Is OCD Hereditary? What to Know About Parents and Kids

By Keara Valentine
3 min read
is OCD hereditary

If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you may be concerned about whether or not the disorder could be passed on to your children. This is a very understandable fear to have — and one that is rooted in some validity.

To some degree, genetics do likely play a role in the onset of OCD. However, there are many factors at play that determine whether or not someone will develop OCD. Even if a familial history is present, your children may live their entire lives without ever developing OCD.

While a lot is known about the general nature of OCD, the different subtypes and how to best treat OCD, there is still a lot left unknown about what causes it to appear in someone’s life. Here’s what you need to know about potentially passing the disorder onto your children.

The genetics of OCD

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

A study done by Gerald Nestadt, MD, MPH into the genetics of OCD explored 15 previous family studies of OCD, most of which support the familial transmission of OCD. His overall findings have also been supported by several studies that included twins with OCD. Furthermore, these twin studies have shown that genes play a much greater role if the onset of OCD occurs in childhood versus adulthood.

Overall, Nestadt says there are potentially several relevant genes that may contribute to the development of OCD, but the pattern of inheritance is complex. While he concludes there is a genetic contribution, environmental risk factors are likely to be important.

The environmental impact

Since OCD is thought to be caused by a combination of genetics and external factors, your child’s vulnerability to it is dependent on the versions of the genes they inherit from you and in what combination. From there, the environment has an incredibly strong influence on whether or not the genetic vulnerability will express itself as OCD.

While you may pass on genes that are tied to OCD, the interaction between these genes and your child’s environment is what determines whether or not they will develop the disorder. The onset of OCD can be influenced by myriad things, such as traumatic events, prolonged stress or other mental health disorders. Plus, the Mayo Clinic also suggests that OCD symptoms can be learned. In other words, just as a  child may learn to make a silly face to elicit laughter from a parent, children may learn to engage in compulsive behaviors after watching someone they admire do the same. Fortunately, the same approaches that help adults challenge OCD and stop compulsions work for children as well. 

What do I do if my child has OCD?

If you feel your child may have inherited OCD from you, don’t blame yourself. There’s no reason to feel guilty, as there are many risk factors associated with the development of OCD, and there is no sure way to prevent it from developing. Fortunately, treatment options are available to help both you and your child manage symptoms and prevent OCD from disrupting your lives.

The most important step is to receive an official diagnosis for your child. Often, symptoms in children can go unnoticed out of the fear and stigma that may surround their thoughts and actions. As soon as you notice symptoms — or your child comes to you about them — reassure them and begin seeking treatment.

You may have already been through your own OCD treatment journey and can speak to your experience with your child. If you haven’t, the most highly recommended option for the treatment of OCD is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is considered to be the gold-standard treatment for OCD and can help to manage your child’s symptoms and overall life experience.

In ERP, a therapist will work through your child’s obsessions and help them to resist the urge to engage in their compulsions. Over time, your child will learn to experience their fears without relying on compulsions to ease their discomfort.
If you’re ready to seek treatment for either you or your child, schedule a free call with the NOCD clinical team to explore options.

Keara Valentine
WRITTEN BYKeara Valentine