How to Identify Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Teens

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that can be difficult to identify, especially in children. OCD can have negative effects on a child’s ability to handle various day-to-day tasks and everyday stressors. According to the Archives of Disease in Childhood, “OCD in childhood and adolescence is an impairing condition, associated with a specific set of distressing symptoms incorporating repetitive, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and distressing, time-consuming rituals (compulsions).” Properly dealing with this impairing condition is essential for the development of the child.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? 

OCD is a series of involuntary obsessions and compulsions. There was a time when medical professionals believed that OCD was rare in children, as sometimes the obsessions and compulsions are hard to see or diagnose. However, since then, many more children have been diagnosed with OCD. Researchers from the Archives of Disease in Childhood write that sometimes, it appears that OCD is genetic, especially when the disorder occurs in young children. These same researchers provide some context as to what obsessions and compulsions look like:

  • Obsessions: Recurrent, unwanted, and persistent thoughts, images, and urges that cause marked distress. Common themes can include contamination, aggression or harm, sex, religion, schedule-keeping, or making things perfect.
  • Compulsions: Repetitive behaviors or mental acts driven by rigid rules and performed to reduce anxiety. Common compulsions can include constant washing and cleaning, checking on things, needing extra reassurance, repeating, and ordering or arranging items.

Diagnosing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Diagnosing OCD, especially in children, can be difficult. Teens will display signs of OCD more readily than small children if they have it. Many teens are aware of their strange obsessions and compulsions to self-diagnose or make jokes about having the disorder. Be aware, though, most teens who joke about OCD don’t actually have it since those who have OCD find their obsessions and compulsions so detrimental to their everyday routine that they’re hard to discuss.

While the diagnosis may be difficult, there are specific criteria to look out for when diagnosing OCD in children:

#1: Obsessions and Compulsions 

Obsessions (unwanted ideas, images, or impulses that repeatedly enter a person’s mind) and compulsions (repetitive, stereotyped behaviors or mental acts driven by rules that require strict adherence) that share the following features:

  • The child is aware that these originate from their mind, not anywhere else.
  • These thoughts and compulsions are repetitive, unwanted, and highly distressing to the one performing them. At least one of the obsessions or compulsions is highly unreasonable or excessive.
  • At least one obsession or compulsion is resisted unsuccessfully, while others are present that the child no longer resists.
  • The thought of carrying out the ritual of the obsession or compulsion is not enjoyable and does not make the child happy; rather, the thought of not completing it causes stress. The child experiences brief relief after completing the ritual, which should not be confused with happiness.

#2: The Symptoms Must Be Incapacitating

Even young children may recognize the senselessness of certain thoughts and behaviors. For teens, this behavior can translate into loose jokes or insecurity depending on the extremity of the OCD the teen is experiencing.

Treatment for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The two main treatments proven effective for OCD in pediatrics are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and response prevention. CBT and response prevention therapy should be used together for treatment to be most successful for the child. In some cases, medications that calm anxiety or specific serotonin inhibitors will help a child with their compulsions.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy functions to help establish what the thought is, why they are having these thoughts, and the appropriate action concerning the goals the child wants to achieve. When working with a therapist, the child will also be exposed to response prevention therapy simultaneously to help with the child’s response to obsessions and compulsions. With response prevention, the child, with guidance and support, will gradually confront their obsessive thoughts and work to control the compulsions that often follow. Parents and families can be supportive by continually praising the effort the child puts in, even if they can’t resist every time.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder’s Strain on Families

OCD can be challenging for parents to gauge or understand, especially for children. In teens, OCD can impact confidence and self-esteem, as well as general issues for everyday stressors. Talk to your doctor or pediatrician today if you notice that your child is displaying symptoms of OCD. Seeking help from a professional will not only educate you and your child about OCD but will also provide effective ways to reduce symptoms. Understanding the “what” and the “why” can sometimes be enough to bring reassurance and ease to your family.

Having a teen with obsessive-compulsive disorder can be difficult. No one asks to have a mental illness that causes them to be unable to control their obsessions and compulsions. The teen and the parent may be frustrated with the level of disruption their teen’s OCD causes and how it affects the teen’s life. Some teens dealing with OCD will have traumas, anxiety, or substance use disorders coupled with their OCD. If your teen needs help to treat their OCD or a co-occurring disorder, call Havenwood Academy. At Havenwood Academy, our professional and experienced staff will be able to guide your teen through their OCD and co-occurring trauma processing. Havenwood Academy’s beautiful Utah campus can offer a myriad of therapies and treatment plans that are specially catered to your teen girl. Call Havenwood Academy today at (435) 586-2500. We can help you and your child find a better way to live and thrive. 


Think Havenwood Might Be For You?

We encourage any visitors considering placing their daughter in treatment to fill out our online assessment as soon as possible. This two minute form will give our admissions team all the information needed to determine if your daughter is a good fit for our program.