearful over obsession.

One young person I know who has experienced this said that such a fixation felt like a losing battle with fear. As he searched for information and resolved one issue, several more would arise to take its place. This process kept repeating itself.

It was a seemingly never-ending downward spiral of paranoia until Mom kindly removed his access to those websites.

But what if your child seems to enjoy an interest that is causing some problems for herself or for the family? How can Mom and Dad help her learn to keep a healthy balance in her life?

How Should We Limit Our Child's Over Obsession While Still Encouraging Creative Talent?

I’m glad you asked!

For some kids with mild autism, all you may have to do is simply explain what is appropriate and why. And you might also have to set some limits for them, which we will talk about later on in this article.

Here's a real conversation that took place a number of years ago between a mom and her son, who loved to tell stories. 

Her son (we’ll call him “Johnny”) was and is an avid storyteller. For a long time, she allowed him to tell her story after story that he had created in his own mind. 

His storytelling was quite excessive to the point that he told them all day every day. Mom allowed it for a while until she just felt overwhelmed with too many stories. And she was concerned that people they happened to meet might not want to hear that many stories either.

But she didn’t want to discourage what she knew to be a real talent for storytelling. She realized he may one day write bestselling novels!

She decided that she needed to gently instruct Johnny on how much storytelling is healthy and appropriate while still encouraging him to continue practicing his talent.

She wanted to encourage him as much as she could to pursue his talent while still teaching him to be more balanced and socially appropriate.

So here’s the conversation she had with him one day.

Mom Explains to Johnny Why He Should Limit His Storytelling

Mom:  Johnny, I really like your stories, and I think you have a real talent for storytelling. I think you have lots of really cool ideas for characters and storylines.

But I think it would be best to limit your stories to just a little while each day rather than all the time.

Johnny:  Why? You don’t like my stories?

Mom:  No, honey, that’s not it at all.  I really love your stories. And I want to hear them for just a while each day.

Let me explain.  Do you like chocolate?

Johnny:  Yes, I love chocolate!

Mom:  I love chocolate, too! But that doesn’t mean I would want to eat it all day long everyday. If I ate it all the time, I might get sick and not want to eat it anymore.

So what I’m saying is, it’s easy to overdo even really good things. Chocolate is delicious and we really love to eat it, but if we overdid it, that would be a bad thing, wouldn’t it?

Johnny:  Oh, I get it. So you really like my stories, but if I tell them too much, what would happen?

Mom:  Even though your stories are great and I love to hear them, if you told them too much, I might get tired of hearing them even though they’re really good. It’s just like eating too much chocolate.

I know you want me to keep wanting to hear your stories, don’t you?

Johnny:  Yes, I want you to keep wanting to hear them.

Mom:  Right. Then we should limit your stories to maybe two or three each day. Okay?

Johnny:  Okay, I get it. But what if I want to tell four stories?

Mom:  I might be able to make an exception sometimes. But on most days, you should probably save your fourth story for the next day. Okay?

Notice that Mom explained why he should limit his storytelling. And she did so without hurting his feelings or discouraging him from practicing his storytelling talent. She explained that even good things can be overdone, and she also later went on to teach him a good lesson in social skills.

Reigning in his over obsession can also be better for him as well. When kids get stuck in a rut like that, it’s sometimes good therapy to gently prod them away from that rut and get them doing other things for a while.

Using Examples and Analogies and Setting Limits

chocolateToo much of a really good thing: A past experience of eating too much chocolate can make a great analogy to illustrate the need to reign in an over obsession on a special interest.

I have found that for children with mild autism, it’s extremely helpful to use examples or analogies to explain concepts that may be hard for them to understand.

In the conversation above, notice that Mom gave Johnny the analogy of eating too much chocolate. 

I have found it to be practically essential to introduce an analogy that the child can understand. Then you can use that example to liken it to the concept that he has a hard time comprehending.

Because even if it’s obvious to us that talking too much about sports or stories will be bothersome to others, our kids might have a harder time understanding why this is socially inappropriate.

It’s similar to teaching your child to count by having him count out small objects so he can see and understand the concept of numbers and counting. You’re presenting him with an example he can see and understand, and using that to explain a concept that’s hard for him to grasp.

She might grasp these concepts even more easily if you use an analogy from her own experience. For example, if you know that last Christmas your daughter ate too much of her favorite dessert, pumpkin pie, you can talk about eating too much pumpkin pie.

Also notice that Mom set an exact limit of two or three stories per day. Then Johnny knows exactly how much storytelling he can indulge in.

I think it’s also helpful that Mom made it clear that the limit is not set in stone. She set a goal to permit two or three stories each day, but allowed for four stories in certain cases.

In other situations, setting a timer may be more appropriate, such as when the activity can be limited by the amount of time spent. I've also found setting a timer to be very helpful for my son with more severe autism.

Keeping Balance in Their Lives

I think the key takeaway lesson here is moderation to a point.

We want to encourage our kids in their talents as much as possible while limiting time spent on their special interests when it starts to cause problems.

In short, we need to teach them to have balance in their lives.  And balance is key to a healthy life.

For more information and detail on how to deal with your child's over obsession, you can check out this article by ADDitude. It's mostly directed at people with ADHD, but I think they offer really helpful, detailed advice on redirecting a child when his interest causes problems.

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