OCD in teens: symptoms, support tips and professional help

The number of young people showing signs of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) has increased in recent years, following the COVID-19 pandemic. OCD is a complex mental health condition that can create a number of challenges for both young people and their parents.

What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder that affects around 3 per cent of Australians at some point in their lives.

Young people with OCD have obsessions, which are repeated thoughts, concerns and/or fears. A teenager with OCD will try to resolve or manage these thoughts using mental or physical patterns of behaviour called compulsions. These obsessions and compulsions can be extremely distressing and can interfere with a teenager's daily life, including their relationships, work and school.

In the past, you may have heard of common obsessions and compulsions that people with OCD experience, but it’s important to remember that the disorder can manifest in many different ways.

What are obsessions and compulsions?

Obsessions

Obsessions are unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images or urges that cause distress and anxiety.

Some examples of obsessions that teens with OCD may experience include:

  • fear of illness or injury

  • fear that they or a family member will be harmed in some way

  • fear of losing control and of harming themselves or others

  • fixation on spiritual or religious subjects, such as a fear of judgement from God or another deity

  • fears that intrusive immoral or taboo thoughts may reflect their actual desires (when this isn’t the case)

  • fears about their sexual orientation.

Compulsions

Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that a person engages in to try to relieve the anxiety caused by their obsessions. Here are just a few common examples of compulsions:

  • Cleanliness – repetitive household cleaning or hand-washing to reduce fears of contamination.

  • Order – a strong focus on symmetry, routine or order, with the compulsion to perform tasks or place objects in a particular place and/or pattern (and difficulties coping if this order or routine is disrupted).

  • Safety/checking – obsessive fears about harm occurring to themselves or others, which can result in compulsive checking for things like the stove being turned off, or the doors and windows being locked.

  • Religious matters – feeling compelled to repeatedly perform religious or spiritual behaviours (such as praying) to the extent that it interferes with daily life.

  • Sexual issues – refusal to engage in sexual behaviours due to fears about their sexuality, or to be around people they might have sexual thoughts about, due to concerns about their own behaviour.

  • Removing dangers – hiding objects that could be used to harm themselves or others.

  • Cognitive habits – frequently reviewing lists, suppressing ‘bad’ thoughts, thinking special words or sayings, or excessively reviewing and analysing certain thoughts, doubts or past situations.

What are some signs my teen might be experiencing OCD?

a young person and their parent chatting on a patio

Because some of the obsessions and compulsions teenagers with OCD may be experiencing are embarrassing or taboo, your teen may be reluctant to share their issues with you, or they may not even recognise there is a problem. Here are a few signs that a teen could be experiencing OCD:

  • They have become excessively or overwhelmingly preoccupied with any of the obsessions and compulsions listed above.

  • They avoid certain situations or objects that may trigger their obsessive thoughts or compulsions.

  • They’ve lost interest in things they used to enjoy.

  • They seem ‘stuck’ in their thoughts.

  • They’re isolating or have withdrawn from friends and family.

  • They show perfectionist tendencies or have high standards for themselves and others.

  • They have difficulty making decisions because of a need for excessive reassurance or because they fear making the wrong choice.

How can parents help a teen with OCD find the best professional support?

If your teenager is showing signs of OCD, it can be a difficult and overwhelming time for both of you. It’s important to remember that OCD is a treatable condition and that professional help is available.

The first step is to schedule an appointment with your teen's GP, who can explain the next steps for diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment for OCD often includes psychological therapy, such as exposure and response prevention (ERP). This type of therapy involves your teen working with a therapist to develop a plan to gradually confront their fears without resorting to compulsive behaviours. This may sound daunting to your teenager, but it’s important for them to remember that they won’t be going through the process alone – they’ll have the support of a mental health professional.

If ERP therapy isn’t available in your area, you can look for a mental health professional who specialises in treating OCD. It's important to find a therapist who is a good fit for your teenager, as this will make it more likely that they’ll open up and engage in treatment.

In some cases, medication may be prescribed in addition to therapy. This can be effective for some people with OCD and can be discussed with your teen's mental health professionals, such as their GP, psychologist or psychiatrist.

What are some practical tips for supporting a teen with OCD?

Whether or not your teen ends up receiving professional help for their OCD, there are many things parents can do to support them. Here are some practical tips:

  • Educate yourself about OCD and its symptoms. This will help you to better understand what your teen is going through and how to support them.

  • Be a good listener and offer emotional support. Let your teen know that you’re there for them and that they can talk to you about their OCD.

  • If your teen undergoes therapy to help manage their condition, respect their privacy throughout the process until they are ready to share. If their OCD has caused them feelings of guilt or shame, respecting their privacy can help them feel like they are recovering independently and at their own pace.

  • Talk to your teen about what healthy support looks like for them. Reassurance is a key form of emotional support and is helpful for any teenager going through major challenges in their life. But for some teens with OCD, the need for reassurance can be a common compulsion and can form a part of their condition. It’s crucial to talk to your teen about this, as they are the only one that can lead their recovery journey.

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