Dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be tricky, and even trickier when trying to learn how to handle a teenager with OCD. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwanted, intrusive thoughts and worries (obsessions) and concurrent irrational, ritualistic behaviors (compulsions).
These two elements create a recurring cycle, where teens with OCD feel growing anxiety and discomfort through their obsessions and soothe them with their compulsions for a short time, only for the nagging feeling to return.
What is Teenage OCD Like?
Cases of teenage OCD can vary in severity and nature. Some teens exhibit classic symptoms, such as counting or repeating mantras, performing actions repeatedly (turning lights on and off a set number of times, etc.), or excessive cleaning. Some actions are more obscure, however, such as excessive religious repentance or superstitiously avoiding certain concepts, places, and numbers.
Obsessions can greatly vary in severity and kind, as well. Some teens with OCD feel extreme mysophobia. They feel they are at risk of infection from others and fear contamination, even if it isn’t possible. This can directly relate to their ritual of choice, such as handwashing.
In other cases, a teen with OCD might have recurring thoughts about their loved ones getting hurt in an explosion or accident. They feel they can’t keep these thoughts from happening, so they check the stove, the lights, or the locks several times a day.
OCD Becomes Complicated with Time
OCD can become more complicated with time. What might have started as simply checking the stove once to make sure there’s no gas leak might turn into a complex set of checking rituals involving a precise number of checks. There is no pleasure or joy in these rituals. They’re forced because a teen with OCD feels they have no choice but to perform them or suffer from their unwanted thoughts.
For parents and loved ones, this behavior can range from irritating to worrying. If your teen likes being neat or clean and consistently organizes their surroundings, it might be time-consuming at first, but it probably doesn’t seem alarming.
When they begin to spend over an hour every day organizing and reorganizing their space, on the other hand, it can begin to disrupt their day-to-day lives and become a detriment to their studies, their work, and their relationships. OCD often begins during adolescence, which means that teens with OCD might struggle to keep up with their peers socially and academically as a result of their condition.
Seeking treatment as soon as possible is crucial. But this might lead to the next hurdle for some parents.
Dealing with Treatment Refusal
OCD is treated through a therapeutic method called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), which aims to help teens come to terms with their unwanted thoughts and ignore their compulsions through a slow, step-by-step approach.
Like a form of behavioral training (and in turn, cognitive training), ERP might put a teen in a situation where their compulsion is triggered and then challenge them to ignore that compulsion for a few minutes, then a bit longer until they can eventually stop themselves from answering to their obsession (and thus begin letting it fade into the background of their thoughts).
Some teens might not want to go through treatment for their condition, however. They might be worried about the stigma surrounding treatment, and if they haven’t told any of their friends or classmates yet, they might be worried that going to therapy might mean they would be treated differently. Perhaps they might also be worried about the side effects of OCD medication or potentially falling behind academically due to treatment.
The thing is that, for most teens with OCD, these worries come to pass anyway as their condition progresses, even if they don’t want to consider that.
One way to help convince a teen to get the help they need might be through motivational interviewing, wherein a mental health professional helps motivate change and reduce a teen’s worries regarding treatment by addressing their questions and helping them better understand both their diagnosis and their treatment process.
This is different from forcing or nagging a teen to get help – instead, it argues for the positive benefits of help versus the consequences of a growing OCD problem.
Reinforcing Positive Coping Skills at Home
As a teen’s treatment progresses, they may learn to apply healthier habits and coping skills to minimize the effect that their OCD symptoms have on their day-to-day life. They might be tasked with both nutritional changes and physical activity, embracing a productive hobby, or spending more time socializing with friends.
Keeping up with these healthy coping skills alone is incredibly difficult. It takes a serious commitment and self-discipline, as well as a love for things like physical activity or a newfound hobby.
Helping your teen reinforce these habits by joining in is important. Let them help you plan and organize healthier meals, cook quick or easy recipes, or make healthier take-out choices. Encourage them to join you on a morning run, hit the gym alongside you, or go on more outdoor trips over the weekend. Encourage them to help you out around the house, in the garden, or in the garage.
Taking Care of Yourself
It’s only natural to want to put our loved ones first, especially if you are in the role of caretaker as a teen’s parent or guardian. And while the health of your teen is important, it can begin to affect your own mental health as well. Don’t try to help them alone.
Enlist the help of other relatives, teachers, and mental health professionals, and consider working with a mental health professional to develop your own habits and coping skills to deal with the stress.
Even just beginning a journal, writing in a personal log, picking up an old hobby you used to enjoy like model painting or balcony gardening, or going for outdoor walks more frequently can help make a difference and improve your resilience.
Getting Help Together
Being in the position of the caregiver also tends to make it easier to ignore the warning signs when we begin to develop our own set of worries, intrusive thoughts, and low episodes.
The connection between a parent’s mental health and the mental health of their child is strong. No matter how much you might try to hide your own negative thoughts, your teen can and does pick up on them. Don’t think that you must be strong enough to handle both your teen’s symptoms and your own. Be a supportive parent, be there for your teen, but seek professional help for yourself as well.