How to Talk with Your Teen About Their OCD

November 5, 2019

The teenage years are difficult. It does not matter if you are the most neurotypical, healthy teenager with plenty of friends. These years are still difficult. They are full of developmental milestones, learning consequences, identifying who you are, and learning to establish healthy relationships. You do all of this while balancing school and deciding what to be when you grow up. I truly feel for young people and sometimes really believe I would not repeat those years. And, I’m not a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, otherwise known as OCD, is categorized by the excessive worry, also known as obsessions, that lead to repetitious behavior to extinguish the obsessions, otherwise known as compulsions.

This cycle repeats itself over and over again and can be very detrimental to mental health. People with OCD are less likely to engage in relationships and function at high levels because of their symptoms. They often have severe depression and even self-harming or suicidal behavior because they feel they cannot control their thoughts and actions. Now, imagine being a teenager, and also experiencing OCD.

Parents of teens with OCD also often feel at a loss for what to do, just like their child. If you were a child or a teen with OCD, you know the sadness, frustrations, and concerns about how to support your child to be successful and learn to cope. You know the fear that they may never survive their mental illness. You have watched your child struggle to learn and exist because of their obsessions and compulsions. It is not your fault and there is hope for recovery. Many young people grow out of their OCD symptoms and many who do learn very effective coping mechanisms, either through inpatient treatment or outpatient treatment.

Having OCD does not have to be the end of your child’s future. In fact, it’s just the start. They will learn methods to cope and learn to find their control in this disorder and that will make them infinitely better humans because it is hard work to engage in treatment and learn ways to manage life. Their recovery begins with you talking with them about their disorder.

Parents need to be able to talk with their children about mental health. Whether your child is experiencing anxiety, depression, hearing voices, or having obsessions and compulsions, you need to be talking in a kind and loving way with them about it. They need to know you support them and that you see and accept their reality. Doing so will empower them to process and work towards less symptomatic experience through therapy, medication, and wellness strategies.

There are ways to talk with your children that will be more effective than others. The first strategy you should use is to not shame.

No shaming

The first recommendation we have for you is to do anything in your power to avoid shaming your child. Their experience with worry and compulsive behavior is not their fault. Any language that is shameful will teach them that it is their fault, so this should be avoided at all costs.

Common shameful statements could include: “why do you keep doing that nonsense?” or “stop that right now”.

Your child likely does not want to engage in their compulsive behavior. They don’t want to be having intrusive thoughts that make them feel severe panic and anxiety. To shame these compulsions or their frustrations over them will simply make the situation worse. If you have made those mistakes in the past when talking to your child about their compulsions, it is okay as nobody taught you the way either as a parent. All you can do is move forward and attempt to make better decisions that leave your child feeling secure in your interactions with them.

Ask questions

When you notice your child engaging in behavior that appears strange, such as repeatedly checking the doors and windows or counting in a specific way all the time, simply ask them why. You can use a statement such as “I have noticed that you have been locking the doors often. Can you tell me what is making you feel the need to check the locks? I want to understand how this feels for you.” This is a great statement because it welcomes the child to explain to you how they feel and it does not leave them feeling as though you think they need to stop locking the doors. In fact, you will likely hear from your child that they simply want their family to be safe. Then you can explore the ways to make them feel safe that do not include checking the locks every hour all night long.

You can also ask your teenager if they have ever heard of OCD before. Ask them to tell you what they know about OCD. Then you can identify if they have an understanding of what could be going on with their mental health. Start to do research together so that you learn with each other. This will also reduce the likelihood that you accidentally shame your child, because you will be using the language that is seen in the research.

Teach your child about anxiety

Often teenagers do not understand the difference between helpful anxiety and hurtful anxiety. You should spend time discussing these differences with your teen. Explain to them that good anxiety is the anxiety that tells us there is a harm coming and prepares us to handle upcoming situations. These forms of “good” anxiety revolve around our brain warning us that a dangerous animal might attack us or that there’s food that might make us sick.

Your child should have anxiety about eating something they might be allergic to because this could seriously harm them. You want to teach them that form of anxiety is appropriate and helpful. You also want to teach your teen that anxiety about something that is very, very unlikely to occur is hurtful anxiety.

For example, if your child has checked the locked door once or twice already and knows that nobody would unlock the door, additional anxiety about the potential unlocked door is hurtful. This is causing them stress and worry and preventing them from being able to sleep because of something that simply isn’t possible. The door cannot unlock itself.

Teaching your child this difference will help them to identify and understand their different kinds of anxiety. Hopefully if they recognize that they have ‘problem anxiety’ they will be more included to want to seek out professional support.

Reach out to professionals

One of the most helpful ways to talk with your children about their OCD is to offer the guidance of a professional. Teach your child about the benefits of therapy and even medication to reduce anxiety. Start with using their Primary Care Physician if they are not interested in attending therapy right away. The physician may be able to offer them another lens to consider their OCD symptoms. Sometimes it can be helpful as a parent to let the non-biased professionals talk with your child.

It can also be very helpful to teach your teen about exposure therapy as something present at residential therapy. This is the process of slowly exposing your teen to the stimulus that gives them anxiety so that overtime they become less stimulated and fearful of it. Initially, it may make them nervous to consider that but if you can frame it in a way that shows them that eventually it could make them feel free and more in control, this can be very beneficial.

Here at Hillcrest, we recognize that it may be difficult to get your child to engage in therapy for OCD at first.  However, we believe that therapy is essential for teaching your child valid coping mechanisms to manage compulsions and break free from the fear their OCD causes within them.

Teach them that it is okay to not be neurotypical

People who are neurotypical, or those who do not have any mental health disorders or who have ‘typical’ neurological experiences, are no better than those who do. Your child needs to know this and needs to have it reinforced.

This will help them believe they are worthy. In order to want to get treatment, your child needs to believe they are worthy of a better and more comfortable life. You can use statements such as “you are not different than anyone else-you just experience the world in a way that is different”. This reminds them that they are normal, but that sometimes they feel things that feel a little strange. Remind them that even people who do not have OCD feel strange things and that it is okay as long as they reach out when what they’re feeling becomes overwhelming.

Talk with your children about your own fears

As a parent you should model recovery by showing recovery. Even if you do not have a mental illness, you have had hurdles and tribulations in your life. Show your child that by talking with them and being open and honest with them. Show them how you put in hard work and overcame whatever barriers you faced. As you show them that you have done hard things and faced fears in your own life, they will start to believe that they can do hard things also. This may require you getting vulnerable with your child about things that you never thought you would tell them. I know that may seem difficult, but it will be important and your teen will remember it. They will thank you for it if it helps them and empowers them to work at their OCD struggles.

Be available

Ultimately, the most important thing you will ever do for your child is be present for them. Be available when they need to talk, when they have questions, when they need to express their feelings, and direct them to the appropriate resources.

Your child needs to know they can depend on you. You need to show up for them when they ask for it and even when they don’t. This will take you the furthest in most aspects of your parenting, not just with their OCD.

Tea | OCD | Hillcrest

If you are struggling with your teenager’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you can learn more about it at our page for OCD We hope you will find the strategies above useful as you navigate this difficult time. Know that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to try your best and know when to get your teenager the help they need.

And when you’re both ready to take that step towards treatment, Hillcrest is here. Our dedicated staff understands how hard it can be to heal while managing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and its effects on your daily life. We’ll work with you to get you on the right track!