Do you have a teen who can’t leave the house without double-, triple-, or quadruple-checking that the door lock is secure? Is your child tormented by guilt over something trivial they said or did? Engaging in behaviors that are compulsive and repetitive, cause distress, and interfere with normal functioning could be symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly known as OCD.
How do parents know whether their teenager just has a few quirks, or if there’s a more significant issue to be concerned about like their teen has OCD?
“I consider it an obsession when a person doesn’t believe they have a choice about the behavior because they’re so afraid of what might happen if they don’t do it,” says Dr. Michael J. Greenberg, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy for OCD. “In some cases, the person isn’t afraid of an external consequence, such as something bad happening — for example, that a contaminant might make someone sick — but is afraid of getting stuck in the symptoms, like worrying that they won’t be able to escape the feeling of contamination.”
If you suspect that your teenager may have OCD, here are some steps you can take to get help.
How to Help a Teenager with OCD
1. Look for signs of OCD.
Parents may not be able to read their teenager’s thoughts, but they can look for outward expressions of what their teen is thinking. Ginger Lavender Wilkerson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Long Beach, California, who works with teens experiencing anxiety and OCD, suggests parents look for these three outward signs that could indicate OCD:
- Significant changes in routines, especially if a teen is spending a lot of time on simple tasks such as leaving the house
- Obsessing over certain concerns
- Compulsions or obsessions that are impairing functioning in school, at home, or around the community.
“They might be late, or missing activities, or be overly afraid of making mistakes and not doing things correctly,” Wilkerson says.
2. Have an open conversation with your teen about OCD.
Many parents are reluctant to bring up OCD, fearful it will plant an idea that’s not yet there. But that’s rarely the case, says Misti Nicholson, director and clinical psychologist with Austin Anxiety & OCD Specialists, based in Texas. She says teens typically experience tremendous relief once the topic of OCD is introduced.
“They are usually already aware that they are doing things that other teens are not,” says Nicholson. “And it can be normalizing to learn both that there is an explanation for their experience and that they are not alone.”
To start the conversation, Nicholson encourages parents to share their observations and ask open-ended questions. For example, you might say to your teen, “You’ve seemed preoccupied lately. Is something on your mind? You don’t have to tell me what it is if you don’t want to.” Then ask your teen if they’ve noticed these behaviors; and if they have, whether they consider those behaviors a problem or something they cannot control by themselves.
3. Recognize the impact of OCD.
While OCD might produce some outcomes that could seem positive, these come at the cost of the child’s wellbeing. Potential downsides indicate that parents seek professional treatment.
Greenberg says treatment is important because, in addition to living with the uncomfortable symptoms of OCD, a teen may also struggle with related problems, such as:
- Other forms of anxiety.
- Depression and self-esteem issues.
- Issues related to family relationships.
- Other related disorders such as trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling).
4. Seek treatment for OCD.
Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP) is a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) recommended for patients with OCD. “ERP entails doing things that typically cause anxiety, while refraining from doing any compulsions,” says Greenberg, adding that a therapist can also help address relationship and emotional factors contributing to the disorder.
The good news, experts agree, is that OCD is highly treatable. With help, teens who have OCD are likely to get relief from the weight of their obsessions and compulsions so they can free up energy and time for the things that really matter to them.