Rituals, patterns and schedules are important for children. These things help to give a child’s life structure, and help them know what to expect. However, sometimes, a child’s own rituals and patterns can become extreme. When a child suffers from persistent, invasive thoughts or habits they can’t control, they may have OCD. There are ways to help a child with OCD, including techniques a child can learn with the help of a therapist, as well as things you can help your child with at home.
How to Help a Child with OCD
What is Childhood OCD?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can occur in adults at any age and children as young as 5. Childhood OCD and adult OCD share some common factors, including unwelcome obsessions or behaviors that are difficult to control. Children with OCD may have recurring thoughts, such as extreme fears or disturbing images, and an intense need to complete certain behaviors. These behaviors can appear in many different forms, such as:
- Repeating words or repetitive counting
- Organizing or arranging things in a particular way
- Excessive cleanliness and hand-washing
- Repeatedly re-checking that a door is locked, a light is off etc.
- Frequent apologizing, confessing, or reassurance-seeking
- Repeating an activity until it is “just right”
These are just a few examples. There are many other ways that childhood OCD can appear. Observing these behaviors can be scary for parents and guardians, and they might not know what to do. But understanding childhood OCD is the first and important step in learning how to help a child with OCD.
What Causes OCD in Children?
The exact cause of OCD in children is unknown, just like adults. However, OCD is often a response to stressful or traumatic stimuli. A child takes part in rituals or behaviors in an effort to manage their fear and stress. For example, if a child is very afraid of getting sick, they might wash their hands and sanitize things obsessively. Or, in other cases, the ritual or behavior seems to have little to do with the event or outcome a child fears. For example, the child may insist on repeating words or phrases for “good luck,” and to help prevent a fearful outcome. Though adults may recognize this as superstitious or magical thinking, children often don’t.
Though it is unclear exactly what causes OCD to appear in children, a number of other factors can increase the likelihood that a child will have OCD, such as a parent or close relative also having OCD at some point, or a traumatic event or crisis occurred in the child’s life. This does not automatically mean a child will have OCD, but it can increase the likelihood.
Symptoms of OCD usually increase gradually, over time. A child may start doing a behavior or fixate on a thought and continue doing it more and more. However, in some rare cases, OCD symptoms can arise from complications of a strep infection or another infection. With strep, this is called Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus (PANDAS) or Pediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS) with other types of infections.
Ways to Help a Child With OCD
Childhood anxiety disorders like OCD are often overlooked and untreated, which can make them harder to treat later on in life. If you recognize that your child is struggling with OCD, you’ve already taken a great first step in learning how to help them.
The best way to help a child with OCD at home is to be patient. This can be challenging, especially when compulsions significantly interfere with day-to-day activities, but patience and reassurance will help to reduce the child’s anxiety. Remember that the child is not deliberately taking part in compulsions to annoy or frustrate you. Compulsive behaviors are difficult for adults to cope with and control, and even more difficult for children.
Work with a Child Therapist
The next important step is seeking therapy. OCD is unlikely to go away on its own, and compulsive behaviors will become more difficult to deal with as a child gets older. A therapist or counselor who specializes in childhood disorders will be able to give your child the best coping mechanisms and treatment techniques. Early intervention will help your child now and into adulthood. A therapist or counselor will also be able to give parents strategies for helping children with OCD at home.
A type of exposure therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is one way to help a child manage and perhaps lessen the compulsive behaviors involved with OCD. However, this should only be carried out under the guidance of a licensed mental health professional. Exposure therapy works to gradually show a child that the outcome that they’re afraid of isn’t as scary as they think it is. Over time, this can help to reduce the need for compulsive behaviors. Keep in mind that ERP sessions take place in a controlled environment. Exposing a child to stressful stimuli too quickly or without the right strategy can make compulsions worse. That is why it’s vital to work with a licensed therapist or counselor.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective therapy tool for many mental health disorders, including OCD. CBT is sometimes used alongside the previously mentioned therapy technique, ERP. CBT helps treat OCD and other disorders in a number of ways. This therapy technique helps children recognize and describe their emotions, recognize triggering stimuli, confront and interrupt harmful thought patterns, and more. This process takes time and practice, but can be very effective.
Many parents are wary of medication for their children. Though medication is not the right solution for everyone, it can notably improve the lives of some children. If OCD is significantly interfering with your child’s schoolwork, ability to make friends, or their general happiness, medication such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) may be helpful.
Working with an experienced therapist or counselor is the best way to help a child with OCD. Compulsive behaviors are difficult to live with, but a therapist can help you child develop coping mechanisms, and even reduce the intensity of compulsive behaviors. If you have questions about helping a child with OCD, make an appointment with a therapist today.