How Do I Talk to My Child About OCD?

In many cases, children are aware when they are doing things out of the ordinary or that other kids their age are not doing. They may be afraid of telling a parent (or any authority figure) about their elaborate dressing routines, how they brush their teeth a certain number of times, or weird and crazy thoughts they may be having about God or hurting people, “germs” on their desk at school, crossing their “t’s” just right when doing homework, shooting the basketball until a “good” thought replaces a “bad” thought, or other common behaviors associated with pediatric OCD.

Talking to a trusted adult such as a parent, caregiver, or even a teacher, can help kids and teens identify these unwanted thoughts and behaviors as OCD and may provide some much needed relief. If your child comes to you and expresses concern about these behaviors, or if you notice the behaviors, there are a few things to keep in mind when talking to your child about whether he or she may have OCD.

Make sure to differentiate between “normal” childhood routines and excessive ritualistic behavior or preoccupation with thoughts.

Most children go through a developmental phase that is steeped in rituals. Bedtime rituals and prayers provide a sense of security and comfort; so do “lucky” charms, ordering toys, and collecting “special” items. These rituals can provide a sense of security and comfort, as can collecting “special” items or “lucky charms.” It is only when these rituals start to take up too much time and interfere with daily life that these behaviors may be a sign of OCD.

Notice changes in social interactions and confidence.

Another sign that accompanies the onset of childhood OCD is a significant decrease in a child’s sense of confidence in class, and with friends. When rituals and “routines” start interfering with a child’s social and school functioning — for example, your child often wants to stay home from school to “finish up” incomplete assignments or your child begins withdrawing from usual activities such as playing after school with friends or participating in dance classes or sports leagues — a warning sign should start to flash. Additionally, if interruption in your child’s “routine” creates undue anxiety, frustration and hostility, it is probably time to seek advice from a therapist knowledgeable about pediatric OCD.

Stay open and ask questions.

Parents should open the door for discussion when they suspect something is troubling their child. Making an attempt to connect on an emotional level gives the child an opportunity to respond; it’s like extending a hand.

Some suggestions for parents on how to open discussions with their children who might have OCD include: “You seem so preoccupied all the time, can you tell me what’s on your mind?” “All people have worries; it’s okay to tell us about yours.” “We notice you repeating the same action, do you know you are? Are you afraid something will happen? Can you try to do it only once? What happens then? Does it just not feel right?”

Give your child a framework to help them understand their feelings and emotions connected to OCD.

Sometimes kids don’t have the ability to explain how or what they feel until an adult offers some possibilities.

Use books, videos, and other resources.

It is often easier for a child to identify his or her feelings through a third person such a character in a story. Sharing some of these stories can open the door to talk about feelings and fears your child may have and can help introduce the concept of psychiatric treatment in child-friendly terms. The IOCDF maintains a list of helpful resources for you to access and use as needed. The For Kids section of this website also contains personal stories from other kids and teens with OCD, which your child may find helpful.

Be open to discussing treatment options.

You can inform your child that help is available, and that you will help arrange it for them at any time in the future. All he or she needs to do is ask.