Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) involves excessively worrying or thinking about something despite trying not to (obsessions) and feeling pulled to take certain actions to keep something bad from happening or to get rid of bad thoughts (compulsions). Most often, people are diagnosed with OCD between the ages of 8 and 12 years old, or in their late teens through early adulthood.
Often, especially with younger children, OCD is not identified until it starts causing significant problems. For example, lots of youngsters have some worries about going to school but those with OCD have such significant anxiety that they stop going to school because of their fear. This is when a child might present for treatment to a mental health professional and get diagnosed.
Is OCD Worse for Teens?
Teenagers often have increased stress due to new social relationships, harder schoolwork, getting a job, and trying to be more independent. Anytime someone has more stress in their life, they are more likely to go back to old habits and patterns. For that reason, teens with OCD may see a spike in their symptoms during this time. These new experiences give them fuel for their OCD to use to make them feel uncomfortable and increase their desire to do rituals. In addition, the physical changes in their bodies and hormones can feel similar to anxiety symptoms so they may generally just feel more out of sorts.
Can OCD in Teens Be Treated?
OCD is very treatable when working with a mental health provider trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with Exposure and Response Prevention (CBT with ERP). This type of therapy helps teens (and others of any age) with OCD to retrain their bodies and brains to be able to cope with those feelings of discomfort. ERP uses gradual exposure to things that make the teen feel anxious, paired with coping techniques to reduce those feelings. Teens are very good at this type of therapy and it can make huge improvements in their symptoms.
Overall, while OCD can get worse during puberty due to all of the social and physical changes that teens experience, there is an effective treatment to reduce and manage symptoms.
Heather Yardley, PhD, is a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital. She has a special interest in working with youth with type 1 diabetes and their families as well as youth with obsessive compulsive disorder.
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