The term “OCD” is often wrongly diagnosed to someone who has a strict morning routine or keeps an organized desk.
Having OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder, has little to do with your cleaning habits or lack of flexibility and more to do with your ability to handle unpleasant thoughts, says Irina Gorelik, a child psychologist at Williamsburg Therapy Group.
“If any of us get a thought that’s disturbing, we could potentially move on from it,” she says. “But for someone with OCD, it causes a really distressing response and so they want to do a behavior that makes the thought go away.”
Think of the disorder in two parts, Gorelik says:
- Obsession: intrusive thoughts, urges, or images, that cause distress and are unwanted
- Compulsion: the behavior that is used to reduce the level of distress brought on by the obsession
In children, it’s usually easy to diagnose, she says, because it presents in noticeable ways.
Here are two signs your child might have OCD and tips for how to support them.
They need reassurance about their safety and yours
Your child might repeatedly ask you if they are going to be okay, even if they are not going to be in any obvious or immediate danger. The same goes for their loved ones.
“I’ve had patients who’ve worried that something bad might happen to their family, so the compulsion is to check in on their family repeatedly,” she says. “They might say ‘I love you’ but not in a normal way, in a way that feels like they need to say it.”
Some other symptoms to look out for include:
- A fear of germs and compulsive hand washing
- Constant worry about getting sick
- Excessive clinginess. For example, they don’t want to go to a sleepover because they think something might happen to you or them if you aren’t together
They need reassurance they haven’t hurt anyone
Just like how a child with OCD might worry about themselves or their family being hurt, they might also worry that they’ve hurt others.
Some specific symptoms might include:
- Confessing a bad thought, like a curse word or about hurting someone.
- Asking “Do you still love me?” repeatedly
For diagnosis, Gorelik says these obsessions and compulsions are typically time-consuming. They might take up an hour or more a day.
The compulsion acts as a “band aid” over the obsession, Gorelik says. And as a parent, you might want to comfort your child.
“It might come naturally to parents to reassure your kids and say, ‘you’re not hurt. No one is hurting you,’ but that’s actually feeding the anxiety,” she says.
It would be more helpful to tell your child that being worried is normal and that you can sit with that worry and choose not to engage in a compulsion.
For example, having the thought that your parents might be in danger is obviously anxiety-producing. But, that doesn’t mean you have to call your parents every 10 minutes. Let the feeling pass.
“Learn to sit with the thoughts and tolerate the thoughts, she says.