Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

What is obsessive compulsive disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder. Children and teens with OCD keep thinking that something is wrong, dirty or could hurt them. These repeated worries are called obsessions. The worries make kids with OCD repeat the same behaviors over and over (compulsions or rituals) to counteract their worries.

  • How common is obsessive compulsive disorder?

    OCD is a common problem. It often goes undiagnosed. Many children do not talk about their worries. It can take time for parents or caregivers to see that compulsive behaviors are becoming distressing and time consuming.

    It is estimated that over 6 million people in the United States have OCD.

    • Boys are somewhat more likely to have OCD than girls, especially at younger ages.
    • Many children have symptoms that seem to come and go.
    • Other children have symptoms that keep getting worse and get in the way of their daily life activities.
    • For children who come to treatment with behavior problems, the underlying cause may be OCD.
  • What causes obsessive compulsive disorder?

    Doctors have not yet found the exact causes of OCD. Research suggests that these factors play a part in developing OCD:

    • Genetics. Children with OCD are more likely to have some relatives with OCD or other anxiety disorders.
    • The chemical messenger serotonin. OCD responds positively to medicines that affect the level of serotonin in the brain.

What are the symptoms of OCD?

  • Obsessions

    Some examples of obsessions include excessive worries about:

    • Contamination (dirt, germs, getting sick)
    • Perfectionism (school work, clothing, appearance, artwork)
    • Safety (natural disasters, dying, bad things happening to someone)
    • Rule breaking (excessive tattling, becoming upset if a rule is broken, rigid thinking or feelings that things have to be moral or “just right”)
    • Disturbing thoughts or images (getting stuck on thoughts about things like scary movies, television, hurting others, disturbing sexual images)
  • Compulsions and rituals

    Examples of compulsions or rituals include:

    • Excessive washing, cleaning, straightening, ordering, arranging
    • Repeating actions until they feel “just right” or are done a specific number of times
    • Symmetry (arranging things, doing things an even number of times, or balancing things)
    • Having to be reassured frequently
    • Confessing or apologizing excessively
    • Superstitions (having lucky words or numbers)
    • Checking, touching, tapping, counting
    • Collecting or  having difficulty getting rid of things (hoarding)

    Most children have routines at mealtime, bedtime or when saying goodbye. These routines usually decrease as children get older. For children with OCD, these behaviors continue. The routines may become intense, frequent, upsetting, time consuming, or get in the way of your child’s daily life activities.

  • What is the impact of obsessive compulsive disorder?

    OCD in children and teens that is untreated can lead to:

    • OCD activities crowding out other healthy activities and/or interfering with sleep
    • Trouble focusing on school work or doing homework
    • Trouble doing regular chores or daily tasks (such as getting dressed, getting ready for bed, being on time to school)
    • Social problems (excessive shyness or unwillingness to try new activities, avoiding things that seem difficult)
    • School refusal (stomachaches or worries before school)
    • Risk for depression (including low mood and self-esteem)
    • Family problems and stress
    • Being a very picky eater

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at Seattle Children’s

We are very experienced at diagnosing and treating children and teens with OCD. Experts in our Mood and Anxiety Program take a stepped-care approach:

  • Thorough evaluation to understand your whole child

    To get a complete picture, we talk with primary caregiver(s) and your child about their symptoms, challenges, strengths, and goals. We consider your child’s medical, school, and treatment history. Usually, an evaluation takes 2 appointments.

  • Partnering with parents

    After our evaluation is complete, we meet with you to share our understanding of your child. This feedback session brings together your expertise in your child and our expertise in treating children and teens with anxiety disorders.

    We recommend evidence-based treatment options. These might include referrals for care at Seattle Children’s or to services in the community.

  • Brief, evidence-based care tailored to your child and family

    We offer a stepped-care approach to treatment. This approach involves starting with the least intensive intervention and moving up to more intensive options depending on treatment progress. This strategy allows us to provide more equitable care to more families. These steps of care involve:

