Can kids have OCD?

Yes! In fact, according to this report, between 0.25% and 4% of children will develop OCD and the average age of onset is ten years old. It is possible for children younger than ten to be diagnosed, with children as young as five or six sometimes receiving a diagnosis. 

While the way obsessive compulsive disorder presents in children isn’t totally separate from the way it presents in adults, there are some unique ways it shows up in children to be aware of. Especially since, unlike adults, children may not be able to recognize when a thought is irrational or obsessive. 

So what are some signs of OCD in children?

Intense fears or worries

Obsessive compulsive disorder is sometimes initially mistaken for an anxiety disorder, since much of the way the obsessions present themselves are in line with symptoms of anxiety. So if your child seems to be fixated on certain fears, and no amount of talking them through or rationalization seems to help them, it could be an indicator of OCD. 

Extreme distress at: 

  • Getting dirty (touching mud, dirt, fear of germs overall) 
  • Getting injured
  • Something seeming/feeling “out of place” 
  • Things that aren’t arranged “just right”
  • The idea of irrational bad thoughts coming true
  • The idea of someone else getting injured or harmed

Strict need for routine/strict habits:

These “habits” may be compulsions, used to lessen the anxiety brought on by the obsessions that cause distress. These habits often relate to those common distress triggers listed above, such as: 

  • Washing and cleaning (their hands, their toys, their room, etc.) 
  • Organizing and rearranging–constantly making sure everything is in its place and arranged “just right”
  • Seeking excessive reassurance
  • Excessive checking (doors are locked, lights are off, etc.)–not believing after one check and needing to go back again and again, etc. 
  • Starting things over and over again until they are done “just right” (building with toys, art projects, etc.) 

So, if you start to notice similar patterns and behaviors in your child, how do you know if it’s time for professional care? What is OCD symptoms and what is normal childlike behavior? 

For example, let’s say your child just got a new toy that they love. They want to take it everywhere with them, and they get upset when they are not allowed to bring it with them. Is this a normal childlike “obsession” with the toy, or is it indicative of something more? 

To start, ask yourself these questions:

Is it causing them distress? 

A compulsion is usually something one doesn’t want to be doing, but they feel as though they can’t help themselves or that if they do not engage in whatever behavior it is, that something bad will happen. In this example, does your child believe they or someone else will be harmed if they aren’t allowed to bring their new toy everywhere with them? Or is it just a toy they are excited about and want to bring it to play at any opportunity?

Are they frequently displaying these symptoms?

Or is this an isolated incident? Noticing these behaviors once isn’t necessarily a sign that your child has OCD–kids can have bad days just like anyone else. When the behaviors become a pattern is when you should consider professional treatment and care. 

Is their day to day functioning impaired?

Is your child extra mindful of germs (perhaps due to the pandemic they are growing up in!) and likes to use hand sanitizer after being in public places? Or is their fear and obsession with germs so consuming that it impairs their functioning? A small manageable quirk is one thing–when it begins to disrupt their lives, it’s a sign that something more is going on. 

If you need help supporting your child, you’re not alone! Our clinicians can help you come up with a plan to deal with them that’s specific to your situation.