Shawn’s mother brought him to therapy because she noticed he began to squeeze his head in the mornings before school. He was trying to “squeeze out the thoughts.” Shawn (a 5-year old) was experiencing ruminating thoughts that “would not go away.” He was having unwanted intrusive thoughts.
Kate (a 9-year old) developed an irrational fear that certain foods would harm or poison her. She read food labels; refused to eat school lunches; and experienced extreme anxiety around family meals. Her parents brought her to therapy when she began to lose weight.
Rita (a 13-year old) was buying and stockpiling household cleaners whenever she could. Her fear of germs was so overwhelming and compelling that she would sneak out of her house and walk to a nearby store to purchase more cleaning products.
Many children with OCD develop it between the ages of 8–12, although OCD can occur in children as young as 4.
According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital-Behavioral Health Services in Ohio, The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports OCD affects about 1 in 100 children in the U.S. The disorder can begin in childhood or during the teen years. Boys often develop symptoms at an earlier age than girls.
What is OCD? “Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and walks of life and occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.” Learn more about OCD at the website.
What kinds of obsessions do children and teenagers have? Children may have worries about germs, getting sick, dying, bad things happening, or doing something wrong. Feelings that things have to be “just right” are common in children. Some children have very disturbing thoughts or images of hurting others, or improper thoughts or images of sex.
What compulsions or rituals do children and teenagers have? There are many different rituals such as washing and cleaning, repeating actions until they are just right, starting things over again, doing things evenly, erasing, rewriting, asking the same question over and over again, confessing or apologizing, saying lucky words or numbers, checking, touching, tapping, counting, praying, ordering, arranging and hoarding.
According to The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “Research shows that OCD is a brain disorder and tends to run in families, although this doesn’t mean the child will definitely develop symptoms if a parent has the disorder. A child may also develop OCD with no previous family history.”
Can OCD in children and teenagers be treated? Yes, OCD in children can be effectively treated. Although there is no cure for OCD, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medicines are effective in managing the symptoms. Experts agree that CBT is the treatment of choice for children with OCD. Whenever possible, CBT should be tried before medicine with children.
For more information about OCD in kids and teens, including helpful information for family members, your child’s pediatrician, and your child’s school, click here.
A recommended book, “Talking Back to OCD” by Dr. John March for parents to use with children and teens diagnosed with OCD.
“Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life” by Alison Dotson is highly recommended. Dotson was diagnosed with OCD at age twenty-six, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade.
OCD Awareness Week goes from Sunday to Saturday, October 13–19. Each year during the second full week of October, community groups, service organizations, and clinics across the US and around the world celebrate OCD Awareness Week with events such as educational lecture series, OCD-inspired art exhibits, grassroots fundraisers, and more.
As a kick-off to #OCDweek, on Saturday, October 12th, the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) will co-host the Mental Health Advocacy Capital Walk at the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in Ohio.