While OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is something that many people think of as an adult illness, it can also affect children. If children are affected by OCD, they are usually diagnosed between the ages of 7-12. OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by both obsessions (unwanted thoughts, feelings, and ideas) and compulsions (the behaviors that relieve the obsessions).
If your son has OCD, you may not recognize it at first. In fact, you may think that your son is just “quirky” or “going through a phase.” A child with OCD may be obsessed with numbers, patterns, counting, fear of germs, collecting specific things, or engaging in certain rituals. Although there are certain ideas of what OCD looks like (the guy who won’t shake hands with anyone because he is pathologically afraid of germs or the woman who checks the door locks 100 times before bed each night), your son does not have to fit this mold to have OCD. His OCD symptoms may vary significantly from these. The only way to find out if he has OCD is to see a child psychiatrist or therapist.
Once your son is diagnosed with OCD, a whole new world of decisions opens up, the biggest of which is whether to medicate him or not. As your therapist will tell you, you can’t “treat” OCD and you can’t “parent” it. It is something that is part of your son, and it will part of your son for the rest of his life. Trying to get him not to act on his compulsions is, to borrow my son’s therapist’s analogy, like telling a diabetic to regulate his own insulin. You just can’t do it. Your therapist is the best person to advise you and your son regarding how to help him learn to deal with his OCD, but the sooner you let go of the idea that he will be “healed,” the easier things will be for both of you.
The decision about whether or not to put your son on medication for his OCD is a highly personal one, and should be made in careful consultation with your son’s psychiatrist. Many parents have a gut-level problem with putting a child on an anti-depressant medication (the class of drugs typically used to treat OCD), but there are reasons for medicating a child with OCD. Chief among these reasons is the fact that neither parents nor a psychiatrist can be sure of the extent to which intrusive thoughts (a significant component of OCD) bother a child. Your son doesn’t know any reality other than his own. He has never experienced a brain without OCD, so he may very well not understand that thoughts that he lives with daily (gruesome violent thoughts that he doesn’t understand, for example) are not normal and do not have to be there. The medications your child’s psychiatrist would prescribe would quiet these thoughts.
Having your son diagnosed with OCD is scary, but it can also be liberating. It can answer questions you may have silently been asking yourself for years, and it can clear the way for you to be able to get your son the help he needs. Ask all the questions you need to and put your son in the hands of trusted professionals. Remember, OCD or no OCD, he’s still the same son you’ve loved and raised since the moment you found out you were carrying him.