Many children look forward to the holidays for the break from school, time with family, traditions, treats, and gifts that this time of year often brings. But what can be a time of joy and excitement can also be a time of increased stress, especially for children with OCD and anxiety and their family members. Whatever our holiday plans involve, it’s likely that our usual routines go out the window this time of year, creating the potential for distress and an increase in symptoms.
The hustle and bustle of traveling, visiting or hosting relatives, attending holiday events, and the many other changes that we’re often navigating during the holiday season can trigger concerns and worries, as well as a flare-up in compulsions. As the parent of a child with OCD, you are uniquely positioned to help your child through this. With an understanding of the stressors you may encounter around the holidays and strategies for managing their impact, your family can navigate challenges and spend meaningful time together.
My experience with my own child
I know from my own experience how the holidays can intensify symptoms of OCD and anxiety in children. In our house, we celebrate Christmas. It’s an exciting and beautiful time of year for our family. We visit relatives that we may not see often. We decorate and make lists of what we want. But from a young age, I noticed that my son was a little different when it came to the holidays.
It started in the days leading up to them. My son would spend hours organizing and cleaning out his bedroom before asking me about donating his old toys and belongings to children in need. He would often say to me, “Mom, I just feel so stressed.” He wouldn’t ask for any gifts. In fact, he would ask me—beg me—to make sure people didn’t get him “a lot of stuff.” He would say that he didn’t want it, that it made him stressed, the idea of all that stuff.
I could see the agony on his face as he wrestled with whether or not to keep a toy or item or to sacrifice it for someone else. He struggled with a deep level of guilt over it. I would try to convince him to keep some of his most beloved items, which only worked sometimes. I would also let him know about other ways we could help others—ways that didn’t involve him giving away everything he owned.
Still, he continued to feel strongly that this was something he had to do. One time in particular, I remember him filling a garbage bag with his most cherished superhero action figures and giving it to me to donate to kids in need. I told him that he had already given enough, that I knew he still played with these toys and was worried he would regret giving them away. He insisted. I countered and tried to refuse, but he had his heart set on it. Against my best judgment, I went along with it.
If there was a sermon at church about helping the less fortunate or a charity initiative at school, these would trigger him to want to “do more” and “give more.” Before I knew it, his bedroom looked empty. I remember his siblings getting frustrated with his behavior, unsure of what may or may not set him off and cause him to feel anxious or upset.
At Christmas parties, he would keep his belongings close by. He was particular about ensuring that he and his siblings had everything they needed in order to be ready to go home. Then when we would arrive home, the process would begin. He would immediately take the gifts he’d received to his room to sort them and decide what to donate. It seemed painful for him. He worried as much about hurting people’s feelings by giving his gifts away as he did about the guilt of keeping them.
Of course, being a therapist and a mother, I spoke with him about this many times. I tried to figure out what was happening inside his mind. I had suspected he might have OCD for a while but still, I tried to make sense of it all. Perhaps it was a form of self-punishment, feeling like he didn’t deserve to have these items. He simply couldn’t tell me what was happening; he just knew he needed to give these things away.
This behavior would continue over the years. Sometimes I would keep the items hidden and bring them back out later, knowing he truly would want them. Other times I would do as he wished and give them away, knowing that he would get more gifts along the way. Still, the holiday season wasn’t as joyous for him as I wish it could’ve been. Instead, it brought increased OCD symptoms and intense anxiety over the fact that there were children out there who didn’t have some of the things that he enjoyed so much.
How OCD may present in your child
Considering that children are often unable to put their thoughts into words, it’s important for family members to pay attention to changes in mood or behavior, as these may be signs of OCD or anxiety that warrant further attention. A child may know that something is “off” and that they feel “stressed,” but be unable to pinpoint the source of the emotion, as they may not understand what they’re experiencing.
