Dear Dr. Debbie,
My two-year-old son gets upset if anything changes.
How the furniture is arranged. My hair. The order of the bedtime routine. I joke that we don’t go outside to play without checking that the weather won’t change on us while we’re out there! Is this just a phase or an indication of a psychological disorder?
Same Old Same Old
There is definitely a strong need for stability and predictability during the toddler phase of life and continuing through the early childhood years. When a child can trust things to stay the same – what you look like, what’s where in a room, and what’s going to happen next in the order of his day, he gains some control over the world he is still learning so much about.
Recent research found that two-year-olds were better able to learn new information when they could predict something about the lesson. A research team at Arizona State University Department of Psychology tested the ability of two-year-olds to learn 4 nonsense words, each associated with a novel image on a screen. The children who were shown the objects in the same order over several “lessons” did better at correctly matching words to images than did the children who were presented the images in a different, and therefore unpredictable, order for each lesson.
Early childhood teachers respect children’s need for sameness by having an unchanging floor plan for the classroom and a consistent daily schedule of activities. Those of us who hold Fred Rogers in high esteem know the importance of his singing the same opening song and closing song and regularly changing his shoes at the start and end of each episode. In between, the young viewers can better attend to the novel information being presented.
Your son is just the right age for craving order to his life.
On the other hand, if he is more easily distressed about changes than are other children his age, this may be due to his personality. Two of the inborn traits according to Temperament Theory concern how well one accommodates changes. If your son is high on “Initial Withdrawal” (also referred to as “Approach/ Withdrawal”) he would react negatively to a new room arrangement, your new hair style, or anything else presented to him which is unfamiliar or changed from the way he’s been used to. If he is also low on the temperament trait of “Adaptability” he wouldn’t be able to shift gears easily when plans have to be changed (as when weather forces you to seek cover), or even just between activities in his day such as switching from play time to bed time. Neither of these temperament traits is a psychological disorder unless his distress continues despite your efforts to maintain sameness, introduce changes gradually, and keep his daily routines predictable.
A teacher who is tuned in to her students’ temperament traits quickly notices which students would rather watch than participate the first time finger paint is introduced. She would also share her observations with a substitute teacher as well as share tips for minimizing stress with as much predictability as possible during her absence. Also, rather than forcing your son to sit close to a teacher he doesn’t know, the substitute should invite him to sit next to his best friend at Circle Time. Your son will naturally come to make such accommodations for himself as he learns how he functions best. He, and those who get to know him, would label his personality as reliable, cautious, traditional, or a “Creature of Habit.” He doesn’t need, nor want, novelty.
You may just need to dial back your more dynamic temperament with less frequent changes to your home and hair.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.