If you’re the parent of a child with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), you undoubtedly experience a whole mix of emotions on any given day. Your little one may have hidden his or her obsessions and compulsions from you for quite some time, leaving you feeling guilty you didn’t seek help for your child sooner. And since OCD can significantly interfere with your child’s ability to carry out basic daily functions, you may find yourself feeling extremely frustrated at times, particularly if the fears your child faces feel far-fetched and unfounded.
Whatever emotions you are feeling, rest assured they are normal, you are not alone, and none of this is your fault. OCD is a chronic mental health disorder, and while there is no known cure, there are so many things you can do to help your child lead a normal life.
If you want to know how to help a child with OCD at home, we’re sharing 11 tips that are sure to inspire you.
What is OCD?
Many of us equate the term ‘OCD’ with perfectionism, and since many of us have certain things we are extremely particular about, OCD tends to be used casually in day-to-day interactions. We often hear people talk about their ‘obsessions’ or the fact that they are ‘OCD’ about certain things, like the way they fold their towels or the fact that they have to double check that their front door is locked before they go to bed each night.
What few people realize, however, is that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that can – and often does – become so extreme that it interferes with a person’s daily functioning. OCD is chronic, and is categorized as an anxiety disorder in the DSM-IV.
A person with OCD gets stuck in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions, which can become extremely time-consuming and prevent him/her from participating in things he/she enjoys.
Obsessions refer to unwanted/disturbing thoughts, images, and urges that cause anxiety and discomfort, such as:
- Fear of contamination
- Fear of harm (to self or others)
- Need for orderliness and perfection
- Inappropriate thoughts
- Fear of losing control
Compulsions refer to the repetitive/ritualistic behaviors and/or thoughts a person does to reduce his/her obsessions, including:
- Counting, tapping, touching, etc.
- Organizing, arranging, ordering
*Please note that this is not an exhaustive list. If you suspect your child has OCD, it’s important to consult with a licensed medical practitioner for a proper diagnosis.
What Causes OCD in a Child?
Unfortunately, scientists still don’t know exactly what causes OCD, but evidence suggests biological and environmental factors are contributing causes. OCD appears to be hereditary, and environmental factors like losing a loved one, an illness, and abuse can all trigger or worsen the symptoms of OCD in children and adults.
What Are the Signs of OCD in a Child?
Children are often embarrassed about their obsessions and compulsions, and often suffer in silence for quite some time before a parent or teacher begins to notice their fears and ritualistic behaviors. People with OCD often know their fears are unfounded and may seem silly to others, but their obsessions cause significant anxiety that can only be lessened by completing compulsive acts.
There are specific symptoms that must be met in order for a Obsessive Compulsive Disorder diagnosis to be made – and this can only be completed and confirmed by a licensed professional – but for the purposes of this post, I wanted to provide a list of signs to look out for if you suspect your child may suffer from OCD so you can get him/her the help he/she needs:
- Inability to participate in and enjoy activities he/she is passionate about
- Difficulty concentrating at school
- Inability to make decisions
- Taking longer than normal to complete simple activities, like getting dressed, brushing hair, or completing homework
- Need for things to be perfect, and getting very upset/angry when things aren’t ‘just right’
- Fear of germs and/or getting sick
- Excessive hand washing and/or bathing
- Need to count, tap, touch things repeatedly
You may also notice your child performing certain rituals throughout the day, or displaying a need for things to be ‘just right’ in order for him or her to feel safe and comfortable.
How to Help a Child with OCD at Home
Figuring out how to help a child with OCD at home can be extremely difficult, but the tips below will definitely help and inspire you. Keep in mind these ideas are not meant to replace professional treatment, and assume you have already consulted with a trained professional and have plans in place to help your child with his or her individual needs.
Educate yourself. If you want to know how to help a child with OCD at home, one of the very first things you need to do is to educate yourself on your child’s diagnosis. The better you understand the struggles your child faces, the easier it will be to strategize ways to help him or her at home and beyond. Putting your head in the sand, pretending your child’s challenges don’t exist, and/or blaming yourself for the diagnosis isn’t going to benefit your child in any way, shape, or form. The sooner you reach a level of acceptance and equip yourself with the information you need to help your child thrive, the better. Talk with your child’s doctors and teachers, research online, join support groups, and read as much as possible. Here are a few books to help you and your child:
- Different: The Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him
- What to do when your Child has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Strategies and Solutions
- Freeing Your Child from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming OCD
- Talking Back to OCD: The Program That Helps Kids and Teens Say “No Way”
Educate your child. Another often overlooked way to help a child with OCD at home is to be open and honest about his or her condition. Of course, this can be tricky if your child is too young to fully understand what OCD is, but if your child struggles with obsessive thoughts and compulsive rituals, he or she is probably very aware that something isn’t quite right. Your child most likely realizes his or her peers do not share the same fears or engage in the same safety-seeking behaviors, and may find relief in knowing the reason for his or her differences.
