Are You Talking to Your Child? Or Your Child’s OCD?

Your child is worried they may have swallowed a large number of the pills from the medicine cabinet. Or scared they may have sexual feelings towards a sibling. They’re convinced everyone in school hates them. They think the creaky noise upstairs is someone breaking into the house. They’re convinced you don’t love them because you’re “yelling” at them.

And they’re not just upset. They are in severe, inconsolable distress. And they’re demanding you do something about their distress: Answer their questions a certain way. Or change the way you’re parenting. Or let them stay home from school.

You try to convince your child that their fears don’t make sense. Everyone – teachers, parents, and friends – likes them. You check on those creaks in the house every night, and they never turn out to be an intruder. You remind them they’ve never taken any pills in the medicine cabinet, no matter how many days they’ve thought they might have.

And your arguments work, eventually. Maybe it takes 15 minutes, or a couple hours on a bad day, but the crisis finally comes to an end. Everyone is back in touch with reality. That is, until the next time your child is triggered. And they think everyone hates them again, or that they may have taken the pills again, or that another intruder might be upstairs again. And it starts all over again.

And who can blame you for not giving up. For trying your hardest to prove that your child’s worries are wrong, time and time again. You want your child to be smart and successful. You want them to be rational. You don’t want those thoughts in their head to win. Most importantly, you want them to be happy.

But here’s the thing. You haven’t been talking to your child. You’ve been talking to your child’s OCD. When your child becomes triggered by an intrusive OCD thought or doubt, OCD can completely take over, and cause your child to speak and behave in ways that are extreme and irrational. In these moments, your child’s sole purpose is to remove the negative thoughts and uncomfortable emotions they are feeling. By any means necessary. And, as exhausting as all of these episodes are, OCD doesn’t have any plans for them to end. This is because they are probably working to some degree. They are likely helping your child to remove their fears and worries and doubts in the short term.

But if you’re a parent caught in this cycle with your child, you’re probably noticing that your efforts to reason with your child’s OCD don’t seem to be making much of a difference in the long term. And you might be ready to try something a little different. Here are some tips for starting to disengage from your conversations with OCD:

First, accept that your child has OCD and that OCD is a real thing. If you could fix things by simply talking sense to your child, we wouldn’t need to have a mental health diagnosis called OCD. Your child’s inability to think rationally in the areas of their OCD obsession/s is part of the disorder. And trying to do a better job at disproving OCD isn’t the answer to this problem..

Give up trying to argue that OCD is wrong. Accept that OCD has a point. A very small point most of the time. But a point none the less. It’s actually true that the only way to prove that the creak upstairs is not an intruder is to walk upstairs and check. But see if you can help your child focus on probability, not possibility. There is always a risk of something bad happening, but some risks are low enough that you ignore them. The truth is you’ve got more important things to do than spend the rest of your life checking on every creak. It’s a risk you are willing to take.

Spend less time helping your child “calm down.” Wanting to calm down and reduce uncomfortable emotions is a desire for everyone. But your child with OCD probably wants you to take extreme measures to help them calm down. If you find yourself tired and stressed because you’re doing everything you can to help them “calm down,” it’s time to shift gears. You might need to start being okay with your child being upset, and start letting them experience their negative emotions. Keep in mind that backing off will inevitably make your child more upset, but things may need to get a little worse before your child starts to learn how to deal with these emotions in a more healthy and reasonable way.

Stop responding to OCD statements about your own behavior. Many children with OCD demand that their parents behave in just the right way when their OCD is triggered. And they can turn to insults and criticism when their parents’ actions aren’t “right” enough. If your child continually says things like you don’t love them, or you’re mean to them, or even that you’re stupid, it might be time to stop defending yourself. This is just another example of OCD doing the talking for your child. And your responses are giving OCD more attention than it deserves. You’re not a bad parent just because you haven’t found the “perfect” response to magically make your child better. And even if you’re starting to get annoyed with your child’s OCD behavior, that’s completely natural too. Just have confidence that you love your child. You just don’t’ love their OCD. And stop proving to your child that you care about them. That’s a given.

Find time to hang out with your child when OCD isn’t around. If there are times and/or activities that seem to give your child respite from their OCD, incorporate that into your time with your child. It will be important for your child to see how enjoyable and positive life can be without OCD. And you’re going to need to capitalize on any positive experiences with your child you can, since OCD is probably bringing a lot of negativity to family life.

Lastly, identify some alternate goals. Once you decide to reverse the OCD cycle, your’e going to need some new goals to keep things headed in the right direction…

  • Help your child accept risk, uncertainty and doubt. We all live our lives with some acceptance of these things.
  • Accept that anxiety, and other uncomfortable emotions, are a part of life. It’s not something to be thought of as a problem that always needs to be fixed.
  • Talk to a mental health professional who knows ERP and ACT to help develop a plan for gradually challenging OCD thoughts and behaviors. With the right treatment, things will get better.