If you are a parent of a child who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), you know too well how easy it is to get entangled in an endless argument where you try to use logic to no avail. You tell your child how unlikely it is that something bad will happen, you teach her to think positively, you reassure her, and you try to help her out.
You may be doing those things since you believe that they will help your child overcome anxiety. The child finally calms down and both of you can continue with your day. Unfortunately, the anxiety reduction is short-lived, and soon after the ritual is performed or you managed to reassure your child, a new wave of obsessions and doubt begins. While desperately trying to help your child, you may inadvertently help OCD tighten its grip over her.
1. Use logic and reasoning. What? But isn’t it that how we teach our children about the world? Yes. But in this case, it’s not the child you are trying to reason with – it’s OCD, a little glitch in the brain. Do you really want to dignify it by having a discussion with it?
2. Reassure your child by telling him not to worry, that everything is going to be OK, that everybody is safe, and that the bad things will not happen. It feels good to be able to ease the child's distress, but the relief will not last long. The OCD will always come back for more until your child learns to stand up to it.
3. Accommodate by rescuing the child with scrubbing the floors or the bathroom, doing extra loads of laundry, arranging objects in a certain order – until they are “just right,” checking that the doors are locked, and avoiding “bad” numbers in the house. You are trying to be helpful, but accommodating OCD just reinforces its symptoms.
4. Tell your kid to just stop the nonsense. The child didn't invent it. As difficult as it is to believe, it's OCD that is whispering (or screaming) those things in her ear. Therefore, it's our job to help the child teach OCD to stop its nonsense. Blaming the child, who is the victim in this situation, is unfair and is not going to help.
5. Punish. Your child doesn’t want to be doing any of the compulsions, and he REALLY can’t help it, as difficult as it is to imagine.
Want to find out more Don'ts? Check out this reminder of what not to do.
1. Explain to the child that as weird, embarrassing, and abnormal as those thoughts and ritual may seem to her, they are just a part of regular OCD stuff.
2. Educate the child about the fact that anybody can have silly, bizarre, or scary thoughts. It’s just that people with OCD give those insignificant thoughts too much importance. They take them way too seriously. When they re-label those thoughts as “junk,” the thoughts quickly lose their power.
3. Teach the child to separate himself from the OCD. Give the OCD a funny and/or derogatory name and call it by its name whenever it tries to bully your child. Some of my recent favorites: Plankton (not the tiny water organisms, but the annoying SpongeBob SquarePants character) and Cruella de Vil. Or just call it “OCD.”
“OCD wants you to wash your hands again.” “OCD is telling you to stay away from the knives.” Only speak about the OCD in the third person.
4. Learn to separate the process and the content of OCD. It is not really important which arguments the OCD uses to get the child to perform a compulsion. It’s very important, though, to point out to the child that it’s the OCD – the glitch/ the bully/ the brain bug/ the silly hiccup/ Mr. Clean - that is speaking up now. Therefore, address the process by pointing out the offender (the OCD) and not the content of the obsessions. Tell your child, “The OCD is trying to trick you again.” Or ask, “Is 'the meanie dude' trying to bully you?”
5. Explain to your child that by doing what the OCD requires of him, he just makes it stronger.
6. Encourage the child to gradually postpone, or change the rituals. Or better yet, drop them altogether and see what happens. Ask, “Did what you expect happen?” or, “Was it as bad as you expected?”
7. Explain to your child that the anxiety will pass even if she does not perform any rituals.
8. Watch out for new rituals. Remember Lernaean Hydra from Greek mythology? The one that Heracles was sent to slay? For every head chopped off, the Hydra would regrow two heads. I often liken OCD to the Hydra, as when the child is finally able to overcome one ritual, the OCD will try to sneak up on her and replace it with another obsession or ritual. It’s very important, therefore, to stop OCD early on when a new ritual emerges.
9. Look carefully for any small victories of your child has over OCD. Remember, standing up to a bully is very scary. If your child was able to delay a ritual or to change it even a little bit – praise, praise, praise! This is how you encourage your child’s new behavior of standing up to OCD.
10. Get informed. Read up on OCD. There is a lot of information online, and there are great books on OCD.
This advice is not a substitute for therapy. OCD is a complex disorder. Most people with OCD (children and adults) will require therapy to learn to manage their OCD. This therapy is very different from other forms of talk therapy and involves Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). It teaches kids to face their fears and to boss back their OCD.
As a parent, you have a very important role in this process - supporting your child and helping her do what children naturally do best – REBEL. Yes, rebel against a pesky brain glitch that is trying to boss her around!
If you would like to learn more about anxiety, how it operates, and how to cope with it, please read our blog about anxiety and tips and tricks for managing it here.
And if you are wondering whether you or your child has OCD, check out this article: Do I have OCD? Sorting out Through OCD Confusion.
Anna Prudovski is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Turning Point Psychological Services. She has a special interest in treating anxiety disorders and OCD, as well as working with parents.
Anna lives with her husband and children in Vaughan, Ontario. When she is not treating patients, supervising clinicians, teaching CBT, and attending professional workshops, Anna enjoys practicing yoga, going on hikes with her family, traveling, studying Ayurveda, and spending time with friends. Her favorite pastime is reading.