Written by: Cally Worden
With voyeuristic glee, TV programmes like ‘Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners’ offer a sneaky-peek into the world of an OCD sufferer. While to an outsider, the condition can seem fascinating, to the sufferer, OCD is a serious condition that can affect every aspect of daily life. When that individual is a child, the effects can be even more acute.
What is OCD?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder. It creates worries and concerns in a person that they simply cannot shake off. The sufferer often feels compelled to repeat certain behaviours again and again as a way of controlling their fears. Just like adults, children suffering from OCD may focus on something they perceive as harmful, dirty or wrong. To observers these fears seem irrational, but to the OCD individual their concerns are very real.
The Use of Rituals
A child or adult with OCD may feel a strong urge to follow some kind of ritual in an unconscious bid to make sense of their fears. They may need to wash their hands five times before eating, to avoid getting sick, or repeatedly check the wardrobe door is closed before they can fall asleep feeling safe. If anything interferes with these rituals the OCD sufferer can experience extreme anxiety, possibly resulting in a full-blown panic attack. On one level the child will understand that these behaviours are not ‘essential’ to their well being as such, but the anxiety they feel can be so intense it becomes the only way to relieve it.
What Causes OCD?
Even now, very little is really known about the causes of OCD. But recent developments in research have suggested that decreased levels of serotonin in the brain may be a factor. These chemical neurotransmitters help regulate the body’s internal alarm system, the sort of sense check on life. If the amount of serotonin reaching the brain is blocked or reduced for any reason the brain may over react to certain anxieties, resulting in OCD behaviours. It is thought that a predisposition for serotonin imbalance may be genetic. OCD is known to run in families.
Important to Remember
OCD is not something that can simply be switched on and off. Telling your child to ‘get a grip’ certainly won’t help. OCD behaviours are very difficult to harness and control. It is a recognised disorder that, in the majority of cases, needs sensitive medical intervention in order to be alleviated.
Common OCD Behaviours
While OCD behaviours can be random and very individual, there are certain obsessions that seem to crop up regularly with children. These include:
- Fear of dirt, germs and contamination
- Fear of illness or some harm coming to the self, family or friends
- A Preoccupation with certain household items
- A need for order and precision
- Lucky and unlucky number fixations
- Aggressive or overtly sexual thoughts
Such obsessions can lead to compulsive behaviours that include:
- Repeating rituals of movement, such as moving through a room in a certain way, or a passing and re-passing through doorways
- Checking rituals that may include repeatedly confirming that appliances are off or doors are closed and locked
- Arranging and ordering objects in a certain way
- Grooming rituals, such as showering, teeth brushing and hand washing
- Rituals of touching people and things, often in a specific way or order
Recognising OCD Behaviours
Children may realise that their behaviours are different and become adept at hiding them. They may also try to engage the parent in them subtly, such as repeatedly asking if they are safe and needing to hear the same reply. If the parent fails to participate, it can result in tantrums and challenging behaviours. Parents and other adults can be vigilant for the hidden signs of OCD by watching out for the following things:
- Unusually high usage of grooming products
- Raw hands from constant washing
- A persistent and repeated fear of illness
- Regular and repeated checks on the well being of family members
- A reluctance to leave a room, or the house at the same time as others, as this may interfere with the time and space required for checking rituals
- A general increase in anxiety levels in your child
OCD in children often remains undiagnosed, which means the child does not get the help they need to overcome their anxiety. There are a number of other common disorders that often (but not always) accompany OCD – these include Tourette Syndrome, ADHD and Depression. OCD can be treated with medication and/or behavioural therapy, but only if it is identified in the first place.
If you suspect your child may be labouring under the burden of OCD, try talking to them gently about their fears and behaviours. Together you can then approach your GP to seek help and advice.