Symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in Children
The symptoms of OCD in children vary and are often personal and unique to the child with the disorder. Some common obsessions and compulsions that you might recognize in your child are:
Common obsessions include:
- Fear of dirt or germs
- Need for symmetry and order
- Fixation with body waste
- Lucky and unlucky numbers
- Aggressive or sexual thoughts that are seen as "bad" or "immoral"
- Fear that something terrible will happen to a loved one
Common compulsions include:
- Chronic coughing or throat clearing
- Eye twitching
- Washing hands over and over again
- Repetitive and lengthy teeth-brushing or showering
- Repetitive checking of doors and switches
- Collecting and hoarding specific items
- Counting items over and over
- Repeating specific words and phrases in a particular order
- Rearranging things to create order and ‘balance’
- Repeating actions a certain amount of times
- Having a strict ritual before going to bed that has to be followed exactly
- Rituals to ‘undo’ a thought or to prevent an unwanted event
While obsessions are always present in OCD, compulsions are not necessarily a part of the disorder. While they are common, compulsions do not occur in every case of OCD. Some children, typically younger toddlers, experience only the intrusive, repetitive thoughts and worries (obsessions), without accompanying compulsions.
Who can Suffer from OCD? Is there a Cure?
OCD in children is usually diagnosed between the ages of 7 and 12. This is a time when children are becoming very aware of fitting in with their peers, and they begin to notice their own odd behaviors. However, some parents may start recognizing signs during the younger toddler years.
OCD can make a child feel very alone, anxious and out of control, so it is advisable to seek help as soon as it is suspected. There are a number of treatment options available to OCD children that have shown promising results. It is possible for your child to have a happy and relatively anxious-free childhood!
When Should You worry about OCD?
It is important to remember that kids often like to do things in a certain way – sit their favorite toy bunny on the end of the bed, eat their peas before their meat or read their favorite story over and over at night. For most children these ritualistic actions are merely a game or a comforting routine.
However, if obsessions and compulsions are interfering with your child’s quality of life or are overly time-consuming or disruptive, it is important to seek professional help. While some of these behaviors may appear to be harmless little quirks, they may be causing your child undue anxiety and stress.
OCD also has other developmental implications such as a decreased ability to concentrate at school and low self-image – particularly for children who don’t seem to fit in with peers.
Recognizing the Characteristics of OCD in Children
Remember that kids are sometimes prone to ‘magical thinking’ (e.g. don’t step on the cracks or the bears will get you!) and some of the symptoms listed above can be perfectly normal – especially in the toddler or older child with an active imagination.
However, you know you have a problem when your child is constantly distressed by these thoughts or behaviors or when they interfere significantly with functioning.
In many cases children try to contain or mask their obsessions and rituals. For this reason, parents often don’t realize for some time that their child has OCD or may think the few odd behaviors they do see are just a passing phase. As OCD usually comes on gradually, these behaviors may come on so slowly, that they seem normal to the parent.
A child may ask the parent to participate in some of the rituals at first, seeking reassurance that everything is OK. "I touched dirt, am I ok?" to which the parent responds "You’re fine."
Failure to respond in this routine way may result in tantrums, or acting-out behavior. Very young children, such as toddlers, may ask parents to repeat a word or phrase ‘till it sounds right’.
Here are some warning signs to look out for in your child:
- Extreme tiredness and sleeping disorders, as they stay up late at night obsessing and performing necessary bed-time rituals
- Sore, dry hands from constant hand-washing
- Going through more soap than usual
- Constant concerns about germs
- A noticeable increase in laundry
- Avoidance of activities that involve getting dirty
- A sudden drop in test grades
- Handing in assignments late or not at all
- Often being late for school
- Odd requests for people to repeat words or phrases
- An extremely long amount of time spent getting ready for bed or school
- A constant worry about the well-being of family members
What Causes OCD in Children?
There is no definite theory as to what causes OCD in children. The matter is mainly separated into two schools of thought.
Possible Causes of OCD in Children
- Genetics - studies suggest that a tendency towards anxiety may be hereditary.
- Brain chemistry abnormalities - Brain imaging studies have shown that people with OCD sometimes show different neuro-chemical brain activities than those without OCD.
- Some children feel that thinking something bad is morally just as bad as doing it. "If I think of hitting you, it’s morally the same as actually hitting you and so I must be a terrible and violent person."
- Some children feel overly responsible for what happens around them and think certain thoughts are dangerous. "If I think that, it might actually happen and then I will be to blame."
