How to Recognize Your Child Might Have OCD

Important signs for parents to look for and a new study that evaluates the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy as a treatment option.

5:00 AM

Author | Stephanie Rhodes

Little girl walking on brick path

Does your child constantly need to re-write, re-read or re-do projects or work? Are they constantly seeking reassurance? Do they often stress about dirt and germs? If so, your child might be living with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, a condition affecting one in every hundred American children.

Parents may consider symptoms of OCD as just a phase their child is experiencing, but they're actually predictors of OCD-related struggles that can carry on into adulthood, and often times, pediatricians don't screen for it.

A child with OCD often exhibits repetitive, farfetched and unrealistic thoughts and behaviors. These actions often fall into a four symptom clusters, which Michigan Medicine psychiatrist Kate Fitzgerald, M.D. says includes:

  • Harm and safety worries: Does your child worry about properly locking and re-locking doors? Are they often worried about safety and potential thieves in the neighborhood?

  • Contamination and cleaning worries: Does your child obsess about washing their hands properly? Are they overly focused on dirt and germs?

  • Symmetry and ordering: Does your child insist on drawing in the lines or not stepping on cracks while walking? Do they insist on clothes looking and feeling "even" or keeping things in perfect order?

  • Magical thinking or superstitions: Is your child preoccupied with unlucky numbers, colors, certain words, sayings or superstitions and link them to catastrophe or "bad things" that might happen?

"Most children have occasional obsessive thoughts or need for sameness, such as wanting to hear their favorite story read the exact same way, have clothes feel or look 'just right', or feeling safest when they get ready for bed in a particular order," Fitzgerald said. "But if these sorts of worries affect you or your child for more than one hour a day, it might be time to see a specialist."

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Diagnosing OCD

OCD isn't considered a disorder until it causes one of three things:

  1. Affects your child more than an hour a day.

  2. Really upsets them or makes them sad or anxious.

  3. Interferes with family (e.g., temper tantrums), causes distractions at school or gets in the way of interactions with friends.

As with all anxiety disorders, it's better to address OCD as early as possible. When OCD goes untreated, it can become more severe and evolve into depression.

SEE ALSO: Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Treat Teen OCD

Treating kids early can save them a lifetime of distress. There is also evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy is actually more effective at younger ages.
Kate Fitzgerald, M.D.

Studying cognitive behavioral therapy to treat OCD

Early evaluation and CBT treatment can provide benefits that last a lifetime. CBT is considered the gold standard treatment for the condition and it has no side effects. 

Currently, Fitzgerald and her team are conducting a study to determine how effective cognitive behavioral therapy can be for children with OCD.

CBT teaches patients to break the link between repetitive thoughts and ritualistic behaviors. By resisting the urge to perform a compulsive behavior, people with OCD learn that obsessive thoughts are insignificant, which lessens the anxiety that the thoughts produce. CBT can lead to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. 

LISTEN UP: Add the Michigan Medicine News Break to your Alexa-enabled device, or subscribe to our daily updates on iTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher.

"Treating kids early can save them a lifetime of distress," Fitzgerald said. "There is also evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy is actually more effective at younger ages," Fitzgerald explains.

The study group is currently enrolling children ages seven to 12, which is free to eligible participants and includes a diagnostic evaluation and one to two MRI scans.

More Articles About: Children's Health anxiety Mental Health Neurological (Brain) Conditions
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

This article is from the Health Lab digital publication.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine



Get a weekly digest of medical research and innovation, straight to your inbox.

Featured News & Stories microscope cells glioma
Health Lab
Researchers circumvent radiation resistance in subtype of brain tumors
University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center researchers find ZMYND8 gene plays a critical role in conferring radiation resistance on brain tumors with IDH1 mutation.
pediatrician talking with mother at exam questions
Health Lab
Checklist for the checkup: Some parents may not be making the most of well child visits
While many parents keep recommended well visits with their child’s primary provider, some may consider more proactive steps to make checkups as productive as possible
gas stove pot cooking
Health Lab
Is your gas stove really hurting you and your family?
A pulmonologist discusses the risks and offers tips for protecting your health in your home
Health Lab
For boy with cerebral palsy, surgery brings improved mobility
The spinal nerve procedure has been shown to provide an effective decrease in muscle spasticity long term.
woman doctor scrubs sad ashamed lab note
Health Lab
Study in residents shows high prevalence of sexual harassment, yet low reporting rates
Research reveals that one in four women among internal medicine residents experiences sexual harassment, but far fewer go on to report it.
microscopic red tissues lines and lab note badge image
Health Lab
High fat diet activates early inflammation in mouse brains, supports link to neurologic disease
The findings may support the immune pathway as a bridge between diet and neurologic disease