There’s a lot for teens to worry about these days. But for some children and teens, puberty brings with it a new level of worry that compels them to behave the same way over and over again. When worry gives way to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), you – as the parent – need to be ready to be supportive, provide structure, and get them the professional help they need to be healthy.
How Common is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Among Teenagers?
OCD is relatively common among children and teenagers, affecting 1-3% of people. It is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors like stress. Every teenager will likely have worries about adjusting to new demands at school, fitting in with friends, and establishing their independence. That alone is not enough to qualify as OCD. Instead, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder pairs repetitive, uncontrolled thoughts with impulses or actions that cause distress or interfere with daily life.
Pre-adolescent OCD often occurs around age 10-12, when biological changes associated with puberty coincide with increased demands at school and social pressures. Older teens may also experience new OCD symptoms as they transition to adulthood, with all the stress and social demands that come with it. That makes the teen years the most important time for detecting and treating obsessive-compulsive disorder.
What Does OCD Look Like for Teenagers?
There are a wide variety of cognitive and behavioral symptoms connected to OCD. However, they generally fall into one of four groups:
- Body or health-related symptoms such as fear of illness, self-checking, weighing, cleaning, showering, or avoiding contaminated people
- Loss-related symptoms such as hoarding useless items or checking doors and windows
- Order-related symptoms such as organizing, repetition, symmetry, and repeating things until they are “just right” or “just so”
- Aggression, religious, sexual, or somatic symptoms, such as thoughts of injuring a sibling, worries over “sinning,” or behaviors designed to check sexual impulses
How to Talk to Your Teenager About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
It can be difficult to talk to your teenage child if you believe they may be struggling with OCD. Teens often feel pressure to act independently, and this can cause them to push back against questions about what they are worried about. They are probably aware that what they are doing aren’t “normal” and that their friends don’t have the same struggles they do. Still, they may be resistant to admitting they need help. Here are some suggestions for how to talk to your teenager about OCD:
- Do your research first instead of making your teen explain their behavior to you
- Get familiar with treatments and medications available and how they can make your teen’s life easier
- Ask your teen if they would like help not feeling the way they feel (even if they can’t explain it)
- Let your teen know you want to talk and won’t judge them for their thoughts or symptoms
- Avoid calling out their behavior around others in a way that will trigger shame, anger, or hostility
What Can Families Do if They Think Their Teen has OCD?
Breaking the patterns of OCD is often a full-family affair. Parents, siblings, and other important adults can all contribute to a teenager’s recovery or accommodate their behaviors in a way that slows down their progress. The first step to treating teenage OCD is assessment and diagnosis by a trained psychotherapist in conjunction with the teen’s pediatrician. However, while medication is often used to in OCD cases, treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn’t just come in a pill bottle. Instead, your family should be prepared to:
- Set limits and expectations about household chores and activities
- Coach your teen through the techniques learned in therapy
- Make school a priority
- Impose consequences when OCD behaviors interfere with family life
- Find a teen OCD support group and encourage them to attend and participate
OCD can be successfully treated with a combination of medication and therapy. If you think your teen has OCD, take them to their pediatrician and encourage them to see a therapist as soon as you can. Learning strategies to combat repetitive and intrusive thoughts today can help them master their behaviors and get back to living a healthy, teenage life.
David Stanislaw is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience. He helps children, teens and adults with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. Contact David Stanislaw to get help today.