The importance of early detection of OCD in particular cannot be understated. The sooner we can recognize the presence of OCD, the sooner treatment can occur and suffering can be lessened. Rigidity, obsessive attention to detail, mood swings, high levels of frustration over things not going a certain way, feelings that are hard to describe, and an intense desire to control situations or their surroundings are a few examples of possible OCD symptoms in children.
You may also notice the presence of OCD or anxiety in your child through anger, frustration, crying, and even behavioral problems. It’s important to keep in mind that fear can be a difficult emotion to feel, as well as to describe. Part of the reason for this may be the fact that it’s often masked under other emotions, like anger. This is why OCD can be hard to identify at any age, but particularly in children.
If you notice possible symptoms of OCD in your child, it is always recommended that you seek the help of a qualified professional: an OCD specialist who has experience treating OCD in children. They will have the expertise necessary to help your child manage OCD and help you navigate treatment.
How you can help your child manage this holiday season
Once your family is aware of OCD, you can face it together. In addition to seeking the help of a qualified professional, there are many things that your family can do to support your child with OCD during the holiday season. These practical strategies can also help manage symptoms year-round.
1. Pay attention to their sleep schedule.
Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. As obvious as it may seem, the importance of sleep can’t be overstated. Holiday agendas and travel can affect both when children sleep and how much sleep they get. Without an adequate amount of sleep, children can be more vulnerable to stress and anxiety.
2. Balance treats with nutrient-rich foods.
Baking holiday cookies, decorating gingerbread houses, enjoying hot chocolate with a mountain of marshmallows—opportunities for sweets can be abundant around the holidays. Treats like these can play a role in cherished traditions and memories, but can also lead to a sugar rush followed by an unpleasant crash. For more stable moods and energy levels, it can help to try to balance them with nutrient-rich foods in your child’s diet.
3. Get them moving.
Encouraging your child to remain active is also important for their mental health. With time off from school, they may be tempted to spend more time on screens. Getting them up and moving is great for their bodies and minds. If you’re able to get involved, it can also be a way for you and your child to make memories together.
4. Plan ahead.
Kids with OCD and anxiety may struggle when things are “sprung” on them. Try to provide a general plan of what they can expect each day, and let them know if there will be any big changes in their routine. If you are planning to have relatives or friends over, give your child a heads up so that they can be mentally prepared.
5. Avoid activity overload.
Know your child’s limits and pay attention to them. In today’s society, kids can have too much to do. If your child is involved in different activities for the holidays, it may help to determine which ones are the most important and which ones can possibly be skipped if needed. Your holiday schedule may not seem like a lot to an adult, but remember that a child with anxiety and OCD may be overwhelmed more easily.
6. Respond with love and compassion.
Remember that your child doesn’t understand what’s happening inside their brain. Feeling discomfort and nervousness can be frustrating in and of itself, but imagine not understanding why. They didn’t ask for this and if they could choose, they would choose not to feel the way that they do. Give yourself compassion as well—OCD and anxiety are hard. You are doing the best that you can. That’s enough.
7. Don’t hesitate to call in backup.
Lastly, if you find yourself struggling, know that it is never a sign of weakness to ask for help. Reaching out for extra support from loved ones or professionals is one of the best things you can do. Having a trusted loved one watch the child so you can have a break can also be helpful for both you and the child.
How to find help for your child
Remember that your child is not their OCD, and getting better is possible. If you think your child has OCD, you should seek out someone specialty-trained in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Research shows that this is the most effective therapy for people with OCD. Traditional talk therapy uses skills that may be helpful for many areas of mental health, but it is not the right treatment for OCD.
If your child is struggling with OCD and is hesitant to begin treatment, NOCD can help. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD, are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP, and receive specific training in treating children and adolescents. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs, ensuring the best care for our members.
You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to learn more about your child getting matched with one of our therapists and starting OCD treatment. If you’d like to learn more about the condition and how to best help your child, you can also ask about our support groups for parents, caregivers, and loved ones that can help you learn ways to support your child as they work to manage their symptoms. As a NOCD Member, you’ll have access to our support groups at no extra charge.