Signs of OCD in Teens and Young Adults

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental health condition that often begins to emerge during the teenage years for a variety of reasons, including hormonal fluctuations, a teen’s need to have a sense of control, and the fact that they are taking on more responsibilities than they’ve had before.

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m OCD about that,” when they are describing their cleaning routines or how they want their desk to look and function? You might be surprised to know that OCD, which stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder, does not mean that someone is what you might call a “neat freak.” Instead, it is a mental health disorder that affects children, adolescents, and adults. Learn what the signs of OCD are to help and support your teen.

It often begins to emerge during the teenage years for a variety of reasons, including hormonal fluctuations, a teen’s need to have a sense of control, and the fact that they are taking on more responsibilities than they’ve had before.

Since OCD can become disabling in severe cases, it is important to know what the signs are and how you can get your teen help if they seem to be developing them. Take a look through this guide to the signs of OCD in teens so you will know what to do if you have concerns.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental health condition that affects 1 in 40 adults and about 1 in 100 children. OCD has two parts that work together to cause the disorder. The first is obsessive thoughts, and the second is compulsive behaviors. Someone can have one part without the other, but that would be something other than OCD, since the diagnosis requires that both the obsessive thoughts and the compulsive behaviors are necessary.

The obsessive thoughts are disturbing, uncomfortable, and unwanted. They are also uncontrollable, at least before the person gets treatment. They lead the individual to repeat some action compulsively. A compulsive behavior is one that the person can’t help doing.

They might be able to avoid doing it for a period of time, but the urge will get stronger and stronger until they give in. With treatment, many people with OCD will notice a decrease in their disturbing thoughts and their previously uncontrollable behaviors.

What Types of Obsessive Thoughts Might Someone Have?

If your teen has OCD, his or her obsessive thoughts will generally be irrational and repeated. OCD can take many different forms, and the obsessive thoughts might revolve around one or more of the following:

  • Health. Your teen might worry compulsively about getting sick, about having a rare undiagnosed illness, or about the potential for severe or deadly complications when having a mild illness (such as an ear infection, the common cold, or a stomach virus).
  • Dirt or contamination. Dirt, germs, or other types of contamination might be the cause of your teen’s intrusive thoughts.
  • Symmetry or order. Your teen might have thoughts that revolve around the need to put things in order, to count items, or to have a design or surface (such as a table setting or the items on his or her desk) be symmetrical.
  • Religion. Your teen might fear God or some deity or might have intrusive thoughts about the church or place of worship they attend (or that they think they should attend).
  • Words or phrases. Sometimes, the thoughts might be a particular word or phrase that keeps repeating in the mind.
  • Aggressive or sexual thoughts. Occasionally, OCD can present as aggressive or sexual thoughts that just will not go away.

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What Are the Types and Signs of OCD Behaviors?

In reaction to the intrusive and unwanted thoughts, teens with OCD develop compulsive behaviors. These behaviors might or might not seem linked to the thoughts, but the underlying belief is usually that they will stop the thoughts from occurring or stop “bad things” from happening. Here are some examples:

  • A teen with obsessive thoughts concerning his or her health might feel the need to check their pulse every few minutes or to look at their throat with a flashlight in the mirror to see if it is closing up. They might compulsively search for their symptoms online or in a medical book.
  • A preoccupation with dirt or contamination can cause what many people think is a typical compulsion associated with OCD, which is compulsive cleaning or sanitizing. Your teen might wash his or her hands until they are raw and bleeding or might stay up for hours scrubbing the floor.
  • A teen with thoughts revolving around symmetry might feel that they can’t leave the house until the table is perfectly symmetrical; this can cause them to spend hours arranging and rearranging the items on the table, causing them to be late for work or school.
  • Sometimes, a compulsive behavior might not seem to be correlated to the specific thought. For example, your teen might feel that they need to tap on a wall three times and then walk 15 steps to their bedroom. If they do not calibrate their steps perfectly and it takes 14 or 16 steps, they might need to go back and tap the wall three times, starting the whole process over.

What Should I Do If I See Signs of OCD in My Teenager?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be treated, so it is important that you seek mental health care for your teen if you are concerned that they might have the symptoms of OCD. You can start with your primary care doctor.

A pediatrician or family doctor can screen your teen for symptoms of OCD and other mental health disorders. From there, he or she can be referred to the appropriate mental health specialist.

Treatments for OCD can include antidepressant medications and cognitive behavioral therapy. These can work together to help your teen cope with the obsessive thoughts and reduce them altogether. The treatments can also help your teen learn how not to succumb to the compulsive behaviors; instead, he or she can learn new coping mechanisms.

OCD does not have to be a life sentence. In fact, some people grow out of OCD over time. Talk to your teen’s doctor about his or her symptoms to find out if treatment is warranted. You can also learn from your teen’s mental health specialist how you can best support his or her treatment.

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