Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Is OCD Genetic? What to Know About Passing OCD to Kids

By Dr. Keara Valentine

May 10, 20245 minute read

Reviewed byPatrick McGrath, PhD

Is OCD Genetic or Hereditary | The Likelihood of Passing OCD from Parent to Child

Your child may have inherited your green eyes, your laugh, and your love of horror films—but could you have passed on your obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as well? It’s a very understandable worry, and one that therapists say they hear a lot from parents. 

Genetics do likely play a role in the onset of OCD. However, there are many factors that determine whether someone will develop the condition—more on this in a moment. So even if your kid has a family history, they could go their entire life without experiencing any OCD symptoms at all. And while a lot is known about the general nature of OCD, the most common OCD subtypes, and how to best treat the condition, experts still aren’t clear what causes OCD to appear in a person. 

But if you or someone in your family has a history of OCD, it’s worth keeping an eye out for similar signs in your child and finding the right form of help if OCD symptoms arise. Here’s what to know about genetics and OCD, and how common it is to pass the condition onto your child. 

Does OCD run in your family? We can help. Book a free call to get started.

Genetics often play a role in OCD

Some diseases are strongly tied to a specific gene, such as breast cancer and the BRCA gene. But many conditions are thought to be caused by a combination of genes, along with external factors. This is true for a variety of mental illnesses, including OCD.

For example, research published in the journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America looked at 15 previous family studies on OCD and genetics and found that most of them supported the familial transmission of OCD. 

Other trials have echoed these findings. Studies among twins showed that when one twin had OCD, it significantly upped the odds that the other one would develop the disorder. This was especially true among identical twins. Genes also appear to have a much bigger influence if the onset of OCD occurs in childhood versus adulthood. (Because identical twins share nearly 100% of the same genetic code, and non-identical twins have about 50% of the same DNA, scientists can study them to help show things like heritability.) 

The lifetime prevalence of developing OCD if a first-degree relative (a parent or sibling) has the condition is still fairly low—between 10 and 11%, compared to 2 to 3% among the general population.

Dr. Keara Valentine, PhD

There are several genes that have been identified that may contribute to the development of OCD, but the pattern of inheritance is complex, explains Gerald Nestadt, MD, MPH, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and an author of the Psychiatric Clinics of North America study mentioned above. Your child’s odds of developing OCD depend on the versions of the genes they inherited, and in what combination. From there, Dr. Nestadt says, the environment can have an incredibly strong influence on whether a genetic vulnerability will express itself as OCD. 

How environmental influences impact OCD

The onset of OCD can be influenced by all sorts of things in the environment, such as childhood trauma, prolonged stress, or other mental health disorders. In some cases, there may be a genetic basis for the condition, but it takes a big life event to trigger it.  

According to the Mayo Clinic, OCD symptoms—such as compulsive handwashing, needing things to be symmetrical, or constant counting or checking—may also be learned from parents and others in a child’s upbringing. Just as a child figures out that making a silly face will elicit laughter from a parent, they may learn to engage in compulsive behaviors after watching someone they admire do the same. 

OCD treatment you can afford

Use your insurance to work with a NOCD specialist.

What should I do if my child has OCD?

If you feel your child may have inherited OCD from you, first of all, don’t blame yourself. There are many risk factors associated with OCD, and there is no surefire way to prevent it from developing. 

Fortunately, treatment options are available to help manage symptoms. In fact, the same approaches that teach adults how to challenge OCD and stop compulsions work for children, as well. 

The most important step is to seek help from a qualified professional who has received specialized training in OCD treatment. Often, symptoms in children can go unnoticed due to fear and stigma, because their fears and intrusive thoughts may be extremely difficult to talk about. So as soon as you notice signs of OCD—or your child comes to you to share them—you should think about seeking treatment. 

One option is a form of therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is considered the gold-standard treatment for OCD, is backed by rigorous OCD research, and can help manage your child’s symptoms and improve their overall life experience.

In ERP, a therapist works through your child’s obsessions and gives them tools to resist the urge to engage in their compulsions. Over time, your kid will learn to experience their fears without relying on compulsions to ease their discomfort.

One aspect of ERP that makes it so effective for people with OCD is that it teaches lifelong skills, rather than just relieving symptoms for the time being. People tend to find that they employ the skills they gained in ERP daily, and the largest study of OCD treatment to date showed that people who conquered OCD through ERP therapy maintained their results after 12 months.

One aspect of ERP that makes it so effective for people with OCD is that it teaches lifelong skills, rather than just relieving symptoms for the time being.

Dr. Keara Valentine, PhD

Where to find help for yourself or your child

Struggling with your own OCD symptoms is difficult enough—being a parent who’s concerned about the mental health of your child can be even more stressful. Rest assured that while OCD is a serious condition, there is highly effective treatment available to both you and your child.

NOCD offers convenient virtual treatment with licensed therapists who specialize in ERP, and can treat children as young as five years old via convenient virtual therapy sessions, covered by most major insurance plans. NOCD Therapists are able to work closely with the parents of children in therapy, coordinating therapy exercises, progress, and other important information securely and confidentially.

OCD often develops between ages 8 and 12. If your child shows signs of OCD, our trained specialists can help. Book a free call to get started.

We specialize in treating OCD

Reach out to us. We're here to help.