Passion or Obsession? Understanding Intense Interests in Preschoolers

Everyday when my son arrives at school, he runs up to his teachers with excitement and asks some variation of: “What bus are we waiting for? The 21 or the 22?”. 

I gently remind him to say hello to his teachers first, and sometimes he remembers this and greets them before asking his bus question. But more often than not, his immediate concern trumps social etiquette; he wants to talk about bus numbers with his teachers and now!

He loves numbers.  And vehicles.  

Combine numbers with vehicles, and you have a passion. Can you imagine the exciteability and immense distractibility lines of buses would provide? How on earth is he supposed to stay focused enough to say hello when he is in that kind of environment?!

Young Children and Passions

Passions are important to a child’s happiness. They are a child’s deepest desires and are connected to their emotional self.  Some passions may seem “better” than others (think altruistic or purposeful passions), while others are innately innocent and childlike. 

When we think of passions in young children, we immediately think of dinosaurs, trains, princesses, horses and outer space…concepts and topics that are interesting and fun for a preschooler’s level of cognitive reasoning. These are concepts that are typically ignited by toys and television shows and are further explored through the wonderful world of their imagination.  

Children with Hyperlexia and/or Autism may have more intense interests and interests that are innately different than that of their peers. In fact, these intense interests were one of the first markers that Kanner ascribed to children with Autism.

“Numbers” isn’t a typical interest among preschoolers, and yet I am at a place where I am comfortable and encouraging of my son’s passion. It is sometimes intense, yes, but there is no reason to interfere, as long as it isn’t interfering in his life. Numbers have always been a favorite of his, and like other hyperlexic and gifted kids he has also shown an affinity for uncommon interests such as national and international geography and the periodic table.

But passion isn’t limited to only children with Hyperlexia and Autism. Approximately one in three children has a passion, or “intense interest” as it is often referred to in the medical field (Live Science). These intense interests can often confuse parents and other adults. Is it abnormal when a child becomes overly obsessed with trains…train toys, train clothing, train bed sheets, train excursions, trains all day, all the time?  As parents, should we discourage these passions or try to provide different opportunities outside of these interests? What is the line between passion and obsession?

When Passions Become Obsessions

There is a particularly fine line between passions and obsessions, especially for hyperlexic kids (do you notice that there are multiple “fine lines” in hyperlexia?). Further, there is no empiral research that draws this line for us; there is no distinct line between a typical interest and an interest that might be unfavorable (Circumscribed Interests).  

In general, passions are good for your child to have! They are offshoots of your child’s personality and are representative  of their curiosity and eagerness to experience the world around them. They play an organic role in your child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. 

Signs that your child might be struggling, however, or that your child might benefit from behavioral interventions include having passions that impact their social relationships in a predominately negative way (they entirely isolate themselves from their family and peers).  Do their passions seem to be hurting more than pleasing them? Or are they interfering with their daily functioning? A passion may be damaging when your child is “inflexible in her willingness to participate in other activities and seems to lack the ability to have fun when she is not allowed to pursue her passion” (Toca Boca). 

My preschooler has a passion for numbers and numbered vehicles, but he also has a range of interests outside of this specificity.  And when encouraged to play something else, he will willingly play another toy or game and is able to enjoy himself. There is an eagerness to play with/talk about a certain topic, but the rigidness is not there. 

Do We Encourage Passions or Discourage Them?

So even knowing that passions are an entirely standard part of childhood and that your child is not hurting her/himself by pursuing a specific interest, should you still try to encourage interests outside of their own little world?

The answer is yes and no.  

There is no harm in offering your child multiple play opportunities outside of their interests. Subtle shifts in their toys or activities encourages children to function outside of their comfort zone and to experiment with new ideas and concepts. It may also offer opportunities for social skills expansion; having multiple topics in your child’s repertoire gives them multiple opportunities to connect with peers.  

For an example, we set up a marble run in our house this past weekend.  Since my son loves race cars, we have an excessive amount of hot wheels tracks.  Instead of using the tracks for their intended purpose, however, we utilized a subtle shift…it moved play time away from race cars and numbers, and into building and problem solving. 

It is important to offer children a variety of play opportunities, but to also remember that these passions may be the lens through which they see the world (What is hyperlexia?). They communicate through and about their passions as a means to connect with others, even if they sometimes miss the mark. My son is attempting to connect with his teachers by using his love of buses and their numbers. We will continue to provide guidance on social interactions, but there is no reason to prohibit him from talking about buses when he arrives at school. He looks forward to seeing the ensembles of buses as he arrives each day and guessing which ones we will pass.

These passions are indeed a geniune part of their world. Instead of squashing it, embrace it! Use their passion for the greater good. Use their love of numbers…pets, babydolls, video games, the human body, painting, superheroes, sports, insects..to help them attain other skills that they may be lacking. And remember, they don’t stay little for long. In a few years, you will be wishing for a time when you could discuss trains for hours on end.  

*Preschooler Book Suggestion: The Trucker by Barbara Samuels

4 Comments

  1. This is such an excellent post, Elizabeth. I think you are spot on when you say that we can utilise a child’s interests or passions to move them on with their learning in small, manageable yet comfortable steps. My child had a passion for trains (as do many 3 year olds) but in fact I later learnt it wasn’t trains but wheels that were interesting him. We spent many a weekend looking for different sized tyres and wheels! This moved on to moving parts in Transformers, radios and machines. It is interesting how young children have these interests as a way of making sense of their world and we must embrace them as a way of exciting children to try new things. Good luck with your bus and number interested little guy! Xx

    Liked by 1 person

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