Overcoming OCD in Teens

You may not think of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as an illness that shows up in adolescence, or even childhood, but it does. It’s not only adults that suffer from this type of anxiety disorder; it’s also teens and young children.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an illness that can easily interfere with enjoying life. It is characterized by repeating thoughts and images that cause an individual to perform the same rituals over and over again, such as washing hands, locking and unlocking doors, or counting money.  However, it should be pointed out that some define OCD as not an illness of repeating actions, but instead a consistent worry that something bad is going to take place, as well as obsessing over the action that might prevent that bad thing. This is the way that Janet Singer and Seth Gillihan describe OCD in their recent book Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery.

There are a few ways to ease the intense discomfort and anxiety of OCD for teens. These are medication as well as a supportive network of family and friends. Medication can ease the urges to compulsively repeat actions again and again. Anti-OCD medication, for instance, works to treat OCD compulsions as well as anxiety. However, even if teens take their medication, they might still feel the need to perform certain rituals in the morning, fearing that without doing them, their day won’t go well.

Perhaps teens may also feel the need to complete certain compulsive rituals before going to bed. There might be days where teens feel particularly tired because their OCD rituals keep them up late into the night. According to the International OCD Foundation, this is common among teens that have been diagnosed with OCD. Other challenges include having to perform rituals that prevent completing homework, attendance to school, and attention in class. This can lead to stress and lack of sleep, which in turn can result in physical illness.

Other adolescents might feel the need to hide their OCD patterns, which might keep them from spending time with their peers and even lead to problematic social relationships. Hiding a diagnosis might also contribute to a teen’s low self-esteem and their process of finding a sense of self, which is the main psychological task of adolescence. If parents, caregivers, and teachers do not appropriately address the needs of teens with OCD, they might express anger and anxiety. What makes this even more challenging is when teens do not communicate their needs because of feeling shameful about their behavior and hiding their impairments.  However, when there is communication among teens with the illness and their friends and family, there is less arguing, tension, and misunderstandings.

It’s also important to note that teens with OCD very often have another mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and/or self-harming behaviors. Research indicates that teens with OCD typically have additional mental illnesses than those who do not have OCD. Depression, anxiety, and the not-so-well-known diagnosis of Trichotillomania (obsessive hair pulling or skin picking) are common co-occurring disorders. Medication treatment that improves the functioning for OCD adolescents can also treat these additional diagnoses. However, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Tic Disorders (uncontrolled, sudden, and non-rhythmic behavior), and other behavioral disorders would require additional treatment.

Because of the severe consequences of OCD as well as other accompanying disorders, you might see the necessity of teens with OCD to have a strong support network. A network of professionals, friends, and family can ease the challenges of the illness.  The professionals that families may include in their network of support include a therapist, psychiatrist, nurse, doctor, and possibly a neurologist.

With the right support, it’s certainly possible for teens with OCD to live normal, happy, and healthy lives.

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