The Do’s and Don’ts When Your Child Has OCD
Updated: Jul 15
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) with onset in childhood is a complicated mental health disorder that can be difficult to understand, even for the child’s parent. It’s enough of a struggle for an adult to make sense of their OCD, let alone for a child. We now know that around 1/200 children suffer from OCD.
If your child struggles with OCD, here are a few ideas you should keep in mind.
Educate Your Child About OCD
For many children, not understanding their OCD can make them feel ashamed, embarrassed or just plain confused about what is going on in their minds and behaviors. Fortunately, OCD can be explained in a way that makes sense to your child, according to their age and other abilities. Parents often are concerned about giving their child “a label,” worrying this might damage their self-esteem.
However, this concern needs to be balanced against the potential downsides of not providing the child with information they need to make progress. A knowledgeable professional can help parents navigate their own feelings about educating their child about OCD and help them arrive at a decision and plan. For many children, it will actually be a relief to know that their symptoms and worries have a name, and can be treated effectively.
Accommodating Symptoms is Unhelpful
Since they are only doing what comes naturally, many parents are surprised to find out that providing reassurances and participating in their child’s rituals is a problem. It’s a problem because despite the good intentions, accommodating a child’s OCD usually provides only temporary relief followed by an uptick in symptoms. That’s because the relief of distress and fear avoidance provided by such accommodations is a negative reinforcer. Of course, this can seem frustrating and paradoxical to many parents.
At the same time parents are advised not to abruptly stop accommodating their child’s symptoms. This is best done in a gradual way, preferably after educating the child, for example, about how OCD “plays tricks” on both them and even their parents.
Never Punish a Child for OCD Symptoms
Children do not have OCD on purpose – it’s a no-fault neurobiological disorder. They also do not engage have symptoms “on purpose” to vex their parents. Parents who believe that their child could “just stop OCD if really they wanted to” are sadly mistaken. Accordingly, any attempt to punish a child for OCD is flat out inappropriate. Children with OCD need compassion and effective treatment, period.
Childhood OCD is Treatable
Treatment of pediatric OCD is tailored to the severity of symptoms and the age and developmental level of the child. Parent training is key in successfully treating childhood OCD.
While children understand and experience OCD differently than adults, they benefit from similar kinds of treatments.
Many children are helped with a form of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), which is considered the “gold standard” in OCD treatment. This treatment shows children how to face their fears without engaging in compulsions or avoidance behaviors. ERP can even be translated into “child-friendly” games and activities and may be combined with medication in certain severe or complex cases, or when ERP alone is not providing the hoped-for level of progress.
At Neurobehavioral Institute, we have the expertise and experience needed to effectively treat your child’s OCD and provide parents with the training and support they need as well. Contact us today if you want to learn more about pediatric OCD and its treatment.