When your child has an obsessive compulsive disorder

Since Jayden Roja was a two-and-a-half years old, he would immediately stop eating if he accidentally spilled food on his hands or clothes. He would then insist that his mother washes it off and change his clothes before he would continue eating.

He is now six years old, but he hasn’t changed. “It is odd. He is just too obsessed with being clean,” says his mother, Jane Wangui.

But that is not the only thing that Jayden is obsessed with. He is particular about how his clothes are arranged in his closet, which usually is according to colour and size. He gets upset when objects are touched or moved in his room. If something is moved or placed in a different position, Jayden will put it back to its original position. He also has sleeping ritual. He has to sleep at 8pm everyday without fail.  Even more appalling, is his anxiety about his family’s safety. Jayden gets worried excessively about bad things happening to his family members, and constantly asks his parents if something bad might happen to them.

Jane says she often got frustrated with her son’s obsessive habits until about a year ago when a close friend told her about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). “Being a first-time mum, naturally I assumed that was a regular phase of childhood and he would outgrow it. But things seemed to get worse by the day. I took him to a therapist for assessment and indeed he was found to have one of the most common mental illnesses among children; OCD. To say I was confused would be an understatement,” she narrates. Jayden has since started therapy, which his mother says has shown great improvement.


Zipporah Kanyeki, a child psychologist, describes obsessions as thoughts or urges that a person does not want, but cannot get out of their head, ending in them feeling anxious or fearful. They include imagining that loved ones might get hurt or die, getting scared of getting sick from touching dirty things, feeling unsettled if their books or toys are not arranged in the right order and so on.

Compulsions are things a person feels they must do over and over, and cannot stop doing even if they don’t want to.  They include washing hands repeatedly, praying, repetitive counting or tapping, or strange obsession with certain clothes. “If your child has unwanted thoughts or behaviour that gets in the way of their daily life, they might have OCD and therefore, it is necessary to have them checked,” says Kanyeki.

Managing OCD

Cause of OCD is not known. However, children may develop OCD if family members have a history of anxiety or if children have been through a stressful or traumatic event. “It’s not a child’s, parents’ or teachers’ fault if a child develops the condition. Children with OCD will do their rituals even if they are punished for doing them,” she explains.

Many times, a child with OCD may not know why they need to do something, only that they need to do it. For example, she might say that she wants the books placed in a certain way on the table, but can’t say what will happen if they aren’t lined up. Kanyeki notes that OCD is not self-correcting, and if not addressed early, might lead to emotional health problems later in life. So, seeking professional treatment is important. And since it affects a child’s ability to relax and enjoy life, they might have challenges such as trouble paying attention or doing homework, have disrupted routines, get fatigued, develop social and self-esteem problems, among others.

Treatment for OCD include Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)and in severe cases, medication might be used in combination with therapy. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviours, and thoughts.

At home a parent can help manage a child’s anxiety by helping him to relax, for example, deep breathing, muscle relaxation and meditation, positive self-talk, distraction, introduce a worry box or set aside a calm place where the child can do activities that distract him from worries.