Is your child constantly washing their hands? Are they up at night with constant upsetting thoughts and fears?
Pre-COVID, the excessive handwashing and fears wouldn’t be considered quite “normal.” But, during the pandemic, we’ve all become somewhat germophobic and anxious.
For most children (and adults alike), these obsessive behaviors and anxieties will subside, but in some it could be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, a condition affecting one in every 100 American children.
“OCD is often a term thrown around lightly in conversations, but it delegitimizes the seriousness of this mental health condition,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “Although fears of harm and germs are common symptoms of OCD in children, some may manifest in other ways and can have a significant impact on daily functioning. Learning how to recognize the signs is a critical first step toward helping your child gain relief.”
What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Children?
OCD is a type of anxiety disorder and not simply a “phase.” The obsessions and/or compulsive behaviors they are having won’t just go away—and they may not be able to just “get over them.”
The diagnosis of OCD requires that your child has obsessions, compulsions or both:
- Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, ideas or images that your child keeps having and can’t stop, even if they try.
- Compulsions are the behaviors, actions or rituals that your child has to do in order to prevent something bad from happening or stop feelings of distress. But relief is only temporary.
- The obsessions and/or compulsions start to take up more than an hour of your child’s day and interfere with school, relationships and day-to-day activities.
“Oftentimes a person will carry out compulsions to reduce or eliminate the impact of obsessions or thoughts they are having,” Dr. Fox said. “Not performing them can cause distress that can vary in severity, but if left untreated can affect them at work, school and home.”
Although OCD can occur at any age, symptoms can start as early as ages 8 to 12 and between late teen years and early adulthood.
“These are the years where children start the thought processes of social interactions,” Dr. Fox said. “They start to have greater awareness about the world around them, certain social norms and ways of doing things.”
What are the typical signs of OCD in children?
The signs and symptoms may vary from child to child, but the most common obsessive symptoms may include:
- Fears of dirt, germs and/or contamination
- A need for order and symmetry
- Fear of harm, illness or safety
- A preoccupation with unlucky or lucky numbers, sayings or certain words and superstitions
The following are common compulsive symptoms in children:
- Repeatedly washing hands or using hand sanitizer
- Avoidance of touching certain objects, such as doorknobs and chairs
- Repeated rituals, such as checking and rechecking doors, rereading or rewriting
- Having to say something over and over, such as counting or repeating words, according to certain rules
- Ordering or arranging objects a certain way
What causes OCD?
The causes of OCD aren’t specifically known, but genetic changes and family history may be contributing factors. Environmental factors have also been known to trigger OCD in those who are already vulnerable to the condition.
How is OCD diagnosed in children?
To be diagnosed with OCD, your child will need to meet with a child psychiatrist or mental health professional for a mental health evaluation. You and your child may have to fill out checklists and questionnaires to help aid the provider in making a diagnosis. The mental health professional will also evaluate if your child has another anxiety disorder that can also occur with OCD.
Once diagnosed, your child’s OCD can get better with the right attention, treatment and care.
How is OCD treated in children?
Depending on the symptoms, treatment can include cognitive behavioral therapy, medication or a combination of both.
“The key is understanding the underlying cause of the child’s behavior—where those obsessions coming from,” Dr. Fox said. “If you get at the recurrent thoughts and neutralize them, you are able to slow down the compulsions. Through therapy you are learning the skills to combat the disorder and change their thought processes and the compulsions that come with them.”
How can I support my child with OCD?
“Parents are so important in a child’s life and can play a key supportive role in treating anxiety disorders in children,” Dr. Fox said. “While therapy and medicine are successful in helping treat OCD, there are many things parents can do to help.”
Dr. Fox shares some of these tips for parents:
- Avoid ridiculing your child. This is your child’s battle, and they can’t just stop what they are doing and feeling.
- Don’t participate or enable rituals or thinking. While well-intentioned, it won’t help your child cope with their disorder.
- Build coping skills. Through treatment, you can learn ways to respond when your child gets stuck or how to encourage them to rely on their coping skills.
- Provide love and open lines of communication. More than anything, your child with OCD needs to feel loved and supported, even if it’s some tough love at times. If you notice something is troubling your child, make an attempt to connect on an emotional level to give them an opportunity to respond.
You are not alone. If you believe your child is exhibiting signs or symptoms of OCD, connect with their primary care provider or schedule an appointment with a mental health professional. For more information on OCD and other anxiety disorders, visit Banner Behavioral Health.
To find a mental health professional near you, visit bannerhealth.com.