In terms of prevalence, OCD is thought to affect at least 1 in 40 in the general population. As adults we are often able to recognise, at least on some level, that our behaviour is unusual or effecting us adversely. For children with OCD however, they may not yet have developed the self- awareness to recognise this and may attempt to conceal their difficulties from adults out of shame or fear. Therefore, it is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of the symptoms of OCD in childhood, so that they may seek the necessary help for their child if required.
WHAT IS OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER?
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
In order to explore the symptoms of OCD we will divide it into two categories: obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions: Obsessions are unwanted and repetitive thoughts that result in anxiety.
Some common obsessive thoughts in children include:
- Fear of contamination: Your child may frequently worry over germs and disease.
- Numbers: Becoming fixated on a certain number or completing tasks a certain number of times.
- Symmetry: Your child may become anxious if things are not arranged in perfect order.
- Fear of harm: This can take the form of worrying about harming themselves and or others i.e. fear of being hit by a car or fear of accidentally stabbing someone.
- Unwanted thoughts: These may include taboo thoughts with reoccurring preoccupations with sex and religion. In children this is often identified by inappropriate drawings or imaginary games.
Common compulsions include:
- Excessive handwashing or cleaning
- Having to arrange objects in a particular way
- Excessively checking things are a certain way i.e. that the front door is locked
What separates individual differences from those with OCD is that children with OCD truly cannot control their thoughts or behaviours, even when they recognise them as abnormal. Your child will not get any pleasure from these activities and will perform them purely to alleviate their anxiety or because they feel something bad may happen if they do not. The obsessions and compulsions will interfere with their day- to- day lives and will not be contained.
Children with OCD can sometimes have a “motor tic”. This is a repetitive action may include blinking or jerking or can sometimes be a vocal tic like grunting.
WHAT CAUSES OCD?
When the flow of serotonin in the brain is slower than it should be, alarm bells can go off in the brain. The brain can perceive danger where it is not, and enter a cycle of anxiety.
In terms of why some individuals experience this activity, there is strong evidence that it has a genetic basis. If your child has family members with anxiety disorders or OCD, they are much more likely to experience OCD themselves.
That said, a family history is not always present and sometimes it can be triggered by stress or life events. The main point to take away is that the causes for OCD are complex and many, and parents should not blame themselves when a child receives a diagnosis.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO TREAT CHILDREN AND TEENS?
What complicates treatment for young people, especially younger children, is that they may have difficulty expressing themselves or may not yet have the necessary self- awareness for intensive talk- therapy. It can also be quite scary for young people to vocalise the fears they have, even with their parents. Sometimes children may believe that if they verbalise their fears that they will come true! Psychologists refer to this as “magical thinking”.
It is really important that children with OCD receive the help they need and also that they feel safe and comfortable with a health- care professional. Patience and compassion are key, as these young people truly cannot stop these behaviours by themselves. If you suspect your child has OCD then contact your GP who will refer you to a specialist.
Gryczkowski, M. R., & Whiteside, S. P. (2014). Pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The National Institute of Mental Health. "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder." N.p., 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 May 2016.