Even the most carefree children deal with worries and anxieties. Some kids worry about monsters in the closet or under the bed, while others might get anxious when their parents leave them with a babysitter for a few hours. However, most kids don’t spend lots of time obsessing about these fears-they move on and find something more fun to occupy their minds.
Children with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are a little bit different. Unfortunately, many parents aren’t equipped to identify OCD in their children or understand when to seek treatment. In the media, OCD is usually played as a joke, so the average person doesn’t understand the real problems and challenges this mental illness presents for kids.
If you think your child might have OCD, a psychologist can diagnose the illness and help you work on a treatment plan. In the meantime, keep reading to learn more about what OCD is, what symptoms it manifests, and how you can help your child if he or she has OCD.
What Is OCD?
All mental illnesses are stereotyped to some degree, but few are understood as poorly by the general public as OCD. Obsessive-compulsive disorder means a lot more than worrying about germs, straightening piles of papers or books, and skipping cracks on sidewalks. Even in its mildest forms, OCD is a severe illness that drastically lowers the victim’s quality of life.
If your child has OCD, he or she experiences obsessive, intrusive thoughts and uncontrollable behaviors, or compulsions, that disrupt everyday life. The intrusive thoughts are often about something scary, like a worry that a parent could die. The compulsion is a ritual that the child performs to make him- or herself get rid of the intrusive thought and feel in control of his or her environment.
One of the most common intrusive thoughts in children with OCD is that they’re contaminated with germs and could get sick. As a result, they spend an excessive amount of time washing their hands, to the point that their hands turn red and raw.
Performing the compulsion or ritual diminishes the anxiety temporarily-hand-washing makes the child feel clean and germ-free for a few minutes or hours. But after a while, the anxiety builds back up again, and the child has to wash his or her hands again. Unfortunately, the more the child performs the ritual, the worse the intrusive thoughts get.
Physicians classify OCD into a few main categories that describe certain compulsions: hoarding, washing, harming, ordering, checking, worrying about illness, and worrying about morality. Children raised in religious environments might suffer from a specific type of OCD called scrupulosity where they worry obsessively about sins and ethics.
Doctors also believe that some forms of OCD are inherited genetically. However, children in families with no history of OCD can still experience it, especially if they’ve recently gone through a change in their environment (such as a move or a divorce) or a traumatic event (like the death of a family member or friend).
How Do You Know If Your Child Has OCD?
Most children, including kids who don’t have OCD, adhere to certain rituals, so some parents have a hard time recognizing that their child has more extreme worries and behaviors than other kids.
For instance, your kids might like you to tuck them in for bed before you turn off the light. If you forget to tuck them in, they might throw a tantrum. Some kids feel distressed if their peas touch their carrots on the dinner plate and refuse to eat until you separate the foods for them. These behaviors are fairly common in young children and generally go away with time.
If your child’s rituals don’t interfere much with his or her daily life, you don’t need to worry. But if your child has extreme reactions when one of his or her rituals is interrupted, especially if he or she is older than four or five, it’s time for you to take a closer look at the problem.
Along with noticing extreme reactions to minor disruptions to a ritual, you might notice some of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty paying attention at school
- Continually worrying that something bad will happen to family members
- Feeling nervous about leaving the house
- Avoiding dirt or anything the child perceives as dirty or covered in germs
- Taking an extremely long time to get ready for school or for bed
- Repeatedly checking that doors are locked, windows are closed, and family members are safe
- Constantly repeating certain numbers or words out loud, especially while performing certain tasks (like doing homework or washing dishes)
In general, if your children’s rituals take up more than an hour of their time every day, keep them from participating in activities they used to love, and causes them a high amount of stress, you should schedule an appointment with a doctor and psychologist.
How Can a Psychologist Help?
OCD almost never goes away without outside help, especially because the compulsions and the obsessive thoughts feed each other. It’s also not possible to prevent OCD. However, the earlier you can recognize and treat OCD, the higher the chance your child can learn positive behaviors that will help him or her cope with this mental illness.
Some children with OCD benefit from medication, but others benefit from cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) alone. CBT is a type of therapy where a psychologist helps a child recognize harmful thought patterns and implement strategies to avoid performing rituals.
At NeuroHealth Arlington Heights, we offer neuropsychological assessments and treatments for people in every age group, from toddlers to adults. Once we assess your child, we specialize in working directly with his or her school to put his or her treatment plan into action.