Helping Teens with OCD – 3 Step Road Map to Success

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is a brain based disorder, in which that the brains of people with OCD are actually wired differently. Understanding this helps to dispel misconceptions about what OCD is and how to help teens manage it.

One in every 200 teens has OCD, so it is important to become educated about OCD and its symptoms in order to spot it and help kids to get treatment early. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder cannot be overcome with will power and insight.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Melissa Mose, specializes in working with OCD, and she has also specialized in working with teens for over twenty years. In addition to her professional experience she also happens to be the mother of a teenage girl who has OCD.

Mose has been working to dispel the myths and confusion about OCD for many years because she knows from experience how important early detection and proper treatment can be.

She outlined a 3 step road map for parents of kids and teens with OCD so they can more effectively find the proper help for their teens.

Step 1: Do your research

In order to help your child through any difficulties, it is important to know what you are dealing with. Most people think of things like compulsive hand-washing and checking or repeating compulsions as being the primary symptoms of OCD, so parents don’t always recognize it.

There are many other signs if you know what to look for. Some OCD symptoms that may be missed or misinterpreted include a constant need to be reassured, intrusive and unwanted thoughts, inability to focus, extreme emotional reactions, and concerns about self image.

These are just a few of the signs to look out for, and by themselves they do not necessarily indicate OCD, but they are clues that you may need to begin to look more deeply. By knowing what to look for, parents can act appropriately when they observe their child’s behavior, and they can get help sooner.

Mose states that early detection is extremely important when working with OCD. “Doing your own research is essential, but so is talking to your teenager, asking questions and being open-minded. We can’t really move forward in treating something until we know what we’re treating.”

There is much more information available than ever before and it’s easy for parents to access. Among other things, there are many websites with information compiled from a variety of different experts. 

The International OCD Foundation is one such resource that parents of OCD teens can turn to for information, help and support. 

Mose’s website ( has an extensive list of resources and other information to assist parents in finding help with OCD children. 

Step 2: Develop a plan to challenge the OCD using a hierarchy

Because of the nature of OCD, it is important to move slowly. Simply saying, “Stop doing that,” to your child will get you nowhere contends Mose. OCD symptoms do not improve in a straight line, they come and go. There are good days and bad days, and the treatment can be demanding.

It is important as a parent of a child with OCD to be both firm and reasonable. “When you’re dealing with curfew violations, driving rules or drugs, you can have a zero tolerance policy with consequences. That simply doesn’t work with OCD, so we work on a hierarchy and with a lot of compassion” asserts Mose.

Parents may need modify their expectations once it has been determined that OCD is the culprit. Some things are more challenging for one child than another, plus people get better at different rates. Maybe one day is good but the next day is not so good.

It is important to recognize small improvements along the way. In order to do this effectively there needs to be a plan. Communicating with your teen on this is essential so you can get a sense of their compulsions and which ones are hardest to resist.

Have your child help you score each compulsion from 1 to 10 and slowly work your way up the hierarchy. Think of yourself as a teammate working on the easier to eliminate compulsions with your child and work your way up to more difficult ones.

Mose explains parents should “Think about the way a child learns any skill, sport or instrument. You start with simpler tasks and move into the hard ones at the right pace. This too, is a process of learning. Learning how to sit with discomfort and not compulsively fix it.”

There are many books that will help to set up a hierarchy, but they won’t replace the assistance of a therapist trained in treating OCD. Everyone is different, but if you are having trouble working with OCD on your own you may consider finding a trained therapist. The IOCDF website is a great place to start. 

Step 3: Keep family routines as normal as possible

While evaluating and possibly modifying expectations for the person with OCD is important, it is also important to keep the big picture in mind. OCD can very quickly consume a whole family if you don’t take care to keep routines going.

It is very easy to slip into a situation in which family events revolve around OCD and everybody else’s needs are set aside. For instance, sometimes a child’s responsibilities are decreased, the family spends time waiting for them to complete rituals, certain locations are avoided by everyone, or vacations are rearranged.

Whoever has OCD becomes the focus of the whole family, and that definitely can create problems not just for the parents but for siblings who can begin to feel marginalized.  Walking on eggshells around the OCD is only going to make things worse. 

Mose says, “it is possible and important to be empathetic without being accommodating.” It helps to discuss it as a family to create a realistic family contract or plan and goals that everyone will achieve together.

A feeling of unity needs to be created so that the entire family feels as though they are on the same team.  Research being done by Anthony Pinto, Ph.D., Barbara Van Noppen, Ph.D., Monica S. Wu, M.A., & Lisa Calvocoressi, Ph.D supports this approach.

Mose also advises that if other siblings are involved, there should be a conversation held with them as well to enlist their assistance. Time needs to be spent with the other children in the family and parents should have time alone together so everyone can recharge emotionally and strengthen their bonds.

Parents tend to want to fix what is wrong for their children, but Mose warns that with OCD it is imperative to let your child develop their own skills to cope with it. “It’s not about understanding. It’s about practice. They have to practice tolerating the tough feelings without doing compulsions and they have to take these steps themselves,” she explained.

Parents seeking help in working through the steps and creating a hierarchy to help their child with OCD can find out more by visiting: for useful resources to help their family take steps in the right direction on the path to healing.