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Nemours

Nemours
Providing pediatric care through
the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children,
Nemours Children's Hospital, and
primary and specialty care practices
in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida


OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)

OCD causes kids to have stressful worry thoughts and worry habits. Therapy helps kids get over these stressful thoughts and habits. Kids who have worries and fears should let a parent know so they can help. 

What Is OCD?

OCD causes kids to have worry thoughts (called obsessions).   

Kids who have OCD can't stop worrying about things like these:

  • someone might get sick, hurt, or die
  • things might be germy or dirty
  • something has to be straight, even, or exactly right
  • something is lucky or unlucky, bad or good, safe or harmful
  • bad thoughts might come true 

OCD also causes worry habits (called rituals). To kids with OCD, these habits seem like a way to make sure bad things don't happen. Kids with OCD might feel like they have to:

  • wash and clean over and over
  • erase, rewrite, or re-do things over and over
  • repeat a word, phrase, or question (in their head or out loud) 
  • check and re-check things
  • touch, tap, or step in an unusual way
  • put things in just the right order

What's It Like for Kids With OCD?

Kids with OCD get stuck in worry thoughts and worry habits. For example, OCD can cause a kid to think something like this: "I need to touch all four corners of my desk. If I don't, my mom will get sick and die." Often, kids can tell this idea doesn't make sense. But the worry feels so strong that they do the habit (ritual), just to make sure. At first, doing the habit seems to make them feel better. 

But with OCD, worry habits multiply. They start to take more time and energy. Instead of helping kids feel better, they cause stress. Kids don't want to think or do these things. But OCD makes them feel they can't stop.

Kids may wonder why they are thinking and doing these things. They may not know that something called OCD can cause it. 

What Should I Do if I Have Worry Thoughts or Worry Habits?

If you have worry thoughts or worry habits like these, talk to your parent about it. They can take you to your doctor to find out if OCD is causing the thoughts and worries.

Why Do Some People Get OCD?

Scientists are not yet sure what causes OCD to happen. They believe genes explain why some kids have worry thoughts that get 'stuck,' and do worry habits to feel better. But one thing is for sure. OCD is not caused by anything a child or parent did. 

Luckily, there's therapy that can help. When kids do this therapy, they can get past the stuck thoughts and rituals that OCD causes. This can be a big relief.

What Is the Therapy for Kids With OCD?

The therapy for kids with OCD is called CBT. In this therapy, kids (and their parent) will meet with a therapist to talk and learn. 

The therapist will teach kids more about OCD. For example, they might explain that stuck thoughts and fears are like brain 'hiccups' or 'tricks' that make it seem like bad things could happen if you don't do a ritual. Kids and parents will learn that doing rituals (worry habits) keeps OCD going strong. They'll learn that by not doing rituals, they can make OCD weaker. 

That sounds easy. But for kids with OCD, not doing rituals can be hard at first. That's why therapy includes skills to learn how. In therapy, kids learn skills like these:

  • ways to cope with worry and anxiety 
  • calming skills
  • what to do when a worry thought comes to mind
  • how to outsmart OCD's 'tricks' 
  • how to face fears safely
  • how to stop a worry habit (ritual) 
  • how to gain confidence over OCD

As kids practice these new skills, OCD problems start to weaken and go away. Kids learn they can let go of the worry thoughts without doing rituals. They feel back in charge of their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

Along with therapy, some kids take medicine for OCD.

When kids with OCD do therapy, they can feel better. They can get past worry thoughts and worry habits. This lets kids get back to doing all the things they enjoy.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2021