Obsessive-compulsive disorder is more than just handwashing, neatness, and rigid behaviors.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a complex anxiety disorder, characterized by obsessions which are unwanted and persistent thoughts, and compulsions which are repetitive actions aimed at relieving distress caused by obsessions. Unwanted thoughts and rituals cause serious distress and time-consuming behaviors that interfere with school, activities/sports, friendships, and relationships with family.

For example, a young person might have an obsessive fear that their parents will be hurt in an accident. To deal with this fear they might open and close their bedroom door three times, and any other door they touch in the house.

A child might ask over and over if there is poison in their food. They cannot eat anything without asking questions for reassurance.

A teenager cannot leave the house until they have divided or parted hair in complete symmetry. This will take hours causing stress not only on the young person but the entire family system.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder might seem bizarre and frightening. However, It’s actually quite common and treatable. Cognitive behavior therapy along with exposure and response prevention can help children learn new ways to respond to scary thoughts. Children can learn to interrupt urges to ask, check, repeat and redo. Exposure and response prevention strategies will never put a child in danger or cause extreme distress.

For example, a child will feel the need to wash their hands 12 times after touching a doorknob. During an ERP (exposure and response prevention) exercise, a client will touch the doorknob and wash their hands only 11 times. The client will continue to reduce the amount of handwashing. Parents can also help implement these strategies at home.


Danielle Kowach, LCSW