What is Emotional Contamination OCD?
OCD can wreak havoc in any family. But one sub-type of OCD that can be particularly painful is emotional contamination OCD. Emotional contamination issues can hurt family relationships and confuse parents.
Sadly most people, even mental health professionals, understand very little about how OCD can manifest. OCD isn’t just about germs and constant cleaning. OCD has many themes and sub-types.
It is so important for families raising kids with OCD to educate themselves on the various ways OCD can show up. The best defense against OCD is to recognize it’s many disguises.
In this article and in this week’s AT Parenting Survival Podcast, I discuss what emotional contamination OCD is and how it shows up in children and teens.
If you prefer to listen to the podcast episode on this topic, click here:
What is Emotional Contamination OCD?
Germs aren’t the only thing that can make things “contaminated.” This is where many people get it wrong. OCD can make anything contaminated and for any reason.
The International OCD Foundation describes what happens when someone has emotional contamination issues:
“the sufferer fears that contact with a person or place will somehow contaminate and endanger him. The worry can be that the individual with OCD is at risk to take on negative personality traits that the trigger person has, such as bossiness or nastiness, or that the sufferer will take on another’s entire personality.”
OCD can get pretty creative, so emotional contamination can look very different in each child. More often than not, these struggles are often missed or misinterpreted.
Contamination of Family Members
There is nothing that hurts my heart more than the contamination of family members. In my therapy practice I have worked with kids who haven’t been able to hug their parents for years. This is not only hard on the child, but it is hard on the family member.
OCD loves to target the things people enjoy, including people. So it is no wonder why OCD would attack a child’s support system. This can make it hard on the whole family. OCD can start to dictate what family members can and cannot do. It can hijack a family and take over.
The reasons for the contamination can run the gamut. I will go over several of the most common reasons for emotional contamination below.
Contamination of Character
A common emotional contamination theme has to do with someone’s character. I often see this as a byproduct of Moral OCD, also known as scrupulosity OCD. In that OCD theme, kids worry about being a bad person or doing bad things.
Kids with Moral OCD can start worrying about “turning into” people who don’t align with their values or who represent the areas that trigger their OCD.
For instance, if a child is afraid of smoking and that is one of their OCD themes, when they see someone smoke they might worry that they will become a smoker.
Emotional contamination makes kids feel that they will actually become what they see or touch. They touch someone who smokes, now they might be a smoker. They hug someone who drinks, now they might become an alcoholic.
Contamination of character will look different in each child based on their own triggers and their own unique themes related to that topic.
The commonality between all kids though, is the concern they will become what they see or touch. The reasons are different, but the fear is the same.
Contamination of Physical Appearance
Another common contamination issue is around physical appearance. This tends to differ depending on a child’s OCD theme. If they worry about weight, they might believe that if they see or touch an overweight person – they will become overweight.
It can be tied to Moral OCD again. If they see someone with piercings or purple hair it means they will turn into that person.
It can be related to how a person makes them feel. Some kids do not have OCD fears as much as they have OCD feelings. The feeling of disgust is a huge core fear for kids with OCD. The worry that if they feel disgusted, that sensation may never end.
Sometimes people can trigger disgust due to their appearance. This can be for an array of reasons and can differ in each child. It can be due to poor hygiene, it can be the way people eat (especially if they have a comorbid condition like Misophonia), or it can be due to an atypical appearance (deformities or abnormalities).
Contamination of Places
Besides people, emotional contamination can impact places. This can happen for a plethora of reasons and will be different in each child. Some examples include If something bad happened at that location. If someone they didn’t like was in that environment. Or if they had an upsetting thought or feeling while in that location.
Sometimes places can turn into people and vice versa. If a person who is “contaminated” sits on the couch, that area of the couch may become contaminated. This contamination can spread like wildfire and can severely limit a child with OCD and their environment.
Common Compulsions Around Emotional Contamination
When a person or place has been deemed “contaminated” there are many ways the child will try to avoid getting contaminated. They will avoid being in the same vicinity as the person. They will avoid being in the place or area that is contaminated.
They might also avoid things related to that person or place. They might avoid saying the person’s name or words that begin with the first letter of that person’s name. They might avoid things that remind them of that person or avoid things that person has touched.
They might also hold their breath or have to clear out their nose or lungs after being near the contaminated person. They might not be able to talk to that person or have a conversation with them.
Each person will have their own individual way these type of issue show up and the severity will vary in each child.
Emotional contamination is handled in the same way all other OCD issues are approached – with Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). ERP is the only gold standard, evidenced-based approach for OCD and should be incorporated into all childhood OCD treatment.
Even though OCD has many faces and disguises, the way to approach each of these issues is all the same. Doing exposures that challenge the child’s OCD theme is highly effective when done right. To learn more about ERP and how it is used to help children with OCD click here.
Step-by-Step Help for Kids with OCD
It is nice to have ongoing support from a local therapist, but parents need to also know exactly how to help their kids with OCD. Regardless of whether we want to dive into our child’s OCD, OCD doesn’t really give us a choice.
In my on-demand, online class, How to Crush Your Child’s OCD, I teach parents how to identify all of their child’s OCD themes (most parents are missing a few) and how to do ERP at home to start making some progress. Doing ERP at home is an integral part of crushing OCD. In this class I combine my expertise as both an OCD child therapist and a parent raising two kids with OCD, to bring you solid approaches that work.
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