In general, most children like routine. They find having things the same very reassuring. And being orderly can have benefits, like developing good organizational skills. For some children, however, this goes to extremes, and interrupting or changing the routine or order of things can cause them to become quite upset, anxious or angry. A child may want things in his room to be arranged a certain way even if it looks messy to you. He may have definite routines about how he eats, the way he goes to daycare, his bedtime rituals, and so on.
Sometimes children are orderly because they see their parents behaving that way. In other cases, major changes, such as a move, marital tensions or loss of a loved one or the family pet may cause a child to become more orderly and routine-focused. This is one way children react to reassure themselves that some things are still predictable.
If you are concerned about your child's extreme and rigid need for routine, here are some suggestions for how to handle the situation:
- Talk to your child about why he wants to be so orderly and see if it has some special meaning. Some children can't explain why - they just know it makes them feel better to do things a certain way.
- When you know there are going to be changes in your child's life, try to prepare her in advance for these changes and, when you can, have your child participate in deciding what and how things will change.
- Try not to force your child to change things she doesn't want to change. On the other hand, when she is feeling distress by the need to be so orderly, try to get her to experiment with changing how things are done.
- Avoid getting into a power struggle and spending too much time discussing your child's need to be orderly.
- Be patient in waiting for your child to become ready to change, and accept that there may be things that have a special meaning for your child that you don't understand.
- Work with your child to find out what part of his routine is the most important and can stay the same. For the rest, negotiate with your child about the parts that can be more flexible, especially when other people are affected by the routine.
Most children become preoccupied with being very orderly for a reason. If the orderliness becomes extreme and dominates your child's life, if he gets panicky when you attempt to help him break his routines, or if his need for order is dominating his life and interfering with his normal functioning, consult your child's daycare provider, school teacher, principal, or guidance counsellor to learn if this behaviour is also evident to them. You may wish to discuss this with your child's physician. If you are in Canada, and you wish to speak to a counsellor about this, contact Parent Help Line, 1-888-603-9100.
Remember, every child is unique. Some children will be orderly, to a greater or lesser degree, all their lives. It's important for us to help them feel valued for who they are.