Q. Our 4-year-old daughter Lucy is obsessed with princesses and everything about them. She has princess dolls, a play castle and storybooks about princesses, which she wants us to read to her every night. She imagines she was born a princess, and we are not her real family. She drives me crazy singing “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen. I’m tired of reading the same stories and buying princess things. How can we tell if this is normal or not? Does her behavior point to autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder? What is the best way to deal with it?

A. You are describing behavior that is common in preschoolers. One theory is that toddlers and preschool children are going through a lot of change in their lives, such as giving up naps, getting a new babysitter, changing to a big kid bed and possibly even getting a new sibling. These changes can be difficult for a preschool child—much less an older child. Fixating on one interest provides the child a sense of control and feels comforting. Another theory is that children’s minds are still developing, which means they handle single interests better and will move on to more interests as the brain develops.

Many children Lucy’s age—and even older—focus on a single interest. I’ve known children who focused intently on fire fighting, sharks, sports cars, playing schoolteacher and many other subjects.

So, how can you tell if an obsession is normal? If she socializes with other children (even in parallel play) and lets other children join in her princess play, that’s a good clue that her play is normal. Children with the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are very likely not to let other children play with their belongings or engage in play around their single interest. These children are concerned with the placement and order of their things and often become upset when that order is disrupted.

As for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), remember that OCD is an anxiety disorder with two components. The obsessive component consists of intrusive, unwanted, repetitive (often scary) thoughts. Kids with OCD have repeated thoughts that something could be harmful, dangerous, wrong or dirty, or that bad things could happen. For example, instead of just being interested in fire fighting, the child may hear a siren and have repeated thoughts that there is a fire in his home, that he caused it even if he didn’t, or that his family will burn up in the fire. The child may have urges to repeatedly do something in order to stop scary thoughts. Rituals relieve the anxiety, but are not comforting or normal. The child with OCD may feel frightened, out of control and alone.

Knowing this, you will likely see that Lucy has normal behavior her age. What can you do about her obsession? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Set limits around her interest. Make rules about how long and when she can play princess.
  2. Expand her outlook. At the bookstore or library, ask her to choose one book on her interest and one on something else.
  3. Encourage healthy behaviors. For example, princesses eat nutritious foods, brush their teeth with a princess toothbrush and get plenty of beauty sleep.
  4. Bond with her. Join in the princess play by wearing a crown and playing a queen. If it’s true, you might share that you once thought you were a princess, too.

Keep in mind that it’s not unusual for gifted kids to be obsessed with any number of seemingly normal interests or things that don’t seem normal or appeal to you.

Hopefully, your Lucy’s behavior seems normal after reading this. But if not, it would be helpful to have her evaluated by your pediatrician, who is expert in identifying behavior that falls outside the norm and referring parents to services for help.

Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.

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