Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental illness characterized by obsessive thoughts that turn into compulsive behavior. While most cases of OCD appear in late teen and early adult years, it is possible for children to develop the condition. With that in mind, you may be wondering what are the signs of OCD in children.
Admittedly, symptoms of OCD in children are largely similar to those found in adults. However, there are some minor differences that are worth discussing.
Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deeper look at the signs of OCD in children. From there, we’ll discuss how to help a child with OCD at home. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
OCD Symptoms in Children
OCD is a type of anxiety disorder that’s characterized by two features: ¹
- Obsessions – Intrusive thoughts, images, and ideas (sometimes about taboo topics, such as violent or sexual obsessions)
- Compulsions – Repetitive behaviors used to neutralize or counteract obsessive thoughts.
Due to these two characteristics, signs of OCD in children will also appear in two ways:
1.) Obsessive Signs
- Aggressive (sometimes sexual) thoughts
- Concentration on household items
- Fear of dirt, germs, or contamination
- Illness anxiety disorder (hypochondriasis)
- Intrusive sounds or words
- Need for symmetry, order, and precision
- Obsession with lucky and unlucky numbers
- Preoccupation with body wastes
- Religious or spiritual obsession
2.) Compulsive Signs
- Checking rituals (i.e. constantly making sure the door is locked)
- Cleaning rituals
- Counting rituals
- Grooming rituals (i.e. repetitive handwashing, showering, teeth brushing)
- Hoarding or collecting useless objects
- Ordering or arranging objects
- Repetitive rituals (needing to go through spaces in a special way)
- Touching rituals
When Does OCD Appear in Children?
Most people develop OCD in their late teens and young adult years. With one study suggesting that the cut-off point for OCD onset is about 20-years-old. ²
However, it is possible for OCD to develop earlier or later in life.
With that said, signs of OCD have been observed in children as young as 5-years-old. ³ Still, on average, children with OCD symptoms will develop the condition between 7 and 12.
Since children of this age-range start to develop concerns about fitting in with friends, OCD symptoms can be extremely detrimental. Especially for a child’s social development.
What Triggers OCD in a Child?
Since researchers aren’t 100% sure what causes OCD, they also aren’t concrete on what triggers OCD in children.
As of right now, genetics is the most common reason. In other words, if a close relative to the child (i.e. parent, sibling, etc.) has OCD or another form of anxiety, the child is more likely to develop it. ⁴
However, another reason a child might develop OCD is due to a stressful or traumatic event. One study found that childhood maltreatment is highly prevalent among those who develop OCD later in life. ⁵
5 Tips on How to Parent a Child with OCD
If you’re wondering how to help a child with OCD at home, there are a number of ways to do so. Here are our five tips:
1.) Educate Your Child on OCD
Understandably, even with an OCD diagnosis, your child is likely unaware they’re struggling with a mental health condition. For this reason, it can help to educate both yourself and your child on what OCD is.
More so, it’s key to help them understand how OCD is affecting their thought-process. Naturally, they’re unaware that their thought patterns are abnormal and leading to inappropriate behavior. For this reason, a comprehensive conversation on the topic is essential.
If you’re not sure where to begin, there are a number of children’s books concerning OCD in children.
2.) Give Your Child’s OCD a Name
Even when a child is aware of their OCD, it can be difficult for them to talk about it. More than a lack of understanding, they may be embarrassed by their thoughts and rituals.
For this reason, it can help a child to externalize their OCD. One interactive way to do so is by giving the diagnosis a creative name, such as “Mr. Worry” or “Mr. Bossy.” If they have a specific type of OCD, “Mr. Germs” or “Mr. Numbers” may be more appropriate.
3.) Don’t Burden Your Child with Their OCD
Once you learn more about OCD, you’re going to see more OCD signs in your child. As such, you may find yourself burdening them by constantly pointing out their rituals.
This is dangerous for two reasons:
- It overlooks the challenges your child has successfully overcame
- It makes it seem as though OCD is an easy fix
Furthermore, pointing out your child’s rituals may cause them to become more secretive of their OCD. In turn, the long process of treatment will only be further inhibited.
4.) Don’t Participate in Your Child’s Rituals
Some parents may find themselves getting involved in their child’s rituals. For example, if your child has a fear of contamination, you may find yourself allowing them to always wash their hands – even if it inhibits activities you’re currently participating in.
Naturally, this tells the child that the rituals they’re creating are okay and approved by an adult. For this reason, it’s important to both recognize and prevent yourself from participating in rituals.
Going back to the OCD names we laid out above, you can tell your child something along the lines of “I’m not helping Mr. Worry today.”
5.) Prevent New Rituals From Developing
If your child’s OCD goes untreated, chances are they’ll develop new compulsive behaviors. In such cases, it’s in your best interest to keep an eye out for new rituals.
If you do notice a new ritual develop, it can help by 1.) bringing it to your child’s attention and 2.) discussing how this is a product of OCD. Again, you can use the OCD names discussed above by telling your child something along the lines of, “This is Mr. Worry talking again.”
While you help a child with OCD at home, it’s important to also ensure they’re keeping on top of treatment. With the aid of a medical professional, OCD symptoms can be overcome, allowing a child to live out a fulfilling life.
This process of treatment works more naturally when a parent is intimately involved. Understand what OCD is, what the signs of OCD in children are, and what you can do to help your child.
Signs of OCD in Children FAQs
What are the signs of OCD in 2 year old?
It’s extremely unlikely a 2-year-old will develop OCD. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest you’ll find signs of OCD in children of this age-range.
What are the signs of OCD in teens?
The signs of OCD in teens are largely similar to those found in both children in adults, including fear of contamination, necessity for symmetry, and religious obsessions.
What if I had OCD as a child?
If you had OCD as a child and it went untreated, chances are it’s continued to develop since that time, with symptoms potentially worsening with age. In such cases, it’s best to seek out treatment immediately.
Still have questions about the signs of OCD in children?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further advice to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
² Psychological Medicine: Age of onset in obsessive-compulsive disorder: admixture analysis with a large sample
³ HHS Public Access: Phenomenology of Early Childhood Onset Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
⁴ HHS Public Access: Genetics of OCD
⁵ European Journal of Psychtraumatology: Impact of childhood maltreatment on obsessive-compulsive disorder symptom severity and treatment outcome