OCD is a form of anxiety occurring when the brain has difficulty dealing with worries and concerns. As a result, someone with OCD will constantly worry and obsess over things that may seem banal to a non-sufferer. For some kids, their worries are focused on cleanliness or germs, resulting in repetitive hand-washing rituals. For others, it could be repeatedly straightening out an area, trying to achieve perfection. These obsessive and repetitive behaviors are done ritualistically or compulsively in order to quell the pervasive anxiety induced as a result of obsessive thought patterns. Often, an OCD sufferer will focus on things being in “order” or “just right,” also as a means to reduce the lingering, scary thoughts infiltrating their minds. While some kids may recognize they don’t need to act on these behaviors, the disorder itself propels then to do it anyway. It’s not their fault. Interestingly, acting on the repetitive thought patterns does minimally reduce the anxiety, albeit temporarily.
I want to point out that worrying is also a natural part of childhood, so is having small rituals (like wearing your lucky t-shirt before a game), being super organized, double-checking to make sure the door’s locked, et cetera. Kids and teens naturally worry about things, be it school, whether they’re liked, whether they “look cool” for school or to impress that guy or girl, or whether their parents are ever going to get along. With OCD, these rituals become extreme. So, if you notice repetitive, ritualistic, and compulsive behaviors becoming more extreme and negatively impacting one’s day-to-day life, then it’s appropriate to take a closer look at the cause and take action.
That means seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist who will ask questions about obsessions or compulsions. Some of these questions may include:
- Do you have worries, thoughts, images, feelings, or ideas that bother or upset or scare you?
- Do you feel you have to check, repeat, ask, or do things over and over again?
- Do you feel you have to do things a certain number of times, or in a certain pattern?
Once the diagnosis is made, then treatment can begin. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a preferred treatment for OCD. A CBT therapist will work with a child or adolescent with OCD and help them learn that they are in charge, not the OCD. Often the CBT will integrate Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) as part of the treatment. With ERP, the strategy is to gradually expose the sufferer to their trigger (fears) so they can develop skills and learn not to respond to them with such urgency. The process allows the OCD sufferer to begin to recognize that their fear is just that: a fear, not a reality; it also helps the brain “reset” the very mechanisms that trigger the obsessive behavior. It’s important to remember that treatment for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder takes patience, time, diligence and hard work.
Remember, there is no shame in asking for help or in getting treatment. Having OCD doesn’t mean you’re crazy, or broken in some way. There is a solution.