Help for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in Children
There are a wide variety of OCD treatments for children and it is advisable to explore all options before deciding on a treatment plan.
Treatment Options for OCD in Children
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
This form of therapy has been a very successful OCD treatment for children since it can be adapted to suit the needs of each child. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the irrational thoughts behind the obsessions and compulsions and teaches children to overcome them. For example, kids may be encouraged to gradually face their fears and change their responses to these fears.
If a child fears dirt, a CBT therapist will help to challenge toddlers or older kids perception that dirt is dangerous and will encourage fun games that involve getting the hands dirty. This is done slowly and sensitively at your child’s own pace. Through exposure to the object or situation, the child learns not to fear it.
CBT also encourages toddlers or older kids to stop ritualistic behaviors by offering more constructive ways of dealing with anxiety. This form of therapy has promising long term effects, and works best with the co-operation of family members!
Several medications have been shown to help with the symptoms of OCD, some of which are clomipramine, fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, sertraline, and paroxetine. While these anti-depressant drugs may be successful at lessening the symptoms, they do not address the root of the disorder and symptoms will generally reappear once the medication is stopped.
These drugs also cause unwanted side effects such as dry mouth, nausea, and drowsiness which can be distressing to any child and possibly inhibit learning. While prescription medication can be effective as part of a broader treatment plan, it is not always necessary for treatment.
It is strongly advised that you research these drugs thoroughly and make an informed decision.
Natural herbal and homeopathic remedies
There are a number of herbal and homeopathic remedies that may assist in the struggle against OCD. The benefit of a natural approach is that correctly formulated remedies can have all the benefits of medicinal treatment without the negative side effects of prescription drugs.
OCD is strongly associated with imbalances in brain chemistry and there are a number of herbal remedies that have been shown to be effective in restoring chemical balance and neurological health in the brain. In addition, because anxiety levels contribute significantly to OCD symptoms, herbal and homeopathic remedies that help to reduce anxiety levels may also be of benefit in the treatment of OCD.
Used alone or in conjunction with psychotherapy, herbal and homeopathic remedies can be used in OCD treatment for children to help bring your child peace of mind in a gentle, natural way. Some commonly recommended remedies include Hypericum perforatum (St John’s Wort), Passiflora incarnata, Scuttelaria laterifolia (Scullcap) and Valerian.
Discuss this option with your doctor or consult a homeopath or naturopath for advice.
More Information on OCD in Children
Other Disorders Related to OCD
It is not uncommon to find other disorders or associated problems co-existing with OCD. In some cases OCD is accompanied by:
- Other anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Tourette’s syndrome
- Poor self-image or low self-esteem
- Poor time management
Myths Surrounding OCD in Children
Some OCD myths include:
- Children with OCD are trying to get attention
- Children with OCD can control these behaviors, but choose not to
- Annoying habits such as nail-biting, teeth-grinding or thorough grooming are OCD
Tips for Parents with an OCD Child
Your child will most likely come to you for support. It is important to be understanding, and to take the time to talk about the disorder if your child initiates a discussion.
- Try not to rush your child’s progress or create added pressure or stress. Every child’s recovery is different.
- Learn as much as you can about OCD. Knowing more about the disorder will help prepare you for what to expect and how to better assist your child.
- Be supportive by participating in your child’s treatment and listening your child’s concerns.
- Reward the little things! Recovery is a slow and difficult process so every small step should be seen as an accomplishment.
- Never blame or punish your child for his/her OCD behavior! Support and encouragement are far more helpful. Children with OCD have little control over their symptoms and need help, not punishment.
- Try and keep your family life-style as normal as possible. Do not overly accommodate your home life to fit in with your child’s obsessions or compulsions.
- Seek support for yourself so that you can express your own feelings and concerns. Your child’s recovery can also be a stressful process for you, your partner and your other children.
Strategies for Teaching an OCD Child
A great portion of a child’s day is spent in the classroom. It is a good idea to:
- Communicate with the child’s parents and therapist so that you can actively participate in the recovery process
- Make use of a home-school diary so that you can maintain constant communication with the child’s parents and can note any progress or behavioral changes
- Be supportive and non-critical. Let the child know that you are there to help and assist
- Make appropriate time-allowances for written tests if necessary
- On "bad days" make sure the child can photocopy notes and provide further explanations or tutoring if needed
- Set a good example for accepting the pupil. It is important for teachers to discourage teasing by responding quickly and firmly whenever it occurs