How is OCD Treated?

Treatment can be very helpful for children with OCD, allowing them to lead full and productive lives.

Pediatric OCD is best treated by a licensed mental health professional using a type of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) called exposure and response prevention (ERP):

  • In ERP, kids learn to face their fears (exposure) without giving in to compulsions (response prevention).
  • A licensed mental health professional (such as a psychologist, social worker, or counselor) will guide them through this process, and children will learn that they can allow the obsessions and anxiety to come and go without the need for their compulsions or rituals. Learn more about finding the right therapist for your child/teen.

Psychiatric medication may be considered if the child’s symptoms are very severe and/or not helped by ERP alone.

  • A specific kind of antidepressants known as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) have been found to be helpful in reducing OCD symptoms in children and teens, making ERP easier to do and more effective.*
  • Medications should only be prescribed by a licensed medical professional (such as your pediatrician or a psychiatrist) who has experience working with kids and teens and would ideally work together with your therapist to develop a treatment plan. Click here to learn more about medications for OCD in children and teens.

Taken together, ERP and medication are considered the “first-line” treatments for OCD. In other words, START HERE! About 70 percent of people will benefit from ERP and/or medication for their OCD.

Family Involvement

OCD can be very isolating, and is unique in that obsessions and rituals can sometimes involve members of the family. Parents and caretakers (and even siblings sometimes) are an important part of a child’s OCD treatment, and should be involved in many ways. Click here to learn more about resources for families.

Other Treatment Options

Support groups may also be helpful for kids and teens with OCD, as well as their family members. Support groups offer the chance to meet and learn from other people who understand what they are going through. There are even some support groups specifically for parents of children with OCD.

If your child or teen has participated in traditional outpatient therapy (seeing a therapist 1-2 times a week in their office) and would like to try a more intensive level of care, there are additional options. The IOCDF keeps a Resource Directory of intensive treatment centers, specialty outpatient programs, and therapists who provide various levels of services for OCD in kids and teens. The following lists therapy options from least intensive to most intensive:

  • Traditional outpatient. Patients see a therapist for individual sessions as often as recommended by their therapist, generally one or two times a week for 45-50 minutes. (Most therapists in the Resource Directory, as well as many “specialty outpatient clinics,” offer this type of treatment).
  • Intensive outpatient. Patients may attend groups and one individual session per day several days per week. Clinics designated as “intensive treatment programs” in the Resource Directory offer this level of treatment.
  • Day program. Patients attend treatment during the day (typically group and individual therapy) at a mental health treatment center usually from 9am – 5pm up to five days a week. Many clinics designated as “intensive treatment programs” in the Resource Directory offer this level of treatment.
  • Partial hospitalization. Same as the day program, but patients attend the treatment at a mental health hospital. Several clinics designated as “intensive treatment programs” in the Resource Directory offer this level of treatment.
  • Residential. Patients are treated while living voluntarily in an unlocked mental health treatment center or hospital. Clinics designated as “residential” in the Resource Directory offer this level of treatment.
  • Inpatient. This is the highest level of care for a mental health condition. Treatment is provided in a locked unit at a mental health hospital on a voluntary or sometimes involuntary basis. Patients are admitted into this level of care if they are unable to care for themselves or are a danger to themselves or others. The goals of inpatient treatment are to stabilize the patient, which generally takes several days to a week, and then transition the patient to a lower level of care.

Other options:

  • Summer Programs and Camps
    Many intensive treatment programs now offer summer "camps" for children and teens with OCD. These programs vary in approach and style, but most are about a week long, and range from traditional "sleep-away" camps to daytime camps where children sleep at home or stay with family nearby. Click here to learn more.

What about PANDAS/PANS?

There is a rare type of OCD that occurs in childhood following the immune system’s overreaction to an infection such as strep throat, causing sudden onset (seemingly overnight) OCD symptoms.

This type of OCD is called Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus (PANDAS) if it is a strep infection, or Pediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS) if it is any other infection.

Children with PANDAS/PANS should still receive ERP from a licensed mental health professional, but they may also need antibiotic treatment from their pediatrician.

For more information on PANDAS, including diagnosis and treatment, click here.

*Closely watching a child’s reaction to SRIs is important, as they can cause severe behavioral problems, including suicidal thoughts.