    • Parent and youth CBT groups at Seattle Children’s focusing on how to do exposure for anxiety.
    • Short-term individual therapy is offered after group if needed.
    • OCD Intensive Outpatient Program for severe OCD that has not responded to group or individual therapy.
    • Medicine for your child’s condition or adjusting your child’s current medicine as needed.
    • Referrals to community resources.
    • Read more about Stepped Care in Outpatient Psychiatry (PDF).
  • Focus on care for children and teens
    • Children don’t react to illness, injury, pain and medicine in the same way as adults. They need – and deserve – care designed just for them. They need a healthcare team specially trained to understand and meet their needs.
    • Our doctors have special training in how to diagnose and treat children. They are focused on how today’s treatment will affect your child as they develop and become an adult.
    • Our experts base their treatment plans on their experience and up-to-date research on what works best – and most safely – for children and teens.
  • Support for your whole family
    • During visits, we take time to explain your child’s condition and treatment options. We support you in making the choices that are right for your family.
    • Learning that your child has OCD can be stressful for the whole family. We connect you to community resources.
    • Seattle Children’s can help with your family’s needs related to financial counseling, schooling, housing and transportation. We also provide interpreter and spiritual care services. Read about our services for patients and families.

How is obsessive compulsive disorder diagnosed?

Usually, an evaluation takes 2 appointments. This includes a feedback session. Before your child’s first visit, we ask you to fill out a family information form. Teens and parents also fill out questionnaires about behavior. We recommend that all parents or primary caregivers take part. As part of the evaluation, the mental health provider will:

  • Review current concerns or problems that you and your child have.
  • Review your child’s medical, school and treatment history.
  • Review whether family members have had problems with anxiety, depression, learning, attention or neurological conditions.
  • Interview you and your child or teen. We ask about excessive worries or fears (possible obsessions), compulsive behaviors and other problems children may have, such as with depression, attention or learning.

How is obsessive compulsive disorder treated?

We use a stepped-care approach. This means that treatment will progress through different phases, starting with group therapy.

  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)

    We use evidence-based treatment called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for OCD. For children and teens with OCD, we focus on exposure and response prevention (E/RP). This involves teaching your child to face their fears (for example, germs) in a repeated fashion and avoid doing compulsions (for example, washing hands). Over time, their fears and worries decrease.

    Exposure therapy has proven to be the most successful treatment for anxiety disorders, including OCD. It is even more effective when combined with time-limited use of medicine.

    Many children with OCD need CBT for 2 to 6 months. Usually, they take medicine for 9 to 24 months.

    We offer E/RP:

    • Through anxiety/OCD group therapy
    • In individual (child and caregiver) therapy sessions following the anxiety group
    • As part of our OCD Intensive Outpatient Program 
  • Anxiety/OCD group therapy for children and families

    Exposure therapy has proven to be the most successful treatment for anxiety disorders, including OCD. It is even more effective when combined with time-limited use of medicine.

    In these CBT groups, we teach about anxiety and practice skills to face and overcome fears. Parents also participate in these groups.

    Learn more about the anxiety therapy groups we offer.

  • Individual therapy

    After completing anxiety/OCD group therapy, many families want or need further support on an individual basis. We can help you continue to coach your child on skills to use, specifically exposure activities, when they are having obsessive thoughts and doing compulsive symptoms.

    We offer this treatment after group therapy.

  • Intensive outpatient program

    Children or teens with severe OCD who have not improved significantly with 10 weeks of outpatient treatment (with a community-based provider or at Seattle Children’s)) may be referred to our OCD Intensive Outpatient Program. It offers therapy 3 hours per day, 4 times a week. Youth ages 11 to 18 years old get exposure to practice in the clinic. We also train caregivers to do daily exposure exercises at home with your child.

    Learn more about our OCD Intensive Outpatient Program.

  • Medicine

    Children with moderate-to-severe OCD may be referred for medicine evaluation. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often used to treat OCD in children and teens. Serotonin is a chemical messenger in the brain.

    Research has found that children and teens have significantly better outcomes if they take SSRIs along with receiving CBT for OCD. Other medicines can also be helpful, especially in severe cases that have not responded to standard treatments.

How to Get Services

To make an appointment:

  • Talk to your child’s primary care provider about getting a referral for services.
  • Once you have a referral, call 206-987-2164 to schedule an appointment.
  • Learn more about how to get mental health services at Seattle Children’s.
  • For more information, see our Mood and Anxiety Program.

Providers, see how to refer a patient.

Related Links

In crisis?

If you, your child, family or friend needs help right away, call or text 988. Chat is another option. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources. The Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States.

Hotlines for Youth (PDF) provides other options for immediate help for children and teens. (Also available in Amharic, Arabic, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Somali, Spanish, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.)