We’ve all probably heard of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or “OCD”. OCD is widely featured in films and popular culture and is commonly misused in day- to- day conversation. Many people describe themselves as being “OCD” about things they may be particular about such as keeping their car clean or maintaining an organised bookshelf. As a result, the condition of OCD is often misunderstood and many do not know how to recognise the symptoms.
In terms of prevalence, OCD is thought to affect at least 1 in 40 in the general population. As adults we are often able to recognise, at least on some level, that our behaviour is unusual or effecting us adversely. For children with OCD however, they may not yet have developed the self- awareness to recognise this and may attempt to conceal their difficulties from adults out of shame or fear. Therefore, it is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of the symptoms of OCD in childhood, so that they may seek the necessary help for their child if required.
What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
The first step in obtaining this understanding is to know on a clinical level what OCD actually is. OCD is a pervasive and long- lasting disorder in which the sufferer has reoccurring thoughts (or obsessions) and behaviours (compulsions) which they cannot control. They will feel the need to repeat these thoughts and behaviours often with little to no explanation as to why. Those with OCD will sometimes feel that if they do not carry out these rituals or behaviours, that something bad will happen. Completing the ritual will temporarily reduce this anxiety but will inevitably resurface, sending the individual into a cycle of anxiety and repetitive behaviours.
What Are the Symptoms?
Those with OCD may experience a combination of symptoms comprised of obsessions and/ or compulsions. These will be severe enough to interfere with daily life including school, work and sometimes interpersonal relationships.
In order to explore the symptoms of OCD we will divide it into two categories: obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions: Obsessions are unwanted and repetitive thoughts that result in anxiety.
Some common obsessive thoughts in children include:
Common compulsions include:
What separates individual differences from those with OCD is that children with OCD truly cannot control their thoughts or behaviours, even when they recognise them as abnormal. Your child will not get any pleasure from these activities and will perform them purely to alleviate their anxiety or because they feel something bad may happen if they do not. The obsessions and compulsions will interfere with their day- to- day lives and will not be contained.
Children with OCD can sometimes have a “motor tic”. This is a repetitive action may include blinking or jerking or can sometimes be a vocal tic like grunting.
What Causes OCD?
Scientists have yet to pinpoint what causes OCD. There has been some interesting research however, which has improved our understanding of what is behind it. One prominent theory is that OCD is related to the brain chemical “serotonin”.
When the flow of serotonin in the brain is slower than it should be, alarm bells can go off in the brain. The brain can perceive danger where it is not, and enter a cycle of anxiety.
In terms of why some individuals experience this activity, there is strong evidence that it has a genetic basis. If your child has family members with anxiety disorders or OCD, they are much more likely to experience OCD themselves.
That said, a family history is not always present and sometimes it can be triggered by stress or life events. The main point to take away is that the causes for OCD are complex and many, and parents should not blame themselves when a child receives a diagnosis.
What Can Be Done To Treat Children And Teens?
The fundamental aspects of treatment for OCD are the same as for adults. Individual therapy is a common and effective course of action. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is often used to change the young person’s thought patterns, so that they can recognise illogical and unhelpful thoughts, and manage stressful triggers.
What complicates treatment for young people, especially younger children, is that they may have difficulty expressing themselves or may not yet have the necessary self- awareness for intensive talk- therapy. It can also be quite scary for young people to vocalise the fears they have, even with their parents. Sometimes children may believe that if they verbalise their fears that they will come true! Psychologists refer to this as “magical thinking”.
It is really important that children with OCD receive the help they need and also that they feel safe and comfortable with a health- care professional. Patience and compassion are key, as these young people truly cannot stop these behaviours by themselves. If you suspect your child has OCD then contact your GP who will refer you to a specialist.
Gryczkowski, M. R., & Whiteside, S. P. (2014). Pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The National Institute of Mental Health. "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder." N.p., 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 May 2016.