Teenagers sometimes do things that are a complete mystery to anyone other than, well, another teenager. Certain behaviors may be reminiscent of your own younger years (hello, questionable hairstyles and rebellious streaks), while others may seem completely foreign (TikTok trends, anyone?).
That said, it can be difficult to differentiate between typical teen behaviors and signs that there’s something more going on with your child. Some defiant or anxious behavior is a normal part of being a teenager, but when the behavior change becomes more extreme it may be an indicator of a mental health issue. One condition to be mindful of is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Below, Charlie Health reviews information on OCD, common obsessions and compulsions in teens, and how to speak with your child about the condition.
What is OCD?
Obsessive compulsive disorder is a mental health condition characterized by unwanted and recurring thoughts (obsessions) that cause people to engage in repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Many people living with OCD know that these thoughts and behaviors are irrational, but they're unable to ignore or suppress them.
Specific OCD symptoms vary person to person, but some of the most common obsessions and compulsions among children and teens involve cleaning, repetitive thoughts and actions, and aggressive thoughts. This may seem harmless enough, but OCD can cause real distress without understanding and support.
How to spot OCD in your child
One of the best ways for a parent to support a child with OCD is by learning how to recognize and respond to symptoms.
According to the International OCD Foundation, there are several early warning signs which suggest that a child or teen might have OCD. Some of these behaviors are subtle and most changes happen gradually over time, so spotting obsessions and compulsions requires an understanding of your child’s typical behavior patterns.
Signs of OCD to watch for in your child include:
- Repetitive behaviors
- Spending large periods of time doing solo activities like getting dressed, in the bathroom, doing their homework, etc.
- A tendency to ask for reassurance
- Increased concern for minor things and details
- Extreme emotional reactions to seemingly unimportant events and circumstances
- Staying up late to get things done
- Significant change in eating or sleeping habits
- Increased irritability and indecisiveness
Common obsessions and compulsions in teens
There are two components to OCD: obsessions and compulsions. While it is possible for teens to experience obsessions without any compulsions, the more likely scenario is that the compulsions are present but go unnoticed.
Obsessions are recurrent and uncontrollable thoughts or urges that cause distress. Some of the most common obsessions seen in children and teens with OCD include:
- Fear of contamination or germs
- Fear of forgetting, losing, or misplacing something
- Fear of losing control of their actions
- Unwanted or taboo thoughts about sex, religion, or violence
- Desire for symmetry, order, and precision
- Preoccupation with body wastes
Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or rituals that occur as a reaction to an obsession. Common compulsions in children and teens with OCD include:
- Ordering or arranging items in a particular way
- Repeatedly checking things (i.e., making sure the door is locked)
- Rituals to prevent harm to themselves or others
- Excessive showering, washing of hands, or brushing teeth
- Hoarding things of no apparent value
- Cleaning rituals
How to help your teen with OCD
Obsessions and compulsions can be debilitating without the proper support. When left untreated, OCD can affect your child’s relationships, academic performance, health, and their general future. Luckily, OCD is largely treatable—especially with an understanding and informed family.
Learn as much as you can about OCD
OCD tends to be surrounded by misconceptions, largely due to how the media and film industry portray the condition. You may have even made a joke about having OCD yourself (OCD is thought to be hereditary, after all). However, OCD is much more than being fussy or a neat freak and perpetuating these fallacies can actually be a barrier to receiving care for some people.
If you believe that your child or someone in your life might be struggling with OCD, take the time to do your research on the condition, causes, and ways to cope. This will help you to have more empathy for your teen’s struggles, as well as position you to be an advocate for their treatment and recovery.
Remind your teen that you’re available to talk
Many people with OCD feel ashamed of their thoughts and behaviors and do their best to actually hide this part of themselves from others. Sexual obsessions, in particular, can be embarrassing for kids and teens who are unable to control their thoughts. For example, they might grow fixated on the idea that accidentally touching a friend’s leg will seen as a sexual advance.
Remind your teen that you're always there for them and interested in how they're feeling and what's on their mind. This reassurance can help your child to face their symptoms rather than hiding them out of fear. Living with OCD can be extremely isolating, and that loneliness can eventually contribute to other mental health conditions—including depression, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders.
Avoid criticism or frustration
Some of your child’s obsessions or compulsions may seem silly, but it’s important to refrain from judgment, criticism, or belittling their experience. Some individuals living with OCD have reported that criticism or blame tends to exacerbate their symptoms.
Promote healthy habits
Following a daily routine that prioritizes sleep, limits social media use, and encourages consistent exercise can help teens to manage OCD-related stress and anxiety. A few other ways to help your teen cope with their OCD include:
- Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts. Some small studies also show that vitamin D is linked to a decrease in OCD symptom severity in children and adolescents, but more research is needed.
- Maintaining a regular exercise routine. One small study found that aerobic exercise improved mood and reduced anxiety and compulsions, compared with health education, for people with OCD.
Connect them with professional support or treatment
There's no one cure for OCD, but there are several proven methods for coping with obsessions and compulsions. Finding the right treatment regimen can take time, so the best thing a parent can do is to help their teen stay focused on their goal and be patient with the process.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective method for treating anxiety disorders like OCD. It’s designed to raise awareness about negative thinking patterns in order to help people change the way they interpret those thoughts so that they can more effectively handle challenging situations.
- Family therapy is another useful form of therapy because it allows parents and siblings to better understand how to support their family members.
- Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of antidepressants that are often used to treat OCD in children and teens. SSRIs typically take 6 to 12 weeks to be effective, with the goal of balancing the levels of chemicals in the brain that improve mood and functioning. The current FDA-approved SSRIs for use in children and teens are fluoxetine, sertraline, fluvoxamine, and clomipramine.
Support your teen with Charlie Health
Many teens feel embarrassed or overwhelmed by their mental health struggles, so opening up to you as their parents is a big step. If you think that your teen might benefit from speaking with a mental health professional, Charlie Health is here to help. Whether you're exploring treatment options for the first time or searching for extra support, Charlie Health can help your teen learn coping skills in a safe, supportive space.
Our intensive outpatient treatment programs provide a high-quality, comprehensive treatment solution that includes groups, family, and individual therapy. Our compassionate, experienced team of clinicians is here to listen to your child’s needs, answer their questions, and help them start the healing process today.