Recognizing OCD in Children

By Alison Dotson, author of Being Me with OCD

Recognizing OCD in ChildrenWhile I now know that I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was a child, I certainly didn’t know it at the time. As a nine-year-old, all I knew was that fire scared me to the point of tears and that I thought I had, at different points, breast cancer, brain cancer, and scoliosis. How could I have known at such a young age that all of these fears had something in common—a treatable disorder? And how could my parents have known how crippled I often felt by these fears when I never shared them?

Even if I’d told my parents or a teacher, so little was known about OCD at the time that it’s very unlikely they would have made the connection. After all, I didn’t wash my hands excessively or check to make sure the stove was off over and over again. My parents couldn’t see anything different about me while I was obsessing because any compulsions I engaged in were mental.

And I’m not so different from many kids today. We know so much more than we did thirty years ago, but if adults don’t know that some OCD symptoms are invisible, they can miss the signs. If adults are lucky, the children in their lives will simply tell them what’s going on, but they still will need to be equipped with a basic knowledge of OCD—children aren’t likely to say, “I have OCD.”

Of course, some children will have obvious compulsions, and their parents may notice the child engaging in the following:

  • Excessive hand-washing, often resulting in red, raw, or chapped hands.
  • Checking, such as making sure the oven is turned off or plugging in and unplugging a curling iron.

But some signs are less obvious:

  • Always late because the child is privately engaging in rituals.
  • Asking for reassurance: Is it my fault Grandma’s sick? What if I accidentally swear in church?
  • Taking too long to complete tasks, such as homework assignments, because they need to be done “perfectly.”

If symptoms seem to have come out of nowhere, it could be because a child has PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infections), caused by the brain’s reaction to a strep infection, or PANS (pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome), caused by the brain’s reaction to other infections.

OCD is tricky for everyone, whether it affects adults or children, but it can be especially baffling—and heartbreaking—when it affects children, who can’t quite put their feelings into words. The International OCD Foundation has a site dedicated to the topic of OCD in children, and the section “What Is Different About OCD in Kids” may be particularly helpful.

alison dotsonAlison Dotson was diagnosed with OCD at age twenty-six, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Today, she still has occasional bad thoughts, but she now knows how to deal with them in healthy ways. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation. You can read more about Alison on her blog at

Being Me with OCD Alison is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life.

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