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Signs of OCD in Children

Would you know if your child has OCD?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder that causes children to behave in particular ways repeatedly due to constant worrying. It’s normal for children to worry, but when a child is unable to stop worrying or excessively worries, and those worries are followed by urges to perform an action repeatedly, OCD could be the cause.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 200 or 500,000 kids and teens are living with OCD. This number rivals the number of kids who are living with diabetes, but very few parents know what OCD actually is, and even fewer know the signs to look for in their children.
As parents we worry about things that could be dangerous, dirty or harmful to our children. These are some of the very things that children with OCD worry about. Scary thoughts or images, called obsessions, play on a loop repeatedly in their minds. Sometimes children with OCD are scared of losing things so they collect seemingly useless items like product packaging, shoes that no longer fit or even objects that are broken. They may also worry about having things “just right,” like the tightness of their shoelaces, or worry about things not being in order, like a towel hanging on the wrong towel bar. For the average person, these are just minor annoyances but for children with OCD, these obsessions can be overwhelming and frightening.
Some of the common obsessions to look for are:

  • fear of germs/dirt or being dirty
  • need for symmetry or for things to be in a very particular order
  • religious obsessions, such as repeating a particular prayer over and over
  • fear of illness in themselves or loved ones or fear of harm coming to themselves or loved ones
  • fear of contamination (getting sick from being near someone who is sick or accidentally coming into contact with someone else’s blood, etc.)
  • numbers that feel safe (radio always on No. 7, TV volume on 7, seven pumps of soap, etc.)
  • preoccupation with household items
  • preoccupation with bodily waste

These repeated obsessive thoughts cause children to act out compulsions. A compulsion is the act of repeating a certain action to get rid of an obsession. Compulsions temporarily alleviate the anxiety and feeling of dread caused by obsessions. Children will have a nagging feeling that they must do something, like frequent hand washing, locking or unlocking doors, repeating certain words or phrases and other repetitive actions, in order to get rid of their obsessive thoughts. They often have a hard time explaining why they do these things and may answer with “just because” or “I just felt like I needed to.”
“Unfortunately, these vicious cycles of OCD often lead a child in feeling ashamed, guilty, and embarrassed about their behavior,” says Joseph Waibel, MA, LPC, a counselor at Cook Children’s in Lewisville. “Many times, the child knows that the thoughts and behaviors are inappropriate, but is unable to stop the obsessive-compulsive patterns.”
Some of the common compulsions that may follow an obsession are:

  • frequent and unnecessary hand washing
  • repeating actions, such as going in and out of doorways, flipping a light switch numerous times, or repeating certain words or phrases over and over
  • touching or tapping other people or objects
  • checking and re-checking that doors are locked, checking and re-checking that appliances are off, repeatedly checking homework
  • ordering or arranging objects in a particular way
  • counting
  • collecting or hoarding things that have no value
  • cleaning rituals that are always done in the same way
  • constantly re-reading or erasing and re-writing
  • walking certain ways, such as only through the kitchen, not stepping on thresholds, etc.
  • avoiding touching certain items (using a towel to open doors or to pick up an item that they fear may make them dirty or contaminate them)

Keep in mind that there are many obsessions and some are not shown outwardly. Each person is different and not all children with OCD will have the same obsessions or compulsions. It’s also important to keep in mind that OCD is a real disorder, and is not something that children can control or stop doing.
OCD in children is usually diagnosed between the ages of 7 and 12; however, it can take a lot longer if the average person does not know what to look for. Waibel warns that a child’s OCD will likely increase in severity if not diagnosed and treated. Some therapies have been shown to be highly effective in people with this disorder, and the earlier these therapies are started, the better chance your child will have of getting his OCD under control.
If you think that your child may have OCD, speak with your pediatrician to be referred to a psychologist that specializes in OCD in children. For more information about the specialty services offered by Cook Children’s, click here.
Amanda Babineaux is a Dallas-based actress, model and writer that has been living with OCD for 23 years. Though she is a jack-of-all-trades, her most important job is being the mother of two beautiful children, one of whom was also diagnosed with OCD at the age of 7.