Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a form of anxiety that affects about 1 percent of children in the U.S. Learn more about the causes and signs of OCD, and how proper treatment can make a big difference.

By The Editors of Parents.com
Updated May 22, 2020
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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that affects about 1 percent of children in the U.S., according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. "That means that in a typical elementary school, there are a couple of kids—and a bunch of staff members—with OCD," says Jerry Bubrick, Ph.D., a psychologist who is the senior director of the Child Mind Institute's Anxiety & Mood Disorders Center in New York City and specializes in the treatment of OCD. The condition usually strikes boys between ages 6 and 12 and girls between 7 and 11. Keep reading to learn more about the causes and signs of OCD in children, with advice for seeking proper treatment.

Causes of OCD in Children

"Kids have OCD because of how their brain is wired," says Dr. Bubrick. Researchers believe insufficient levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin may be a factor. There’s also a genetic component to OCD—if a biological parent suffers from it, there's a 4 percent to 8 percent chance he or she will pass it on to a child. Having a family member with another type of anxiety disorder, such as social anxiety disorder or a phobia, can also increase the risk.

And while stress doesn't cause OCD in children, it can worsen symptoms. "Stress and OCD are best friends," says Dr. Bubrick. "The more stressed out a child is, whether from school tests or a traumatic family event, the easier it is to give in to the obsessions and the more obsessions he's going to have to fight."

In rare cases, OCD can develop quickly and with severe symptoms. This  condition is known as pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome, or PANS. It can be the result of strep throat or other infections, such as Lyme disease and mononucleosis. (It was formerly known as PANDAS, for pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections; the new name was designed to create a broader category of OCD that isn't directly linked to strep.)

OCD Symptoms in Children

OCD usually starts with occasional symptoms, says Dr. Bubrick. "Parents think their kids will grow out of it, and then they see that it progressively worsens over months or years." Kids with OCD experience symptoms for at least one hour a day and often much more. As the name suggests, the disorder consists of two components: obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions: "Obsessions are unwanted thoughts that enter the child's mind and cause great distress and anxiety," explains Dr. Bubrick. The child may believe that he or someone close to him will be harmed by an intruder breaking into the house through an unlocked window, for example. Or he may think he will become ill from germs.

Compulsions: "Compulsions are things kids do to get rid of the obsessions," says Dr. Bubrick. "It's like when you have a mosquito bite. It itches. So you scratch it, and at first it feels better, but after you stop, it feels worse. So you scratch again." The child who believes an intruder will harm his family may repeatedly check to make sure the windows are locked, for example. The child who believes germs will make him sick will continuously wash his hands.

But the obsession and compulsion are not always related in an obvious way: A child might think that if he doesn't always begin walking with his right foot, for example, someone he loves might die. Other common compulsions (also called rituals) include tapping an object or a body part. A child may think, "I have to tap my leg four times, and if I get interrupted, I have to start over again." He may feel compelled to shower or brush his teeth frequently. When eating food, he may chew four times on the right side, then four times on the left. "There are different patterns that kids will feel compelled to do until they feel 'right,'" says Dr. Bubrick.

Children often feel shame and embarrassment about their OCD and will try to hide their compulsions from other people. If the child's parents notice the behavior (which most parents do eventually) and ask him what he's doing, he will most likely say, "I don't know"—which is the truth. "Parents want to understand what their child is doing and why," explains Dr. Bubrick, "but the child may not know why he's doing it other than that he doesn't feel right unless he does." It's very difficult for a child with OCD to just stop his compulsions.

Treating OCD in Children

Alert your doctor if you think your child has OCD; he’ll probably do an OCD assessment to diagnose the condition. Mild to moderate cases are typically treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). More severe cases may require a combination of CBT and medication (such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs). If a strep infection is the cause, it will be treated with antibiotics.

During CBT, the whole family gets involved, with the child and his parents and siblings learning to understand what OCD is and how to manage it. "We teach kids how to face their fears head on and cope with the anxiety that comes with it," says Dr. Bubrick. "We give them a toolbox of skills they can use for a lifetime."

One crucial component of treatment is what's called "exposure with response prevention." As Dr. Bubrick explains, "If you jump into a swimming pool and the water is chilly, you stay in the water a little bit and your body gets used to it." Anxiety works the same way. "We systematically, in a structured way and at the child's pace, expose him to his fears without letting him do his rituals. After a period of time, there's no need for the ritual anymore." 

For example, a child who fears germs may be asked to touch a doorknob without immediately washing his hands. The more times he does this, the less afraid and anxious he is and the less compelled he feels to wash his hands. "We can see marked improvement within five to seven sessions, and usually after 12 to 15, we see up to an 80 percent improvement," says Dr. Bubrick.

 If symptoms re-emerge in the future, as they sometimes do during stressful times, that same toolbox of coping strategies can be used. “There is no cure," says Dr. Bubrick, "but what we have is a really effective treatment."

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