Is My 3-Year-Old’s Ritualistic Behavior Normal?

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Reader’s Question

I am worried about my son who is 3, almost 4 years old, as each night he has to warm his milk in the microwave and has a tantrum if I do not press stop on the number 4! He also has to place the milk in the centre of the microwave each time. If I move it he goes mad! He is a very bossy child to me but does play well with other children and interacts well. He is affectionate with everyone when he is in a good mood and his speech is fine. It is just that he has a very determined nature and has this repetitive problem of the microwave each night! Is this a sign of a problem?

Psychologist’s Reply

In a word, no. What you describe sounds like it is developmentally appropriate and within the normal range of behavior for a 3- to 4-year-old. Most young children have their own little quirks and idiosyncrasies and go through periods during which everything must be “just so.” For example, it is not unusual for young children to prefer that certain events occur in a specific or particular way or order (e.g., bedtime and mealtime routines) and to become upset if these routines are disrupted or not carried out as expected. Routines and rituals help young children feel secure and somewhat in control in a world in which they largely have no control. Your son is transitioning from a toddler to a big boy, and likely just trying to exert control and independence and, for whatever reason that is probably known only to your son, the routine and ritual of putting his milk in the middle of the microwave each night and stopping it with four seconds left is comforting to him and helps him to do just that. If this is the only (or one of a short few) repetitive or ritualistic behavior(s) he is exhibiting, then I would not be overly concerned. He will likely outgrow the behavior as he gets older.

However, if it is significantly concerning to you and/or your son’s symptoms expand or worsen, begin to disrupt his daily life and functioning, or continue to cause concern as he gets older, you may want to discuss your concerns with your pediatrician and/or a psychologist who specializes in treating children. For now, though, I say enjoy your son, quirks and all.

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