COVID-19 is Worsening and Causing OCD in Children
About one in every 200 children and teens live with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), according to the International OCD Foundation. The means that in your average-sized elementary school, a handful of children are battling compulsions and obsessions that interrupt their lives. In a high school, that number may be as high as 20 teens. And that’s all in a normal year. What happens when you introduce a pandemic?
Researchers have found that COVID-19 has worsened OCD symptoms in children and teens with the disorder. Furthermore, it appears that some people are developing OCD in response to COVID-19 trauma, even when they did not live with the disorder before. It’s important for parents to know what to look for, when to get help, and how to best support their children if they have OCD.
Stress and Trauma Trigger OCD in Children
Anybody can develop OCD. However, certain people are more likely to live with the disorder than others. While genetics may play a role, circumstances and lifestyle factors are important as well. One of the most significant risk factors for OCD is childhood trauma. People who experience sexual assault or abuse during childhood are more likely to live with OCD, for example. While COVID-19 has not caused the same type of trauma, it may have similar consequences.
There’s no other way to address it: the pandemic has been stressful for children and teens. School closures, isolation, and stress at home are all difficult for young people. Furthermore, many children have experienced further trauma from the virus and its economic impacts.
COVID-19 related trauma that can trigger OCD in children may include:
- Food insecurity
- Losing a loved one
- Losing a classmate or teacher
- Being hospitalized
This type of stress and more can trigger OCD. Children who did not show signs of the disorder may start having symptoms. The uncertainty of COVID-19 may also trigger these symptoms since OCD tendencies can manifest in an attempt to gain control. This stress can also worsen previously existing OCD.
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Symptoms of OCD in Children
It’s important for parents to look out for symptoms of OCD in children and teens. Generally, OCD has two types of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. They interact with one another, but are different. Obsessions are what a child thinks about almost constantly. Compulsions are actions the child feels compelled to take, often due to their obsessions.
If your child had OCD before the pandemic, be aware that their symptoms can change in response to new stressors. They may start new compulsions or even develop new obsessions.
Some of the most common OCD-related obsession in children and teens are:
- Germs, sickness, and cleanliness
- Disturbing sexual thoughts
- Disturbing thoughts about hurting people
- Doing things perfectly
- Tidiness, making things “just right”
While these are common obsessions, it is not a complete list. An obsession can revolve around any topic.
Common compulsions in children with OCD include:
- Checking and re-checking that something is done (door is locked, hair straightener is off, etc.)
- Excessively washing or cleaning
- Seeking reassurance more often than is typical
- Repeating the same action over and over
- Excessive apologies
- Repeating lucky numbers or phrases
Like obsessions, there is a wide variety of compulsions. The difference between a compulsion and a habit is that a compulsion interrupts the child’s life. They may not even want to do it, but they feel like they must.
How to Help a Child with OCD
There are few things more troubling than seeing your child suffer. If your child shows signs of OCD, you may feel helpless. The good news is that you can help them. There are steps you can take to ease their symptoms and give them healthy coping mechanisms for life.
First and foremost, seek professional guidance. Comprehensive mental health care can change your child’s life for the better. Compassionate professionals can work together with your family to make a care plan that works for everyone. At LifeStance, we do not push families toward anything they feel uncomfortable with. We are here to help.
In addition to mental health care, you can help your child with OCD by:
- Explaining their disorder in an age-appropriate way
- Learning as much as you can about OCD
- Keep calm and work on your own mental health as needed
- Assure your child of their safety
- Explain that their emotions are normal
- Redirect behaviors that harm their mental health
Most importantly, be patient with yourself. These things do not resolve overnight. But with persistence, love, and help, you can help your child.