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5 Tips for Parenting a Child With OCD

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Watching your child have irrational beliefs and partake in bizarre rituals is heartbreaking. The parenting handbook left out the chapter on how to parent a child with obsessive compulsive disorder. How are you supposed to react? How can you help them stop their compulsive behavior? Should you be stern? Should you ignore it?

These are the questions I typically get when working with parents in my practice. Here are five basic tips I’ve learned from working with children with OCD:

1. Educate you and your child on obsessive compulsive disorder.

Time and time again I sit on the opposite side of the couch talking to a nervous and uncomfortable child. They whisper to me how they have silly beliefs. I offer them reassurance and they reluctantly tell me more – how they have to touch corners, count in their head or wash their hands every time they have a bad thought. They apologize for their bizarre thoughts and stare at me, waiting for me to officially declare them “crazy.” No matter how often this happens it breaks my heart. I tell the child I’ve heard this before. That they’re not alone. That there’s a name for this. That it’s common and there’s help. Their eyes open wide and they say, “There is?!” with palpable relief.

You can help your child by explaining to them what OCD is and how it affects their thinking. If you don’t understand OCD yourself it’s helpful to acquire this knowledge so you’re better prepared to help your child.

There are some great books to help children understand OCD on their level. Some parents shy away from using the word OCD, but I’ve found children find great comfort in knowing their issue has a name and they’re not alone. My favorite book for children is “What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck.” For parents: “What to Do When Your Child Has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”

2) Give the OCD a name.

Often children don’t know how to talk about their OCD. They’re embarrassed by their thoughts but dependent on their rituals. When you tell them to stop doing ritualistic behavior they may feel like you’re attacking them – not their OCD. They sometimes feel angry. Why would you tell me to stop doing something that’s keeping me “safe”?

Help your child externalize their OCD by giving it a name. You can call it Mr. Worry or Mr. Bossy. Some kids like to get creative and come up with their own names. I have had kids call it Mr. Germs or Mr. Numbers, depending on their OCD theme.

One approach is to tell your child something like:

Mr. Bossy is a trickster and he likes to boss you around and make you feel worried. He wants you to avoid stuff and follow his silly rules. When you do what he wants – he grows bigger. When he grows bigger – he can bother you more. When you turn into Super (insert your child’s name here) – you can fight Mr. Bossy and beat him. When you ignore him or argue about his silly rules you shrink him and make him smaller – less powerful.

Books on OCD can help you reiterate this message – or help you create one of your own if this approach doesn’t resonate with you or your child.

3) Do not get overzealous and point out all of your child’s rituals.

When your child has a problem you want to fix it as soon as you can. This can make parents overzealous with their efforts to beat their child’s OCD for them. Unfortunately, this is your child’s battle. You can offer your help and guidance, but you can’t fix this for your child. In fact, if you point out every ritualistic behavior you see you may unintentionally cause your child to become more secretive about their OCD. Stopping ritualistic behavior does not happen overnight. Initial success may be as simple as recognizing an OCD thought or briefly delaying a ritual.

4) Don’t be part of their rituals.

One area you do have control over is your participation in rituals. Some children involve their parents in their ritualistic behavior. If possible, you do not want to enable or participate in rituals. You can tell your child, “I am not helping Mr. Bossy boss you around. You can listen to him, but I won’t!”

5) Keep an eye out for new rituals so you can work together as a team.

Children can get defensive about their rules and rituals and they may not want you to recognize any new rules or behaviors. Even though children do not want to have OCD, they’re often slaves to the rituals that provide them brief relief from their worrying. Therefore it’s important to keep an eye out for odd or irrational behavior.

Often when one type of OCD behavior has been eliminated, another rule or behavior replaces it. That’s why it’s important to give your child the skills to beat OCD and not just the specific behavior or rule they’re currently doing. When you discover your child is doing a new ritual gently address it and let them know you’re here to help them beat Mr. Bossy.

OCD can be a challenging issue! It can consume little minds and impede their social and emotional growth. The sooner children are given the skills to overcome their OCD, the better the longterm prognosis will be. I encourage you to follow these tips, educate yourself by reading books on OCD and seek out professional guidance and support for you and your child as needed.

You can watch Natasha give these five tips in the video below. 

This post originally appeared on Anxious Toddlers.

Getty image by NataliaLeb

Originally published: August 10, 2015
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