Learning with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)
Most kids worry about something every now and then. But Billy worried all the time. In fact, Billy worried every time he left his house. When his mum drove him to school, he worried in case the car broke down and he’d be stranded away from his home. Learning with OCD is not easy but with the correct processes the disorder can be worked with and results will get better.
It took Billy 3 years to accept that going to school was ‘safe’. In class Billy worried about making mistakes. He got behind in his class work because he felt that he needed to keep checking it over and over. He checked and rechecked every answer and erased anything that wasn’t perfectly straight or neat. He had a bad feeling that if everything wasn’t exactly right, something terrible may happen. All this worrying, checking, and fixing took so long that Billy hardly ever finished a test before time was up. So even though he knew the work, he often scored poorly on a test.
If I took Billy out into the community or on an excursion somewhere, he invariably became noticeably anxious. He held onto my shirt and continually chattered with comments like, “Where are we?”, “Can we go back to school now?”, “I want to go home for lunch”, “Are we lost?”- and while all this is going on, he would bite his fingers to the point of injuring himself.
Billy tried hard to hide his habits. He worried that he might be going crazy or that other kids will think he was weird if they knew what he was doing. Billy had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Widely known as OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder that involves both obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions are defined as “repetitive unwanted thoughts that make you feel anxious”, while compulsions are “repetitive behaviours and rituals”.
In Billy’s case, his obsessions were a fear for his own safety- he feared being lost. He feared situations away from the safety of his home. He feared being apart from his family. The root causes for these obsessions are not yet fully understood, however, research suggests that OCD may be related to chemical, structural, and functional abnormalities in the brain caused by stressful life events, hormonal changes, and certain personality traits.
Fear is a common obsession with kids. Some other obsessions seen in kids are:
- fear of germs or being dirty
- fear of causing harm to yourself or even someone else
- fear of having an illness or getting injured
- fear relating to a sexual issue
- fear coming across an unlucky number or word
- fear of things being crooked or uneven
- fear of making mistakes
- fear of doing or thinking something bad
Kids that suffer with OCD feel anxiety over something- it may be bullying at school, it may be exams, or it may be some conflict at home- in Billy’s case it was anxiety about his own safety. Whatever the obsession is, these kids feel that they have to complete a specific ritual or behaviour- otherwise something really bad will happen. By performing these compulsions they will temporarily reduce the anxiety they are feeling.
Signs of obsessive compulsive disorder
Self harm, such as finger biting, is a common sign compulsion in kids. Others might be:
- putting things in a particular order or in a very neat way. I had kids keep their desk exactly the same every day.
- washing and showering is a common compulsion in kids with a fear of being dirty.
- counting things is an interesting compulsion. Kids will count something over and over- even though they know the answer is ‘whatever’, they will repeatedly count ‘just to make sure’.
- I’ve known kids to hoard things such as food, biros, and even band aides.
- touching or self-touching is another common compulsive behaviour in kids. They may feel they have to touch every door knob in the house before they leave it.
- checking things over and over. Check the electric blanket is turned off, check the wardrobe door is closed, check, check, check.
- doing things a certain number of times (like cleaning your teeth 4 times before going to school every day)
- asking the same question over and over
Psychologically, kids that suffer from OCD know what they are doing is unusual and irrational, but the obsessions are just too difficult for them to resist. This exacerbates their anxiety and causes them to feel a range of emotions such as:
- feeling frustrated
- feeling annoyed with themselves
- feeling ‘flat’ or even depressed
- feeling shame- and wishing to hide their obsessions and compulsions from others
Billy is not alone. There are 1-2 in every 100 Australian kids that are affected by OCD and they come from all different backgrounds, classes, cultures, sexes and intelligence levels. OCD may occur in kids as young as 2 years old, but more often it occurs in boys in their late teens and girls in their early twenties.
Kids suffering from OCD are vulnerable. They are under extra stress at a time when lots of things are changing in their lives. A real danger is that these kids will turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of escaping or numbing the feelings that are overwhelming them.
For kids like Billy there are a number of different approaches for treating OCD. Different approaches may work for some kids and not for others. However, OCD is usually treatable and that’s great news for parents.
So where do you start?
My suggestion is to start on the internet. There you will find heaps of information about OCD and also the contact details for special groups set up specifically to help you treat your kid’s OCD. Here are 3 of those groups.
The Anxiety Disorders Unit St Vincent’s Hospital NSW
Ph: 02 8382 1730
Anxiety Disorders Clinic Westmead Hospital NSW
Ph: 02 9840 4095
Obsessive Compulsive & Anxiety Disorders Foundation Victoria
Ph: 03 9886 9377
These organisations will be able to guide you into an appropriate treatment program for your kid.
Treatment for OCD may involve both medicine and/or behaviour therapy.
- Medicines that help correct the chemical balance in the brain, can make the obsessions and compulsions feel less intense, and help reduce the worry and fear.
- Behavioural therapy, probably on a weekly basis, can also be used to help kids learn how to deal with their feelings of anxiety, their fears, and their compulsions. They will also learn some strategies to deal with their worries without doing a ritual.
As a parent you can help your kid with OCD by the way you encourage them to lead their lives.
- Make sure they get plenty of exercise and eat well. Sensitivities to certain foods have been known to trigger OCD in kids so it may be worth considering a food sensitivity test.
- Music is a great therapy for kids under stress and even things like computer games and hobby activities are useful distractions if you feel your kid is entering an anxious stage.
- Relaxation therapies such as massage, yoga, meditation or a spa bath will help.
- Try to build your kid’s self esteem. There are lots of different ways you can do this. Just some of them are:
- Give your kid some responsibility- it may be feeding your pets or watering the garden. This makes them feel important because you are trusting them with an important task. Praise them when they do the job well- and encourage them if they need to improve.
- Get your kid growing some vegetables. Start with easy to grow ones like radish, peas and broad beans.
- Teach your kid to cook. Start simple and work your way up.
To learn more about building self esteem and using positive parenting strategies, find out more about our Positive Parenting strategies..
- Encourage your kid to talk about their OCD and what is going on in their lives. Encourage them to find a ‘sounding board’ or a ‘confidante’ to talk to. It may be a friend, a grandparent, a neighbour or even Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800). Encourage them to talk and you will encourage them to get better from OCD.