How to Recognize OCD in My Child and When to Seek Treatment

Distinguishing OCD

It is increasingly common to hear a friend or loved one make the offhand joke about being “so OCD” because the silverware, dishes and glasses must be washed in the precise order and then must face the same direction in the dishwasher.

It has become an everyday way to explain a strange personality quirk in a self-deprecating manner.

As a result, OCD has entered into the public consciousness while the actual mental illness known as “obsessive-compulsive disorder” has become less clear. For instance, here are a few clarifications to the most common misconceptions:

  • Just because you like to keep things neat and tidy does not mean you have OCD.
  • Just because you are extra careful about washing your hands, or overly exact about cleanliness does not mean you have OCD.

While these behaviors can often be associated with OCD, they are not indicators of OCD. As a result, it is important to know what distinguishes OCD from someone with a fastidious personality.

What Is and What Isn't OCD

OCD is a condition characterized by excessive preoccupations, rituals, or repetitive behaviors that interfere with your quality of life.

By definition, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a chronic syndrome with two parts:

  1. First, it is marked by recurrent and distressing thoughts, fears, or images that the sufferer finds hard to control.
  2. Second, it is marked by compulsive behaviors, rituals, or habits that are deliberately performed to drive away the obsessive thoughts.

This definition makes one thing clear:
if your compulsive behaviors do not negatively affect your daily functioning (or those around you), it is not OCD.


While OCD is most commonly associated with hand-washing or germaphobia, there are in fact many different variations, such as an unnatural preoccupation with symmetry, ordering, assurance, contamination, intrusive thoughts, and hoarding.

In beginning to assess yourself or your child, here are two great questions you can ask:

  1. Does the repetitive behavior negatively impact my child’s life? Unlike being overly careful, OCD behaviors are disruptive to daily functioning of the individual and often to the surrounding family members. When certain anxieties become so great that it is debilitating to your child’s ability to leave the house, that is a sure sign that treatment should be sought.
  2. If someone prevented my child from his/her typical responses – how anxious would they become?

While OCD can be devastating, the good news is that it is completely treatable. In fact, 75% of people are able to get their symptoms reduced by 50%. Don’t let your child suffer needlessly.

How to Identify OCD in Your Child

Many parents see their children behaving in a strange way – such as repeatedly asking for reassurance or expressing concern about “bad thoughts” that get stuck and want to know if treatment is appropriate.

When young children suffer from OCD, they often seek reassurance continually, even after the adult has already assured them. Many parents in this situation go through the normal steps of reassurance and comforting a worried child, but at some point it may be necessary to see a specialist. In fact, parents may be spending too much time accommodating a child’s destructive behaviors instead of helping them work through them.

Finding The Right Therapist

There may be many therapists in your area, but for this situation it is important that you see a therapist specializing in OCD, and especially in exposure and response prevention (ERP).

An ERP therapist can help patients train their brains to respond differently to their anxiety, so that it no longer controls them. As opposed to seeing a generalist or talk therapist, a professional with a specialization in anxiety and OCD can help them overcome the things that they fear and avoid, allowing your child to reclaim their life.

If you are searching for a therapist, we recommend referring to the International OCD Foundation’s checklist for tips to find the right therapist. Asking questions such as “How much of your practice currently involves anxiety disorders?” and “How effective have you been in your treatment of OCD?” ensures that the therapist you select is a good fit for your child.

OCD does not need to control or impair your child’s daily functioning. Addressing their symptoms early with an ERP therapist can change the course of their life and lead to their long term health and well-being.

About the Author

Headshot: Stacey Dobrinsky, Ph.D.
Dr. Dobrinsky has over ten years of experience treating children and adolescents with OCD and anxiety disorders. She specializes in severe, treatment refractory anxiety and OCD and utilizes a combination of Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) in her treatment.
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