The adolescent years are never easy. Changes to body, brain and experiences contribute to a steep rise in mental health challenges during this time. When a mental health condition manifests in visible or noticeable ways, it can be debilitating for a young person.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common condition that can be especially difficult to deal with for the estimated one in 200 young people who experience symptoms.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “OCD is characterized by unwanted intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and time-consuming mental and physical rituals aimed at resolving them (compulsions).” Although there are many different types of OCD, the OCD cycle generally follows the same pattern: A trigger causes an intrusive thought. The intrusive thought creates such intense anxiety and distress that it drives a person to engage in a compulsion.
Adolescents and teens, embarrassed by their compulsions, will do everything in their power to mask or hide them, and not get the help they need.
That is why it is critical for parents to be vigilant when they see certain changes in behavior.
What to look for
Common obsessive and unwanted thoughts include:
- Extreme fears about illness, germs (symptoms we’ve seen increase during the COVID-19 pandemic), negative events, doing something wrong, causing someone harm through normal behaviors like leaving the house or driving a car.
- Worry about getting something “just right.”
- Disturbing, intrusive and unwanted thoughts about sex, suicide, or harming oneself or others.
- Believing superstitions can keep bad things from happening or that you are responsible for bad things happening if you do or don’t do something.
- Anxiety about displeasing “God”
The rituals you may see your child performing in order to cope with their distress can include:
- touching, tapping, or stepping in unusual ways
- arranging things over and over
- repeating words, phrases, or questions
- having trouble making choices
- washing or cleaning excessively
- taking a long time getting dressed, showering, eating, or doing homework
These thoughts and behaviors interfere with every part of life. An adolescent or teen with OCD tends to be chronically late for school or activities, resulting in increased tensions at home and in the classroom. They have little spare time for fun or socializing. At school, obsessions and rituals such as checking, erasing and re-doing assignments affect attention and focus, completion of tasks and school attendance. Getting through the day with OCD is exhausting and then, excessive time spent on homework and lengthy bedtime routines result in too little sleep. These stressors can cause young people with the disorder to exhibit overwhelming sadness or anger and or try to find relief through unhealthy behaviors such as substance use.
How can parents help?
There is no cure for OCD, but parents can help their child manage the condition in the following ways:
- Do your research – Check out the resources listed on the International OCD Foundation website.
2. Talk to your child – Be open, empathetic and non-judgmental. Encourage your child to lead the conversation.
3. Understand the impact of stigma – Adolescents and teens face enormous pressure to fit in and tend to worry excessively about what others might think. Be empathetic about their need for privacy or secrecy and their feelings of resentment, anger and hostility.
4. Stick to routines, expectations and consequences – You may be tempted to make accommodations when your young person is struggling by allowing them to skip their chores, take over the bathroom for long periods of time, miss school or avoid other routines. Families with a child who has OCD often find themselves accepting and living with countless rules and rituals that serve to reinforce the OCD behaviors and undermine treatment.
Be empathetic but firm and consistent. Don’t take over tasks your teen should be doing, set limits and follow through on consequences for unacceptable behaviors.
5. Get help – Talk to your child’s pediatrician or seek an evaluation with a qualified mental health professional. You can find listings of professionals at www.ocfoundation.org, www.abct.org and www.adaa.org. Also, look for opportunities to have your child join a teen support group.
6. Stay positive – Through treatment, your child can acquire coping skills that will allow them to function and succeed in life. Always remind your child and yourself of how far they have come.
If you are concerned that your adolescent or teen may have OCD, I am here to help. Contact me at (303) 542-0180.