OCD in Children: Are you Missing the Signs?

If you or someone in your family has OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) – your child is more at risk of getting OCD. OCD is believed to be inherited. So, along with eye color and hair color – your child can get OCD and Anxiety.

Childhood OCD - If someone in your family has it - so can your child. Do you know what signs to look for?

I have seen OCD symptoms in very young children in my therapy practice. Often children suffer with symptoms for years before parents or teachers recognize the issue as OCD. The earlier a child can get help for OCD – the better the prognosis is long-term. I am going to give you a simple break down of what OCD is and what behaviors to watch for.


So let’s arm you with some facts:
OCD has two parts – obsessions (unwanted thoughts that cause distress) and compulsions (acts or behaviors that are meant to reduce the distress). Obsessive thoughts can be centered around safety or health – or it can be an unwanted, inappropriate thought that makes the child feel bad. OCD goes way beyond germs and hand washing – and that might be a big part of why parents miss these early signs.


OCD has many faces and at times it can disguise itself pretty well. I have picked out the most common types of OCD along with possible warning signs. This list is not exhaustive and it is meant to be a brief introduction to OCD in children. Typically children have symptoms in only one or two categories. Having some of these symptoms does not mean your child has OCD – but may indicate a need for further assessment by a pediatrician or child therapist.


It is easy to mistake early ritualistic behavior for routines. There is a difference between a routine and a ritual. Routines are comforting, but if you veer from your routine – your child doesn’t go into a panic. If it is a ritual – your child will panic and will insist you “redo” the ritual correctly. Children often require these rituals to ensure nothing “bad” will happen to them or those they love. Ritualistic behavior may first start around the bedtime “routine.”


Example of possible Early Signs:
-Having to do the same exact behavior when tucking your child into bed (e.g. flatten out sheets, check for bugs).
-Having to say an exact phrase back to your child (e.g. saying I love you in a particular way)
-Having to tell your child an exact phrase at bedtime or before you leave the house
-Your child has to do things in a certain way and will start over if interrupted


Movements or Gestures:
Children who are bombarded with distressing thoughts, will often make up a gesture or a movement to counteract these thoughts. They believe that if they do these movements – it will stop the OCD thought from happening.


Example of possible Early Signs:
-Movements that look like tics, but are done on purpose (e.g. blowing air into their hands)
-a series of body movements that are non-sensical and can be controlled (e.g. shoulder shrugs)
-Head nodding in a pattern that can be controlled
-purposeful eye movement in a pattern that can be controlled (e.g. moving eyes up and down or left to right)
-constant throat clearing
-constant nose sniffing (without a cold)
-Having to tap or touch things for no reason


Special Numbers:
Some children with OCD develop a special number that helps ward off negative thoughts. They may favor odd or even numbers to counteract their OCD thoughts.


Example of possible Early Signs:
-Things have to be done a certain amount of times (either a special number or an even or odd amount of times)
-Avoiding even or odd numbers (on the TV, on the radio)
-Counting their steps or skipping steps on the stairs
-Having to say or repeat things a certain amount of times


A child’s predisposition to being neat or messy is no indication of whether they have OCD or not. Order in OCD does not have to do with cleanliness. Some children with OCD place their toys, stuffed animals and other belongings in a certain way and feel considerable distress if someone moves it out of its designated spot.


Example of possible Early Signs:
-Having stuffed animals in a particular order that cannot be altered (especially around the bed)
-They get very upset when objects are touched or moved in their room
-If something is moved or placed in a different position they will put it back to its original position


Contamination is a hard thing to wrap your brain around. We’ll start with a child with a germ theme. Lets say that child touches an object that they believe had germs. They then proceed to touch another object (favorite toy etc.). They will make a rule in their head that they can no longer touch that favorite toy – ever – as it now has germs on it as well. The amount of contaminated objects can grow – creating a long list of things and areas the child has to avoid and cannot touch.


Contamination thoughts go way beyond germs though…items can get contaminated due to other themes as well. Some children have a fear of urine, bird poop or even just bad thoughts they are having while touching or wearing something. The common denominator in this category is avoidance of an object, toy, room etc. due to the belief that they can no longer touch it.


Example of possible Early Signs:
-Avoiding certain objects, toys, rooms or areas
-Asking you to do something for them (touch the remote, open the garbage can lid etc.)
-Rigidity in routine (has to have the same exact seat in the car [because other seats are contaminated], won’t touch certain door handles)
-Walks in strange patterns to avoid certain areas of tile or floor


Confessional Thoughts:
This category is a bit tricky to detect. OCD can make children second guess their actions, behavior and thoughts. They might feel guilty about thoughts that are inconsistent with how they actually feel (e.g. I think I called you stupid in my head). They might worry they did something that in reality – they did not do (I think I might have cheated on my test). Relief is only achieved when the child “confesses” these thoughts to a parent. The confessing behavior is the compulsion component of the OCD.


