Ask Dr. Marla: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Curiosity

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My 28-month old son is obsessed with a mole I have on my forearm. During the day he will ask me (at least twice) what it is and I always say, “It’s a beauty mark.”  He tries to touch it and pick at it. I also have a mole on my breast that he can’t see but can touch and he always goes to it when I breastfeed him (even in the dark). I am worried he has the beginnings of a compulsive disorder. What should I do?

A. In your question you use the words obsessive and compulsive. Obsessions are defined as unwanted thoughts. Common obsessions or fears include those of coming into contact with germs, fear of harming someone or oneself, obsessions with order and symmetry such as lining up shoes by colour, size or direction. A compulsion usually refers to either behaviours or thoughts that are done in a repetitive or ritualistic way. Examples of that include ritualistic hand washing, checking to see if an oven is turned off over and over again, counting or tapping in a specific way and so on.

While many children can develop OCD early in life, the age of onset is typically between seven and 12. It is estimated to be as common as three percent of children and adolescents. Some of the symptoms might not be immediately obvious but will become apparent with time. The symptoms can be interpreted as behavioural issues. For example, a child who takes a long time to clean his room might be preoccupied with it being perfect.

At the age of two, however, it is more than likely your child is exhibiting natural curiosity. I am concerned that you have attributed this behaviour to a possible underlying mental illness in your child. I would encourage you to sit down with your health care provider and discuss why you have these concerns and where these concerns might originate.

Published June 2010

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