What Happens in OCD?

OCD causes kids to have too many worries and fears. These worries and fears may just pop into a kid's head and be hard to get rid of.

Kids who have OCD feel they can't stop thinking about things like these:

  • someone might get sick, hurt, or die
  • things might be germy or dirty
  • something isn't straight, even, or exactly right
  • something is lucky or unlucky, bad or good, safe or harmful
  • bad thoughts might come true

OCD also can cause kids to feel they have to do behaviors to feel safe from worries and fears. For example, kids with OCD might feel like they have to:

  • wash and clean too much
  • erase, rewrite, or re-do things
  • repeat a word, phrase, or a question more often than necessary
  • check and re-check if something is closed or locked
  • touch, tap, or step in an unusual way
  • put things in just the right order

These are called rituals. To kids with OCD, these rituals seem to have the power to prevent bad things from happening.

The name "OCD" is short for obsessive-compulsive disorder. "Disorder" is a medical way of saying that something in the body isn't working properly. "Obsessive" means that OCD is playing tricks on the mind to make worries seem bigger and more important than they really are. "Compulsive" is a medical word used to describe the rituals that kids feel they must do to fix the worries.

What Causes OCD?

OCD happens because of a problem in the brain's message system. The problem causes worry and fear messages to form by mistake. It also causes the strong feeling of having to do a ritual to make things safe.

Scientists don't yet know what causes this problem to happen. People may get OCD because it's in their genes or they had an infection. There may be differences in the brain that cause OCD to start. OCD is not caused by anything a child or parent did.

What's It Like for Kids With OCD?

Many kids with OCD it for a while before a parent or doctor realizes it. Kids with OCD don't always tell someone about their fears and worries. They may know that their worries and rituals don't make sense. They may feel embarrassed and keep it to themselves. They may want to stop, but feel they can't.

OCD worries and rituals can multiply and begin taking more time and energy in a kid's day. This can make it hard to concentrate, do schoolwork, or enjoy fun and friends. It can leave a kid feeling stressed, tired, and sad.

Kids may mistakenly blame themselves for what they're feeling and doing. They don't have a way to know that OCD can cause this to happen. They may not know that something can be done to help.

No kid should have to go through this alone. If you have worries and fears, or know a kid who does, the best thing to do is tell a parent. A parent can take the child to a doctor to find out if it is OCD. Doctors are trained to help the OCD get better.

How Is OCD Diagnosed and Treated?

To diagnose OCD, doctors who know the signs of OCD ask questions and talk about what's happening with the kid and his or her parents. They also will do a health checkup. When doctors decide that it's OCD, kids and parents may feel relieved to know what's causing the trouble. Now they can learn what to do to help OCD get better.

OCD can get better with therapy. Doctors sometimes also give medicines to treat OCD. But not every kid needs medicine to get well.

Therapists and doctors use a talk-and-do therapy for kids with OCD. Kids and parents have meetings with their therapist. These meetings are like lessons that help kids learn more about OCD and how it works.

In therapy, kids learn that doing rituals keeps OCD going strong. They learn that not doing rituals weakens OCD. They learn and practice ways to face fears. They gain confidence.

Kids learn to ignore worry messages caused by OCD. They learn to resist doing rituals. They talk and practice these new skills. As they do these things, kids stop the cycle of OCD. That allows the brain's message system to work better again.

How Can Parents Help?

If you're going through OCD, your parent or adult who takes care of you can be a big part of helping you get better.

Your therapist can teach your parent the best ways to help you through OCD. Family members can help you practice the things you learn in therapy — like dealing with fears and rituals. They can help you with schoolwork if you have trouble getting it done. They can talk with your teacher if you need extra help while you're going through OCD.

Parents and adults in your life can be there to give you love and support. They take your mind off OCD by doing fun or relaxing things with you. And they can remind you that OCD can get better with time, practice, and patience.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.