Possible Early Signs:
-Tells you things they thought in their head (e.g. I thought I hated you just now)
-Tells you they are having bad thoughts (e.g. I am thinking she is fat)
-Is embarrassed to tell you what type of thoughts they are having (older children may have inappropriate sexual thoughts)
-Confesses to behaviors that are small or inconsequential (e.g. I think I bumped someone at school)
-Confesses to behaviors that they do not do or can’t remember doing (e.g. I think I cheated on test)


OCD can be a complicated and confusing disorder. It can look different in each child. This list is not exhaustive and it is not meant to diagnose your child. If you are seeing some of the early signs listed here, consult with a child therapist who specializes in childhood OCD and Anxiety. Young children are very resilient and adaptive. Once your child is armed with tools on how to fight their OCD – they will have much more success decreasing and possibly eliminating their symptoms.


For further information on OCD you can visit the International OCD Foundation http://kids.iocdf.org or click here to take this quick 8 minute video lesson on what signs to look for in childhood OCD.

Take this 8 minute video lesson Are you missing the signs of OCD in your child?

Do you know an anxious teen? Give them the only self-help book teens are likely to read:

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For more childhood anxiety articles follow Anxious Toddlers Pinterest Board.

For a more in-depth view on anxiety get the book How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler

A must read toddler parenting book! How to Parent your Anxious Toddler. By child therapist and toddler mental health expert.

Other great books on OCD:

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19 responses to “OCD in Children: Are you Missing the Signs?”

  1. Great and informative article. So important to pay attention to the actions of our children. Thank you for sharing this information with #momsterslink.
    Trista, Domesticated Momster recently posted…The Sisterhood Of The World Bloggers AwardMy Profile

  2. Very informative! Thanks for sharing at the Pinterest Love Weekend Pin-It Party 🙂
    by Michelle Westbrook recently posted…Here Are 13 Simple Ways To Increase Your Summer Fun!My Profile

  3. Fantastic resource! I have a child with anxiety disorder with OCD features. Pinning this! Thank you! Coming to you from #EspressosofFaith via #PickYourPinLinkup!
    Bonnie Lyn Smith recently posted…My Master’s FeetMy Profile

  4. Lowanda J says:

    This is a very informative post. Good for me to be aware of as a school counselor. Thanks for sharing over at Totally Terrific Tuesday. Visiting from Sunshine and Elephants.
    Lowanda J recently posted…Currently…My Profile

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      Thanks for visiting Lowanda – I am glad it can be a good resource for you as a school counselor. I know lots of kids whose OCD issues affect their ability to function in the school environment. It’s great that kids have counselors like you to help!

  5. What a great article. I’m sure this is a topic that is rarely discussed. Thanks for sharing.
    My Bored Toddler recently posted…A day in the life of a toddler – AlisonMy Profile

  6. Katy says:

    This is a lot of great information and will definitely help parents who are wondering. I even felt myself checking my kids against some of the behaviors.
    Katy recently posted…12 Things I’ve Learned in 12 Years as a ParentMy Profile

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      Thanks Katy – I am glad you found it helpful. Trust me – I am always checking my kids’ behavior for these early signs. OCD runs in my family.

  7. Wow, some really great information that can hopefully help parents. Thanks for sharing this at the Manic Mondays blog hop!
    Meredith@MommyAtoZ recently posted…W is for… Wednesday Weird Parenting NewsMy Profile

  8. Helen says:

    I have been looking to this post and it didn’t disappoint me. I do not know if I’ll consider OCD as a good disorder or not. I ashamed of admitting that I my colleague believed that I have OCD and I despised them for calling me “very OC” which, I do not know what does it mean, at first. So, gladly that I have run across in this blog. I do not know what’s the underlying reason why they called me THAT name but as I have noticed, I am so organized with my things that no one could ever touch it unless they’re permitted to do so. My head spins when I see a place that’s so messed up. I guess, I am being so anxious or stressed that’s why I acted like, so I take a supplement, ashwagandha powder, significantly decrease the cortisol level hence I feel so relaxed. Perhaps, I am really OC as what they said because I am so obsessed with the things that ain’t deserve to catch attention.

  9. […] this knowledge so you are better prepared to help your child. You can read my other article – OCD in Children: Are you Missing the Signs or watch my video on the same […]

  10. […] OCD in Children: Are you Missing the Signs? | Anxious Toddlers […]

  11. Adriana says:

    I have ocd and recently I have been noticing my two year having some odd reactions. I am wondering if her having to have her blocks in perfect order and also she always has to have things shut, whether it be a door or a cupboard or her toy box or the dishwasher or dryer, is this an early symptom?

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      Hi Adriana,
      It is hard to say whether that is an early sign of OCD, anxiety or just a toddler who needs order and structure – unfortunately they can all look the same at that age. Luckily she has a mom who knows what to look for and who is on top of it! I would just keep observing her behavior. If you continue to have concerns – don’t hesitate to seek out a consultation with a child therapist who specializes in toddler mental health.

  12. […] they have never done. For a comprehensive list of obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions click here. You’ll see the list is […]

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