Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder marked by a cycle of unwanted, intrusive thoughts and ritualistic behaviors that attempt to alleviate the distress caused by the thoughts. The ritualistic behaviors are referred to as compulsions, and they can be a number of things, such as seeking reassurance, avoiding specific people or places, repetitive hand-washing, and more. 

If you have noticed your child enacting compulsions, you may find yourself questioning if children can even have OCD. The short answer is yes. It’s definitely possible for children to develop OCD. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), OCD is prevalent among 2.2 million people in the United States, and while the average age of onset is 19, 25% of cases occur by age 14. They estimate that one-third of adults with OCD first experienced symptoms in childhood.

It can be overwhelming to notice these symptoms in your child, but OCD is highly treatable. As you learn more about the disorder, you can also learn how to help your child better manage their symptoms and ultimately live a life free of their compulsions. Let’s take a closer look at how OCD may be affecting your child and what you can do to help them.

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What are obsessions?

If you think your child may have OCD, it’s important to understand the obsessions they may be experiencing. Obsessions are unwanted and fearful thoughts, doubts, images, and urges that may seem never-ending to your child. Depending on their age, they may know to some degree that the thoughts they’re experiencing are not rational. Regardless, it is likely extremely scary and distressing for your child to have these intrusive thoughts that they feel like they can’t control.

To learn more about the obsessions your child is experiencing, try to gently ask them about any fears they may have. These fears (or obsessions) can take many forms and center on any number of themes, but common examples include:

  • Being terrified of germs or getting sick 
  • Excessively worried that they broke a rule or did something wrong
  • Thinking something bad will happen if items aren’t straight and in order
  • Fear of harm coming to themselves or loved ones 

What are compulsions?

To ease the distress their obsessions cause them, your child may engage in compulsions. Compulsions are ritualistic and repetitive behaviors or mental acts that your child feels they must complete to stop the thoughts that are causing them stress or anxiety. To some children, the rituals might feel necessary to prevent something bad from happening.

For a lot of kids, these compulsions may feel embarrassing and they may try to hide them. If you’re worried your child may have OCD, keep an eye out for compulsions such as:

  • Excessive showering or hand-washing
  • Constantly checking that doors are locked
  • Tapping their fingers a certain amount of times
  • Repeating routine activities (e.g., going up and down the stairs)

How is OCD treated?

Because your child may feel embarrassed about their OCD, they may experience symptoms for some time before you notice it or they talk to you about it. For younger children, in particular, it can also be difficult for your child to find the words to describe how they’re feeling. Some children with OCD describe hearing voices when what they are really referring to are intrusive thoughts. As soon as you suspect your child has OCD, it’s important to reassure them that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, most people have intrusive thoughts! As soon as you can, you should take them to a licensed therapist who has experience in diagnosing OCD.

Once your child has been diagnosed, you can begin seeking treatment to help them manage their OCD symptoms. OCD is best treated through a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Through ERP, your child will have a safe space to face their fears and practice resisting the urge to engage in their compulsions. Their therapist will teach them how to cope with their obsessive thoughts in order to help them gain a sense of freedom from their compulsions.

Part of treating childhood OCD may involve including you, the parent, in therapy sessions, and your child’s therapist can help teach you how to respond to OCD situations with your child so you can learn how to best support them.

To begin treatment for your child, you can reach out to the clinical team at NOCD for a free call to discuss your child’s needs and possible therapist matches. Once you have been matched with one of our ERP-certified therapists, teletherapy is available to you and your child through one-on-one video sessions or phone calls. From the comfort of your home, your child can begin working toward a life free of fears and compulsions.

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