Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is challenging enough on its own. But how do you raise children when it feels like a part of your brain is constantly scanning for danger? What do you do when you have to care for a child, but you can’t get an intrusive thought out of your mind?
Some parents develop what they might describe as “parenting OCD,” obsessing over their children’s care and worrying all the time if something has happened to them. It’s hard to describe if you don’t have OCD, but you can think of it as taking your usual parental worry and turning the dial past High to Extreme.
At other times, a parent’s obsessions and compulsions don’t relate directly to their children’s care, but they impact family life all the same. Dad can’t go into the kitchen after dinner because he’ll start cleaning it compulsively. Mom can’t leave the house with the baby because she’s afraid she’ll run into the middle of a busy street.
If you have OCD, these struggles probably ring all too true. You might even feel like there’s no way to be a good parent and have OCD. It’s an easy assumption to understand.
It’s also completely false.
You can absolutely be there for your kids the way you want to be, though it’s not necessarily as easy as just deciding to be better. It means taking control of your OCD and finding the right treatment to manage your symptoms. It takes effort, but as you know, your family is worth the work.
Living with OCD as a parent
When you have OCD and kids, you often struggle just to get yourself through the day. You want to put your children first, but the symptoms of OCD can be all-consuming. You wonder whether living like this will hurt your kids.
As hard as it is for parents to hear, one study found that children of people with OCD are more likely than other children to struggle emotionally and socially. They’re more likely to experience depression, general anxiety and separation anxiety. They’re also more likely to develop OCD themselves — though it’s important to note a clear genetic indicator for OCD has not been found.
It’s not clear why this happens, but one thing is true: OCD isn’t the kind of mental health struggle that you can keep to yourself. Many people try, and that’s part of why parenting with OCD can make you feel so alone. You work to hide your fears and keep your compulsions to yourself. Your circle ends up shrinking, and the people closest to you notice anyway.
Families often respond by rearranging daily life, trying to keep OCD under control. They’ll keep the parent away from situations that activate their OCD and remove triggering stimuli as much as they can.
These “accommodations” come from the best of intentions, but they can actually be counterproductive. Shielding someone from their OCD triggers is like turning off the lights so you can’t see the messy bedroom: The problem is still there, and until you look at it, you won’t be able to do the work to address it.
What can you do?
If you’re a parent with OCD, the best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to seek treatment. Most of the time, that means working with a licensed therapist and potentially taking medication.
The first-line strategy for OCD treatment is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. In ERP, you work with a therapist to gradually and safely encounter circumstances that trigger your OCD. With your therapist’s help, you learn to endure those situations and the distress they create without resorting to compulsions. You find out that you can choose how you respond to a trigger, and this can restore balance to your life.
You can also help yourself by connecting with other parents who have OCD. Parenting with OCD can be extremely isolating, and building a support circle can help you to feel less alone. Many OCD resources, including the NOCD app, provide opportunities to chat with others who are in similar situations.
When your child has OCD
If your child also has OCD, you’ll hopefully feel encouraged to learn that ERP therapy works for children as well as adults. It’s not always easy for the parent to witness, of course — no parent likes seeing their child uncomfortable, and ERP therapy is all about tolerating discomfort.
Discomfort is how anyone, child or adult, learns to live with OCD anxiety and control their responses instead of letting OCD run the show. Yes, it’s easier to keep your child away from situations that trigger their anxiety. But as any parent knows, the easiest choice isn’t always the best choice.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be the only one leading your child through the difficult journey of ERP. You provide important support and encouragement, but your child’s therapist takes on the work of collaborating with your child to design the exposure and enforce the “no compulsions rule.”
At NOCD, we can connect you with a trained and experienced ERP therapist — for you, your child, or both. In just minutes, you can take the first steps toward a family life that OCD doesn’t rule with an iron fist. Schedule a call and get started today.