Having a child or teenager with Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be challenging not only for a parent but for the entire family. However, it’s important to understand that children or teenagers exhibiting symptoms relating to OCD are not deliberately misbehaving or acting out.
The sooner they get professionally diagnosed and receive treatment, the greater the chance is for preventing the symptoms from worsening as they age. For this reason, it’s vital that parents recognise and understand the signs and symptoms of this disorder in adolescents and children so they can intervene and seek help.
Learn more about what kinds of behaviours children and teens with OCD display, and how to support and nurture them for healthy development.
Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in children
Approximately 1 in 200 children suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Children may frequently refer to their intrusive thoughts, fears, or worries as “bad thoughts” and may struggle to explain what is upsetting them and why they feel it. Their fears and worries generally relate to cleanliness, orderliness, and safety, and can include:
- Extreme fearfulness over someone getting sick, hurt, or dying.
- Fear that they are going to die, get sick, or be hurt.
- Fear of getting sick or contaminated from touching something dirty.
- Experiencing unwanted aggressive or sexual thoughts.
- Persistent fear or worry that they have done something wrong and will be punished for it.
- Persistent fear or worry that if they do not do something it will result in something bad happening
- Obsession with arranging or ordering things or items in a certain way
- Being obsessed with counting and repeating words or activities, labelling certain numbers as “good” or “bad”.
It’s important to note that every child can feel a certain degree of fear or worry relating to a loved one leaving them, being clean or dirty, or arranging things in a way that they like. But for a child with OCD, these obsessions can become crippling and often they can’t think about anything else.
For children, these obsessive thoughts result in anxiety and cause them to behave in abnormal, repetitive ways as a means of easing their anxiety. These compulsive behaviours can be:
- Cleaning rituals, such as washing hands a certain number of times, or in an exact way.
- Checking rituals, such as constantly checking that all the doors are locked or all the windows are shut or checking the same homework repetitively.
- Walking and touching rituals, like having to walk in and out through a door or touching a surface a certain number of times.
- Counting rituals, such as needing to repeat a word a certain number of times.
- Ordering and arranging rituals, like needing to arrange items in a certain order or align objects symmetrically.
Symptoms of OCD in Teenagers
For teenagers, the symptoms and patterns of behaviour are very similar but manifest in a more age-appropriate context. Teens do experience unwelcome, intrusive thoughts about cleanliness, safety, and order, and exhibit ritualistic behaviours to cope with their anxiety about these obsessions. However, they’re more likely to recognise their behaviour as abnormal but may feel unable to control their obsessions and compulsive actions.
Supporting a Child or Teen who has OCD
Understand that it’s not their fault or yours
Remember that your child or teen is not responsible for their actions and they are not choosing to be challenging or to refuse to behave in a certain way. Other incorrect misconceptions are that children and teenagers with OCD are not broken, damaged, or unable to live a normal life. Offering your child support and empathy instead of frustration and punishment can help them to feel more open to talking about their experiences and receiving help.
Talk to them about their behaviour
For teens or kids with OCD, receiving treatment might sound like a form of punishment or an affirmation that they are abnormal or have done something wrong. If your child or teen is feeling apprehensive about or unwilling to talk to a mental health professional, reassure them that they are not in trouble and there is nothing wrong with them.
Take them to a mental health professional who can evaluate them
Until you can receive an official diagnosis from a certified mental health professional, reserve any beliefs or assumptions. The screening and testing process may take several steps and multiple evaluations from different experts to determine if the symptoms and behaviours are due to OCD or potential alternative causes. Always wait to hear what the professional diagnosis is and what the recommendations are for treatment before making any decisions.
Create a loving, supportive home environment
Aside from diagnosis and treatment, it’s important to create a supportive and understanding space for your child to make progress. Remember that it may take time for treatment to begin showing results and your child or teen may backtrack on their progress, particularly if they have had a bad day or are feeling stressed about something.
Try to be empathetic and understanding if they revert to an old behaviour instead of becoming frustrated, which can heighten their anxiety. They are far more likely to reach a place where they can comfortably manage their symptoms and live a normal life with the help of unconditional love and support from their family.
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