Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Children
What is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder in which a person has an unreasonable
thought, fear, or worry that he or she tries to manage by performing a ritual activity
to reduce the anxiety. Disturbing thoughts or images that happen often are called
obsessions, and the repeated rituals performed to try to prevent or dispel them are
During the normal growth and development of children and adolescents, rituals and
obsessive thoughts normally happen with a purpose and focus based on age. Preschool
children often use rituals and routines around mealtimes, bath, and bedtime to help
them stabilize their expectations and understanding of their world. School-aged children
normally develop group rituals as they learn to play games, team sports, and recite
rhymes. Older children and teens begin to collect objects and develop hobbies. These
rituals help children to socialize and learn to master anxiety. A child or adolescent
with OCD has obsessive thoughts that are unwanted and related to fears (such as a
fear of touching dirty objects). He or she uses compulsive rituals to control the
fears (such as excessive hand-washing). When OCD is present, obsessive thoughts and
compulsive rituals can become so frequent or intense that they interfere with activities
of daily living (ADLs) and normal developmental activities.
What causes obsessive-compulsive disorder?
The cause of OCD is not known. Research indicates that OCD is a neurological brain
disorder. Evidence suggests that people with OCD have a deficiency of a chemical in
the brain called serotonin. OCD tends to run in families. This suggests a genetic
component. However, OCD may also develop without a family history of OCD. Recent studies
suggest that streptococcal infections may trigger the onset or increase the severity
of OCD, in some cases.
Who is affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder?
While symptoms of OCD do happen in children, it is recognized as a relatively common
mental health disorder in adolescents, with 1 in 200 children and adolescents having
What are the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder?
The following are the most common symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. However,
each adolescent may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
An extreme preoccupation with dirt, germs, or contamination
Repeated doubts (for example, whether or not the door is locked)
Obtrusive thoughts about violence, hurting, killing someone, or harming self
Spending long periods of time touching things, counting, thinking about numbers and
Preoccupation with order, symmetry, or exactness
Persistent thoughts of performing repugnant sexual acts or forbidden, taboo behaviors
Troubled by thoughts that are against personal religious beliefs
An extreme need to know or remember things that may be very trivial
Excessive attention to detail
Excessive worrying about something terrible happening
Aggressive thoughts, impulses, and/or behaviors
Compulsive behaviors (the repetitive rituals used to reduce anxiety caused by the
obsessions) can become excessive, disruptive, and time-consuming. They may interfere
with daily activities and relationships. Examples of compulsive behaviors may include:
Repeated hand-washing (often 100 or more times a day)
Checking and rechecking repeatedly (for example, to make sure that a door is locked)
Following rigid rules of order (for example, putting on clothes in the very same sequence
every day, or keeping belongings in the room in a very particular way and becoming
upset if the order becomes disrupted)
Counting and recounting excessively
Grouping or sequencing objects
Repeating words spoken by self (palilalia) or others (echolalia); repeatedly asking
the same questions
Coprolalia (repeatedly speaking obscenities) or copropraxia (repeatedly making obscene
Repeating sounds, words, numbers, and/or music to oneself
The symptoms of OCD may resemble other medical conditions or psychiatric problems,
including Tourette's disorder. Always talk with your adolescent's healthcare provider
for a diagnosis.
How is obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnosed?
A child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses
anxiety disorders in children or adolescents following a comprehensive psychiatric
evaluation. Parents who note signs of severe anxiety or obsessive or compulsive behaviors
in their child or teen can help by seeking an evaluation and treatment early. Early
treatment can often prevent future problems.
In order for a diagnosis of OCD to be made, the obsessions and compulsions must be
pervasive, severe, and disruptive enough that the child or adolescent's activities
of daily living and function are affected in a harmful way. In most cases, the activities
involved with the disorder (for example, hand-washing, checking the locks on the doors)
use up more than one hour each day. In addition, they cause psychological distress
and impaired mental functioning. In most cases, adults realize that their behaviors
are unusual to some degree. However, often, children and adolescents do not have this
critical ability to judge this type of behavior as irrational and abnormal.
Treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder
Specific treatment for OCD will be determined by your adolescent's healthcare provider
Your adolescent's age, overall health, and medical history
Extent of your adolescent's symptoms
Your adolescent's tolerance for specific medicines or therapies
Expectations for the course of the condition
Your opinion or preference
OCD can be effectively treated, usually with a combination of individual therapy and
medicines. Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the adolescent
and family. Individual therapy usually includes both cognitive and behavioral techniques.
Cognitive therapy focuses on helping the child or adolescent identify. It also helps
them understand their fears and learn new ways to resolve or reduce their fears more
effectively. Behavior techniques help the child or adolescent and their family establish
contracts or guidelines to limit or change behaviors (such as establishing a maximum
number of times a compulsive hand-washer may wash his or her hands). Medicines used
most often to treat OCD are classified as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
(SSRIs). These are medicines that selectively affect neurotransmitters mechanisms
in the central nervous system. If OCD is found to be linked to a streptococcal infection,
then a series of antibiotic medicines may be prescribed by your adolescent's healthcare
provider. Treatment recommendations may include family therapy and consultation with
the adolescent's school. Parents play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.
Adolescents with OCD may also experience one or more types of eating disorders. These
will also need treatment.
Prevention of obsessive-compulsive disorder
Preventive measures to reduce the incidence of OCD in adolescents are not known at
this time. However, early detection and intervention can reduce the severity of symptoms,
enhance the adolescent's normal growth and development, and improve the quality of
life experienced by children or adolescents with anxiety disorders.