As a parent or caregiver, your child’s well-being can be the most important thing in the world. You want to take away anything that hurts them. You want to give them the best possible life. You want to give them safety and security. What hurts them hurts you – possibly even more so than if it were yourself suffering.
When a child develops OCD, it can often go unrecognized for some time. Even if family members take notice, they often shrug it off as a phase and pay little attention to it. Unfortunately, all too often the child begins struggling seriously before anyone realizes that their condition is more than a phase.
More than a phase
One of the most difficult parts about recognizing OCD is that it can take on so many forms or themes. It can look very different in each child who develops it. For one child it may look like restricting what they eat. Another may tap things incessantly while another may say particular words repeatedly. It can be almost anything.
Growing up as a child with OCD has given me a lot of insight into what it looks like and how it manifests early, as well as the subtleties that often accompany it. But despite my personal history with the condition and even my knowledge as a therapist who specializes in OCD treatment, I still missed some of the signs that my own child was struggling with OCD.
My son always wanted things to be orderly, and he could be rigid in his thinking. I attributed this to his personality, for the most part. I recall that sometimes his siblings would get annoyed with him because he was insistent on things being done in a particular way – he would become frustrated over seemingly insignificant things. Again, I just chalked it up to his personality.
Looking back, these were signs that I should have recognized, and I think a large part of it was denial. I didn’t want any of my children to go through what I had gone through. I never wanted that for them. The world had developed by leaps and bounds in the treatment of OCD, and I had experienced a tremendous recovery because of my own treatment. I did not want to think that, despite my recovery, I had passed this disorder on to people I cherished and loved more than anything.
The turning point
For me, the point when I realized that this was more than his personality was when he came to me, carrying bags of his favorite toys, cherished items from his bedroom. He was around eight or nine years old at the time. He asked me to donate his prized possessions to children in need. I noticed he had given up every last one of his toys and tried to convince him that these were his, so at the very least he could still keep some for himself. He broke down crying and felt guilty about all of the people who didn’t have what he had.
It was then and there that I realized. I recognized the urgency in his voice and the anxiety in his mind. It resonated with me. Thankfully for me and my family, I knew where to turn. I had knowledge about OCD treatment and access to excellent care.
Family can play a pivotal role in treatment
Family plays a crucial role in the treatment of children with OCD, because children can lack insight into the condition. Family members often enable their loved one’s compulsions before they even realize it. Naturally, most parents want to help their child by protecting them from feelings of discomfort. It’s easy to see why many caregivers inadvertently accommodate the behaviors that often go hand-in-hand with OCD.
This protective nature can lead many parents and other family members to fall into the trap of giving excessive reassurance to their child, or checking things for them. Something as simple as preparing food in a special way for the child can negatively impact the course of the disorder.
I have worked with many parents who often fall into these habits, despite their best efforts. They want to help and they don’t always know the best way to do so. It may seem easier to make food for your 15-year-old because they don’t want to touch other food. It may make sense to you to help your child rationalize their intrusive thoughts, and to repeatedly remind them that they would never do what they fear doing. Unfortunately, these sorts of practices can accommodate OCD and are often more unhelpful than not, despite the fact that you meant well.
Having family members or a support system who are aware of what a child is struggling with can be of great value. Many people stay silent in their symptoms due to stigma and fear. Letting trusted people in on thoughts and compulsions can help them identify ways in which they may be enabling OCD or causing harm. This can allow them to be a significant part of a child’s recovery process.
One method that children who have OCD often respond well to is “naming the beast.” It’s a very effective way for them to see OCD for what it is: a condition that doesn’t define who they are or what they value. This practice can also allow a family unit to identify a common enemy that they are battling together. Even if your child is uncomfortable with naming the beast, it can be just as helpful that they recognize that this is a real condition – it isn’t who they are, but something that they experience.
Once the family is aware of OCD and can readily identify what is and what isn’t, they can face the giant together. Parents can remind the child of this bully and help them to fight it, rather than giving into its unreasonable demands. They can remind the child that the more you feed it, the bigger it grows. The family can be supportive and care for the child while guiding the child to stand up to the symptoms and not allow them to control their lives.
Letting go of blame and guilt
It is imperative that you, as a caregiver, let go of feelings of guilt and shame, and to the idea that you have done something wrong or did not “catch it” in time. We all do the best we can with what we know at any given time. It’s more important that you focus on helping your child moving forward and how your family can be a part of recovery. Getting the right help early on can make all the difference in the world. It is not your fault that your child has OCD. You did not cause this, and they did not cause it either.
Give yourself compassion. Give your child compassion. Let them know that you may not have always handled things the way you would have, had you known what they were experiencing. But now that you know, you will do things differently. You will help them in the ways that are most beneficial to them.
Getting the right treatment early on
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.
Remember that your child is not their OCD, and getting better is possible. 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 family support sessions designed for parents, caregivers, and loved ones, which can help you learn ways to support your child as they work to manage their symptoms.