Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health issue that is frequently misunderstood. Have you ever told someone who appears to be fussing or prefers things a certain way that they are being “a bit OCD”? For most of us, it’s a disorder we associate with people who are unusually tidy or set in a very strict routine, but fewer people understand it as a serious mental illness.
OCD is an anxiety disorder formed of two parts – obsession and compulsions. Obsessions can occur in the form of thoughts, images or urges and are often upsetting, repetitive and unwanted. A common obsession in children is the fear that someone you love will become seriously ill or die, something that nowadays can be exasperated by current affairs and what children see on the news. Compulsions on the other hand are the actions and rituals that an individual takes to get rid of, or cope with, these obsessions and to reduce the anxiety associated with them.
While we have taken a huge step forward when it comes to talking about our mental health, as seen in the rise of a number of high-profile initiatives such as Heads Together, limited awareness around mental health issues, including anxiety disorders such as OCD, still presents a huge challenge.
So what are the signs that indicate a child might be suffering from OCD? Avoiding playing with other children and unfamiliar toys, due to a fear of catching germs is a very common symptom of OCD. Other signs also include suffering from severe anxiety at making a mistake, repetitive and ritualistic movements and an obsession with special numbers. For example, a young person may only like the number four and therefore, will cut their food into that number of pieces each time they eat or only want to sit in this seat number at the cinema.
Sadly, I have seen first-hand the debilitating effect that this disorder can have on children’s lives. OCD UK estimate that up to 3% of children suffer from OCD and yet worryingly, large numbers of children in the UK are at risk of remaining undiagnosed. While OCD is treatable, the implications of not diagnosing and treating the condition early on can be devastating. Unaddressed mental health issues, such as OCD, can cause serious problems in later life including unemployment and homelessness. Early intervention is key to reducing the likelihood of a condition developing into something more serious and ensuring it doesn’t have a significant impact on a child’s life as they grow older.
Children often struggle when it comes to vocalising problems and feelings and this can be one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to diagnosing the condition. In fact, most children do not even understand that they are suffering from a mental health issue. However, as a parent or carer, you are in the best position to act as an open and understanding confidante.
Below are a few simple tips for you to consider if you think a child is suffering from OCD:
- Listen: As simple as it may seem, start with listening by reacting calmly to what they say. Why is the child upset or anxious? If a child is crying, try to demonstrate that you understand how they are feeling. Avoid dismissing or judging what they are saying, as this could stop them opening up in the future.
- Encourage communication: Make sure you take time out to talk. Ask a child if they have any thoughts or pictures in their head that are worrying or upsetting them and explain to them why they might be feeling a certain way because of these.
- Set boundaries and be flexible: Ensure you set boundaries and are flexible in your routine. Children need to learn that things will be fine if you don’ follow the same routine each time, for example around bedtime.
Coming to terms with, and dealing with, a child who might be exhibiting mental health issues can be a daunting prospect. However, there are a number of services that provide help for parents and carers who think a child is suffering with OCD.
If you think a child you teach is expressing worrying signs, talk to your GP or health practice who will be able to offer you practical guidance and the support you need.
We all have a vital role to play in our mental health and that of those around us. The help is there, if we ask.
To learn more about OCD in children, the Priory Group’s guide is available here.