Be receptive to different treatment options. While there is no known cure for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, there are treatment options that can help children (and adults) learn how to manage their symptoms, and medication can be helpful in lessening anxiety and making treatment tolerable. Discuss all options with your child’s doctor, research the pros and cons of each, and make a decision based on your child’s best interests. Remember that OCD is a chronic mental health disorder that can significantly interfere with your child’s daily functioning, and be careful not to allow any preconceived notions you may have about mental illness cloud your judgement and prevent you from helping your child.
Make sure everyone is on the same page. Once you have a diagnosis and a treatment option in place, it’s important to ensure everyone who cares for your child is on the same page in order for treatment to be successful. For example, if your child’s therapist tells you not to given into your child’s rituals, you must make sure that all of the caregivers in your child’s life do the same for ongoing consistency.
Create an honest, open, and accepting environment. Make sure your home is a safe place where your child can share his or her obsessions and compulsions with you. The more honest he or she can be, the easier it will be for you and his/her therapeutic team to understand what drives his or her OCD, and what the best method of treatment is. OCD can be very lonely and isolating – not to mention frightening – for children and adults, making it more important than ever that your child has a place to be him- or herself.
Don’t enable your child. While it can be gut-wrenching to watch your child experience feelings of intense anxiety, and very tempting to give in and provide reassurance and/or participate in his or her rituals, it’s important that you refrain from doing this. While accommodating your child’s fears may help him or her feel less anxious in the short term, it actually negatively reinforces your child’s symptoms in the long run. Explain to your child that you will not allow his or her OCD to rule your home, and be firm and consistent.
Think before you talk. OCD can be extremely difficult and oftentimes frustrating for the entire family, and there will be times when your emotions get the best of you. It is during these times that you need to be very thoughtful and purposeful with how you react to your child. While your child’s fears – and his or her need to perform rituals to squash those fears – may seem silly, it’s important to remember that they are very real to him or her. Your child’s behaviors and emotions are not intended to upset you or ruin your day, and he or she would likely give anything not to have OCD. Take a 5-minute time out to compose yourself when you start to become frustrated, and on the days you do get upset, take the time to discuss the situation with your child after you’ve calmed down so the 2 of you can brainstorm strategies to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.
Challenge fearful thoughts. When your child starts to feel anxious and/or you catch him or her engaging in compulsive behavior, take the time to talk it through and challenge the thoughts and feelings he or she is having so you can change the conversation. Your child’s therapist will likely have strategies to help you do this based on your little one’s specific fears and worries, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but this article on Anxiety Canada is a great read.
Use positive reinforcement. I talk about positive reinforcement A LOT when writing about parenting topics, and for good reason! Reinforcement is a fabulous technique to use when a child is demonstrating problematic behaviors such as compulsions and rituals, and while both positive and negative forms of reinforcement can help teach children self-control, research tends to suggest that positive reinforcement – the act of rewarding a child when he or she completes a desired behavior as a means of increasing the likelihood he or she will repeat the behavior again – is the most effective. Sticker charts are a simple, yet effective, form of positive reinforcement that can be extremely motivating for kids, and I encourage you to work with your child’s therapist to develop a good behavior chart so you know which behaviors you should be rewarding.
RELATED: 28 Reward System Tips & Templates
Discuss exposure therapy with your child’s doctor. For those who aren’t familiar, Exposure Therapy (ET) is a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy that can be very helpful to those who struggle with a specific fear or phobia. It’s usually performed over a series of 12-16 sessions, and is designed to challenge the ‘escape/avoidance’ behaviors that maintain and intensify the phobias behind a specific fear. ET is typically performed by a trained exposure therapist, but it’s worth having a conversation with your child’s therapist to determine how you can support this type of treatment at home to ensure you are complimenting rather than hindering your child’s progress.
Be there. My last tip for those who want to know how to help a child with OCD at home is to simply be there. OCD is a very real, isolating, scary, and difficult thing for anyone to deal with, let alone a small child. It’s important for your little one to have a safe place where he or she can be open and honest, and that he or she knows you are always on his or her side.
If you’re looking for tips to help you figure out how to help a child with OCD at home, I hope the ideas in this post prove useful to you. Remember that acceptance is the first step towards any successful treatment plan, and never underestimate how big a role you play in your child’s recovery.
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