If you’ve landed on this page, you might be pretty certain that your child or teenager has OCD, and you’re just trying to figure out the best way to help him or her. We’ll get to that soon (or you can skip to it now).
Or, you might not be sure whether your child has OCD. Below are some red flags your child or teen might show, which could mean that he or she is struggling with OCD:
Needing to say or do things a certain way
Complaints of strange or scary persistent thoughts
Spending too much time on daily routines (e.g., washing hands or body repeatedly)
Odd or repetitive behaviors (e.g., stepping, tapping, blinking, arranging)
This list is a small sample of what some parents notice when their child has OCD. If you think your child might be struggling with OCD, it is best to meet with a mental health provider specializing in the treatment of OCD in children who can conduct a thorough and accurate assessment. You can call me to set up an appointment or find another OCD treatment provider in your area here.
Parenting a child or teen with OCD – it’s tough stuff!
Parents joke that you do not get a manual when you become a parent. Well, there is definitely not a manual that helps parents deal with the challenges of raising a child with OCD! On a daily basis, parents often struggle with these situations:
I’ve answered the same question hundreds of times… but he keeps asking them, and I’m not sure my answers are helping!
My child has meltdowns when he feels really scared, and nothing can help him calm down when he gets to that point. I want to help him, but I feel so helpless.
Sometimes my child gets stuck in a ritual (e.g., repeating words, tapping, counting, etc). I don’t know how to help her stop.
When my child feels nervous about something, it’s so hard to know how to help him! Should I encourage him to do what is triggering his anxiety? Or should I avoid these situations for now, so that she doesn’t get so worked up?
If these are questions you’ve been asking yourself, you are not alone! I’ve heard them hundreds of times and though there are no easy answers, with effective OCD treatment – you will learn to navigate these tough situations effectively. And most importantly, you will learn to support your child or teen in beating OCD.
Effective Treatment for Children & Teens with OCD
There are a lot of things that make parenting today harder than it was 20 years ago (no such thing as monitoring screen time back then!). But thankfully one thing that we can say is easier today is access to effective OCD treatment for children and teens. We are lucky to live in an age where we know (based on tons of research!) that Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) are effective treatments for adults and children with OCD.
CBT is a specific type of therapy that helps your child learn to identify “sticky thoughts” (obsessions or intrusive thoughts), and importantly – teaches them to “talk back” with facts. In CBT your child will also learn to face their fears in a warm and supportive environment. With lots of exposure practice, your child or teen will learn that:
Intrusive thoughts (e.g., persistent worry about feeling contaminated, not having things be “just right”, etc.) cause a lot of discomfort and distress
That discomfort feels dangerous, but is actually completely safe and will eventually subside
Doing a ritual to feel less anxious feels a little better in the moment, but only makes them feel worse in the long run
Facing fears gets easier with practice
What exactly is ERP?
ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention) is a critical part of effective OCD treatment. ERP means that your child will learn to face his fears AND gradually stop doing the compulsions or rituals that he feels compelled to do to feel safe. This might seem really hard at first, but we will ease into it. We might first try to encourage your child to delay the compulsion, change it, or mess it up in some way. The goal is to help your child stop doing the compulsion altogether.
Unique aspects of child and adolescent treatment for OCD
When choosing a therapist for your child or teen, working with someone with extensive experience and training in working with children is essential.
Why? This isn’t rocket science, but just like when learning anything else - kids learn these treatment tools BEST when therapy is active, hands-on, and FUN! When helping your child or teen learn to face their fears, we will create a fun and supportive environment so that your child is engaged in the process and has fun while learning to beat OCD! A therapist specialized in working with children with OCD should also consistently include you in therapy sessions because it is incredibly important that YOU (the parent or caregiver) learn every skill that your child learns in session. I typically meet with patients for one weekly therapy session (50 minutes) – so lots of practice needs to happen between sessions in order for your child to experience improvement quickly. Who better to support this practice than their parent?
Parents and I work together as a TEAM to help their child or teen kick OCD’s butt.
Not all therapy is created equal
Unfortunately, I’ve had many families tell me their child or teen has been in therapy before and it didn’t work for them. But when I hear more about the therapy, I realize that usually what they’ve been doing is not CBT or ERP (the gold-standard, research-based treatment for OCD). Instead, I often hear that they have been working on a mix of:
Playing various games without a clear association to helping the child learn to face their fears
Focusing on how to calm down when feeling nervous (e.g., deep breathing, how to distract self away from worry thought, how to think positive)
Therapist working exclusively with child, without including parent and discussing specific strategies on how to continue supporting the child between therapy sessions
Although doing these activities in therapy may be helpful for other issues, there is little to no research showing its effectiveness in the treatment of children with OCD. If your child has OCD and their therapy is focused on some of the activities listed above, please be cautious and consider seeking a second opinion.
Choosing to start treatment for your child or teen with OCD
Sometimes starting therapy is a difficult decision to make because parents might feel guilty or ashamed about their child needing more help than they, as a parent, can provide. Some parents might also feel that bringing their child to therapy means that there is something wrong with their child. Yet, when our child is struggling with a toothache or chronic stomachaches – do parents feel conflicted about calling the dentist or a GI specialist? Usually not.
We’ve made great strides as a society in reducing the stigma around seeking mental health services, but we’ve still got a lot to work to do on this front. OCD is a known illness with very effective treatments. Please do not let guilt or shame hold you back from doing what is best for your child.
Ready to Start Treatment? Let’s GO!
Making that first call to start treatment for your child or teen can be a difficult step for many parents. If you make the courageous decision to schedule that first session, I would feel honored to be part of your family’s journey toward helping your child beat OCD. If you’re unsure about scheduling and would like to talk with me first, let’s set up a time to chat.
Dr. Penela proudly provides evidence-based therapy services in English and Spanish throughout Broward County: Weston, Miramar, Pembroke Pines, Davie, Cooper City, Coral Springs, Parkland, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Plantation, and surrounding areas.
Note: Due to ongoing COVID-19 stay-at-home practices, all therapy services are currently provided online.