OCD & Anxiety in Teens: How to Identify if Your Teen is Struggling & Ways to Cope

"Stigma may cause them to think of themselves as unloveable and unintelligent, leading them to self-isolate or harm themselves"
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Research shows that  80 percent of kids and teens with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) meet the diagnostic criteria for another mental health disorder, most commonly another anxiety disorder.1 Such conditions can cause significant impairments in social, academic, and familial functioning when left unaddressed.

If you suspect your child has OCD and anxiety, find out how to identify symptoms, how to talk about OCD with your teen, and what you can do to help.

Identifying OCD Patterns: What Are Obsessions & Compulsions? 

Most people are familiar with the physical and emotional effects of anxiety, which include nervousness, increased heart rate, insomnia, and upset stomach. While OCD patterns are related and may cause the same effects as anxiety, obsessions and compulsions carry a host of other symptoms.2 

Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses that occur repeatedly and feel outside one’s control. These obsessions are often time consuming and interfere with important activities like schoolwork, hobbies, and relationships. Common obsessions include: 

  • Fear of germs
  • Fear of harming oneself or others
  • Perfectionism 
  • Excessive concern with symmetry and exactness
  • Unwanted thoughts about sex
  • Preoccupation with death 

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person uses to make their obsessions go away. People with OCD find temporary relief in performing their compulsions, which may even include avoiding situations that trigger obsessions. Common compulsions include:

  • Excessive hand washing, grooming, and house cleaning
  • Repeatedly checking that certain actions were performed like locking the door to the house, turning off lights, etc.
  • Repeating body movements
  • Counting while performing a task
  • Arranging things in order
  • Seeking constant reassurance

What Causes OCD?  

Though experts are not sure what causes OCD, it is thought that genetics, neurodivergence, and the environment may play a role. Some evidence points to a chemical imbalance of the neurotransmitter serotonin as a factor.3 

OCD can start in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood and tends to run in families.4 Symptoms tend to worsen when a person is under extreme stress.

In rare cases, OCD symptoms may seem to develop suddenly. Sometimes this is due to an infection, such as strep throat, which causes the child’s immune system to attack the brain instead of the infection. This is called Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus (PANDAS). When OCD onsets suddenly and dramatically without any evidence of an immune infection; this is called Pediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS).5

Conversing About OCD with Your Teen 

Talking with your teen about OCD can bring up strong emotions, but it is important that your child know you are available. It is highly likely that your teen already knows their obsessions and compulsions are out of the ordinary, so knowing they have your support will help them feel less ashamed and isolated. This may take some time and patience on your part. After all, unlike children, teens are hyper focused on being independent and fitting in, which can make it difficult for them to admit they need help. If your teen refuses to talk to you, try to enlist another trusted adult like a teacher or counselor.

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Be Open to Hearing Their Struggles 

The first way to help your teen with OCD is to have them identify their unwanted thoughts and behaviors. This may be uncomfortable at first but then provide great relief, as your teen may have been preoccupied with hiding their symptoms.

Come to the conversation armed with information about OCD to better understand the struggles your teen may not be able to articulate. In addition to hearing your teen’s experience of OCD, it may be helpful to learn how other parents are coping with similar issues, so joining a support group is also encouraged.

Recognize the Impact of Stigma  

Be sure to approach your teen with a willingness to understand their symptoms instead of a willingness to eradicate them, which they may perceive as judgment. Chances are, your teen already feels judged by the people around them for being different, which can be devastating for a teen just trying to fit in. Many teens avoid seeking help because they do not want to be labeled as mentally ill or inferior to those around them. Stigma may cause them to think of themselves as unloveable and unintelligent, leading them to self-isolate or harm themselves.

Keep Household Routines Normal  

Your teen may already feel different from those around them, but you should resist the urge to treat them differently because of their symptoms. This means continuing to expect that they follow the house rules, complete their homework, and pitch in with chores. Don’t forget to enforce consequences either. While it may be easier and less time-consuming to perform a chore for your teen with OCD instead of arguing with them, these types of allowances can serve as a crutch for your teen and undermine any progress that has been made.

Encouraging Therapy, Medication, or Support Groups

There are several ways to help your teen with OCD. One of the most important ways is enlisting a trusted therapist, ideally one trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). There is evidence that this type of therapy, which helps a person reframe their thoughts and behaviors and establish coping skills, is actually more effective at younger ages. According to Kate Fitzgerald, M.D., an associate professor with the U-M Department of Psychiatry, CBT impacts the frontal cortex part of the brain, helping OCD patients learn to dismiss obsessions and resist their compulsions.6 

Joining a support group can also help a teen feel less alone by meeting other teens facing the same struggles. Support groups also offer an opportunity for teens to learn what others have done to help manage their own symptoms.

Many doctors choose to treat OCD with anti-anxiety drugs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Though these pharmaceuticals can be highly successful in reducing symptoms, they do carry a range of side effects like loss of appetite, insomnia, upset stomach, headaches, and more. An alternative to these medications is non-prescription Brillia, which uses targeted antibodies to reduce anxiety, restlessness, and impulsivity without harsh chemicals or harmful side effects. 

Brillia works by  regulating the S100 protein (S100B) in the brain. This protein plays a crucial role in various intracellular and extracellular brain processes, including mood stabilization. As a result of this regulating effect, Brillia also normalizes the level of monoamines (dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin) in different parts of the brain, which are the same neurotransmitters SSRIs and other prescription drugs aim to treat, without causing any off-target side effects. Brillia will not mask your child’s personality, induce drowsiness, or make them feel unlike themselves. By reducing anxiety, a main contributor to OCD, your child can achieve calmness and clarity gently and safely so their true personality can shine through. 

Learn more about how Brillia works and explore more resources on how to help your teen manage anxiety at the Brillia(nce) Resource Center.

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References: 1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2910305/, 2https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/, 3https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/what-causes-ocd/, 4https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/obsessivecompulsive-disorder-ocd, 5https://kids.iocdf.org/what-is-ocd-kids/, 6https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/health-management/using-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-to-treat-teen-ocd

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