Identifying Early Signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Children

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD is one of the more debilitating of the anxiety disorders. It is a specific type of ‘worry problem’, where a child has persistent worries (obsessions) that often must be alleviated by repetitive actions (compulsions). For the majority of children with OCD, they experience both obsessions and compulsions. However for some children, they may only experience obsessions or compulsions, without the other.

For children and their families it can feel like they are the only ones in the whole world suffering from this condition. However, OCD really isn’t that strange or uncommon. About three in every one hundred kids is affected by OCD. This prevalence is greater than diabetes, yet gets much less attention. Most kids first get OCD between 10 and 15 years of age.  However, many of these children never get treatment because they are too embarrassed to tell anyone about their symptoms, in case people think they are crazy.

Most children can be very good at hiding their symptoms but if you pick up on some of the following warning signs, then early intervention is very effective in the management of OCD.

  1. Out of character behaviours
  2. Unusual habits or needing parents to say and do things in specific ways
  3. Secretiveness and withdrawal
  4. Avoidance – or takes unusual paths or measures to avoid objects
  5. Excessive perfectionism
  6. Extreme rigidity with rules / routines
  7. Unexpected physical changes – somatic complaints, skin, hygiene, diet, sleep, sores and scabs, bleeding gums, toileting increases
  8. Distractibility / loss of concentration
  9. Reassurance seeking / need for certainty
  10. Excessive apologising / confessing / asking


It is very important to be aware of the shame and embarrassment that comes from having OCD. For the majority of children and adolescents OCD is a secret problem with symptoms often worse at home. It has a persistent course and can cause significant disruption to peer relationships and interference in school performance. Parents often feel like they are walking on eggshells not knowing how to respond to the child’s extreme anxiety and rituals.

For parents with children suffering with OCD the following tips may be useful:

  1. It is important not to blame your family member for having obsessions or compulsions.
  2. The family should be encouraged to read information about OCD from books and internet articles so they learn how to best help their child.
  3. Acknowledge that your family member’s unhelpful “sticky” or “stubborn” thoughts (obsessions) are causing them unpleasant feelings of anxiety and distress.
  4. Do not dismiss these thoughts as being silly or unnecessary.
  5. Parents reminding their child that their worries are ridiculous, or debating the logic of OCD or telling them to “stop”, frequently just makes them feel worse.
  6. Instead, when a child is struggling with OCD the family could say something like: “I can see that OCD is giving you a tough time. Can I help you manage it in anyway?” or “Is there anything I can do to help you feel more relaxed?”
  7. Help your family member to ‘externalise’ the problem (or see it as being something separate from themselves), by thinking about OCD as a medical problem that they are having difficulty with at the moment.


Whilst the anxiety and distress caused by OCD can be extreme, it is a very treatable condition. The more successful programs often have a 90% success rate which include a variety of cognitive behavioural skills that can be used for life. These programs are available through CBT Professionals Psychology Clinic.


Written by Gold Coast Child Psychologist, Dr Kristofer Ojala – Specialising in the treatment OCD in children and adolescents. Kris is part of the CBT Professionals team, a group of clinical psychologists on the Gold Coast with offices in Coomera and Nerang. Gold Coast CBT psychologists offer services to adults, children, and couples.


Disclaimer: Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only and is not intended to replace advise from your doctor or registered health professional. Readers are urged to consult their registered practitioner for diagnosis and treatment for their medical concerns.




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