Watching your children suffer from irrational beliefs and partaking in bizarre rituals is heartbreaking. The parenting handbook left out the chapter on how to parent children with OCD. How are you supposed to react? How can you help them stop their compulsive behavior? Should you be stern? Should you ignore it?
Parenting a child with OCD is one of the hardest jobs a parent will ever have to face.
Repeatedly I sit on the opposite side of the couch talking to nervous and uncomfortable children. They whisper to me how they have silly beliefs. I offer them reassurance and they reluctantly tell me more. They sheepishly tell me how they must touch corners, or count in their head, or wash their hands every time they have a bad thought. They apologize for their bizarre thoughts and stare at me, waiting for me to officially declare them “crazy.”
No matter how often this happens it breaks my heart. I tell the children that I have heard this before. That they are not alone. That there is a name for this. That it is common. And that there is help. Their eyes open wide and they say, “there is?!” with palpable relief.
You can help your children by explaining to them what OCD is and how it affects their thinking. If you don’t understand OCD yourself, it is helpful to acquire this knowledge so you are better prepared to help your child. If you are unsure of the signs of OCD read OCD in Children: Are you Missing the Signs.
There are some great books that help children understand OCD on a child-friendly level. Some parents shy away from using the word OCD, but I have found that children find great comfort in knowing that their issue has a name and that they are not alone. My favorite children’s book on OCD is What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck by Dawn Huebner. An informative book for parents is What to Do When Your Child Has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder by Aureen Wagner.
Often children don’t know how to talk about their OCD. They are embarrassed by their thoughts. They are dependent on their rituals. When you tell them to stop doing ritualistic behavior they may feel like you are attacking them – not their OCD. They sometimes feel angry. Why would you tell me to stop doing something that is keeping me “safe.”
Help your children externalize their OCD by giving it a name. You can call it Mr. Worry or Mr. Bossy. Some kids like to get creative and come up with their own names. I have had kids call it Mr. Germs or Mr. Numbers depending on their OCD theme.
One approach is to tell your child something like:
Mr. Bossy is a trickster and he likes to boss you around and make you feel worried. He wants you to avoid stuff and follow his silly rules. When you do what he wants he grows bigger. When he grows bigger he can bother you more. When you turn into Super (insert your child’s name here) – you can fight Mr. Bossy and beat him. When you ignore him, or argue about his silly rules, you shrink him and make him smaller – less powerful.
Books on OCD can help you reiterate this message or help you create one of your own if this approach doesn’t resonate with you or your child.
When your child has a problem you want to fix it as soon as you can. This can make parents overzealous with their efforts to beat their child’s OCD for them. Unfortunately, this is your child’s battle. You can offer your help and guidance, but you can’t fix this for your child. In fact, if you point out every ritualistic behavior you see – you may unintentionally cause your children to become more secretive about their OCD issues. Stopping ritualistic behavior does not happen overnight. Initial success may be as simple as them just recognizing it is an OCD thought or being able to briefly delay a ritual.
One area you do have control over is your participation in rituals. Some children involve their parents in their ritualistic behavior. If possible, you do not want to enable or participate in rituals. You can tell your child, “I am not helping Mr. Bossy boss you around. You can listen to him, but I won’t!” This might take some time to build up to if you’ve been participating in their rituals for a while.
Children can get defensive about their rules and rituals and they may not want you to recognize any new rules or behaviors. Even though children do not want to have OCD, they are often slaves to the rituals that provide them with brief relief from their worrying. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye out for odd or irrational behavior.
Often when one type of OCD behavior has been eliminated – another rule or behavior replaces it. That is why it is important to give your children the skills to beat OCD and not just the specific behavior or rule they are currently doing. When you discover your children are doing a new ritual gently address this with them and let them know you are here to help them beat Mr. Bossy.
OCD can be a challenging issue! It can consume little minds and impede their social and emotional growth. The sooner children are given the skills to overcome their OCD the better the long-term prognosis will be. I encourage you to follow these tips, educate yourself by reading books on OCD and seek out professional guidance and support for you and your child as needed.
If you know a family struggling to parent a child with OCD, share this article with them.
Natasha Daniels is a child therapist and author of Anxiety Sucks! A Teen Survival Guide and How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler. She is the creator of AnxiousToddlers.com and the parenting E-Course How to Teach Your Kids to Crush Anxiety. Her work has been featured on various sites including Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and The Mighty. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest or making parenting videos for Curious.com.