The vast majority of the general public don’t realize that OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is a neuro-biological disorder, which means that the brains of people with OCD are actually wired differently. Because of this, many parents have misconceptions about what OCD is and how to help children with it, especially teens. One in every 200 teens has OCD and taking the stigma out of it is essential for making progress. 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 is the mother of a teenage girl who has OCD, which she believes gives her added insight and expertise in helping other parents and their children.
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 reports three common misunderstandings about OCD, that need to be cleared up so that parents can find the proper help for their teens.
Myth #1 – We’re all a little OCD
No, we’re not. Mose explains that, “no one with OCD says, ‘Oh, I’m so OCD about that.’ ” Actually having OCD is much too painful and embarrassing to make light of in that way.
For example, a person who does not have OCD might worry about germs and wash their hands frequently during the day feeling satisfied that doing this helps to prevent them from getting sick. Someone with OCD may wash over and over for various other reasons besides germs and may need to wash even when their hands are cracked and bleeding. Mose says doing this, “usually provides no satisfaction, serves no real purpose and is embarrassing, inconvenient and painful.”
She goes on to say, “We might not like when something is out of line and we might fix it, but it won’t cause us such panic that we cannot function.” For those with OCD, they have a feeling that they have to change it, not that they want to.
The biggest problem with this myth is that it makes people think that people with OCD can just change it if they just try hard, but that’s not at all the case. It also makes people with OCD feel totally misunderstood.
Myth # 2 – OCD is a reaction to stress, so reducing expectations will help
Even though it is true that OCD often gets worse in times of stress, difficult life situations do not cause OCD and so reducing stress and pressure will not fix it. Mose points out that, “a child does not get OCD because of a divorce or too much stress from school or challenging family dynamics. It is natural to want to comfort a child in distress, but protecting them from anxiety or stress-producing situations is not the solution.”
Actually, our brains learn from experience so trying to make things easier for a person with OCD actually makes it worse. Sometimes families will change their entire routines and expectations for the child with OCD. So if the child with OCD cleans obsessively to the point of not being able to stop until every single thing is finished, parents stop requiring them to do chores.
“Parents begin to accommodate the symptoms and make adjustments in order to calm things down,” Mose continues “Unfortunately, by doing this, it’s not just that it doesn’t get better but it actually continues to get worse.”
Myth #3 – OCD is all about hand-washing and checking things over and over
Since the compulsion part of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder happens in order to get rid of the obsessions, those compulsions can focus on just about anything. The most common ones portrayed in movies and on TV are obsessive hand washing and checking.
Mose points out that, “not all people with OCD are obsessively neat, clean and orderly. In fact, sometimes it is quite the opposite. They may actually not feel able to shower or clean their room because of fears of being unable to stop.”
Compulsions can be almost anything that is done repetitively to get rid of a disturbing thought or a bad feeling. People with this OCD try to stay away from things that trigger their anxiety. This may include compulsively avoiding certain places, or things such as colors or numbers.
Compulsions can also be done mentally which makes them harder to notice. These are called mental rituals and include things like going over scenarios, saying words or phrases or unsaying certain things in their head. These compulsions my appear to be ADHD because it seems like the child is just not paying attention. It is important to understand that this is a myth so that children can be correctly diagnosed early and get the proper treatment.
What parents should do
Mose suggests first and foremost, that building a strong line of communication is key. Parents should do their research and help their teens find the right support. She says that it is important to “understand that the stigma of having a mental illness can be frightening to all of us, but especially to teenagers who are already worried about issues of identity and fitting in.”
Teenagers may not want to talk about it and may even refuse to get treatment. In that case there are many resources that you can find and even websites and online support groups that may be helpful to both teens and their parents.
Parents are often very confused about how to deal with a teens with OCD. Mose explains that “you can’t correct OCD by administering punishment or by giving in and being overly lenient.” It is a very difficult balancing act for a parent.
Essentially, parents need to gradually stop accommodating the symptoms and this requires them to deal with their own anxiety about having a temper tantrum to deal with or a very distressed teenager.
This is where the help of a professional may be required because you can’t just pull the rug out from under a teen in order to change how you are dealing with the OCD. It needs to be done in a certain way and that is why finding a therapist who is specifically trained to work with OCD is critical. Even a great therapist will not be helpful unless they know the protocol for working with OCD.
As parents it’s a natural instinct to want to fix it and make our children feel better which is why Mose cautions against accommodating it. “In order to get through OCD, you have to work gradually. Facing fears is like jumping in a cold pool. Eventually, you get used to it if you stay in there. That’s the mindset I think that parents need to really work on adopting when they have a child or a teen with OCD.”
The good news is there is effective help available for OCD, and the skills your teen will learn in the process of dealing with their anxiety will make them a stronger person and can be applied to all areas of life.
If your child has OCD or you’re concerned they may, find out how you can better help them. Visit Melissa Mose’s website for useful resources to help your teen and your whole family cope: http://www.melissamosemft.com/resources