5 Things Your Kids with OCD Want You to Know
What is your child's experience of living with OCD? Here are things people have shared with Dr. Vicki.
There are reasons that it's hard for parents to understand what life is like for a child learning to manage OCD. In this podcast episode, Dr. Vick Rackner shares 5 messages she's extracted from conversation with young adults who have learned to manage OCD. Here they are:
1. "I'm in the fight of my life!"
2. "I have a hard job."
3. "See me, not the OCD."
4. "You're the most important person in my life."
5. "I'm going to do this my way. Let me make my own choices. And my own mistakes."
You will take away some ideas to put this insight into action.
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How well do you understand what day-to-day life is like for your son or daughter learning to manage Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
Here are some things that might get in the way of your ability to put your finger on the pulse of your child's life, especially if your child first experiences OCD symptoms in their late teens or early 20's.
Less time with your child At this age your child might be away at college or living in an apartment. Since they're not under your roof, you may not see the subtle clues that feed your parenting intuition.
Your child's longing for autonomy Your child wants to become independent. Yes, they might want you to do their laundry, but they want to decide what they wear and how they manage their clothing budget. They might interpret your gentle inquiries as an effort to micro-manage them.
The secrecy of OCD People with OCD are often embarrassed about their symptoms. Your child might not want to share with you the disturbing thoughts or images--the obsessions--that pop into their heads. They might not want to let you know how many hours they spend each day performing compulsions—the activities that bring their anxiety back down to baseline.
The shame of OCD Secrecy sets the stage for shame which then leads to more secrecy.
Your child's legal right to privacy after age 18 You cannot just call your child's college and
ask, "How is my child doing?"
The quest for safety Your child with OCD decides whom they trust with their truth. They protect themselves from harm by not sharing with individuals who criticize them, judge them or cast accusations
The challenge of finding help I hate to admit it as a physician myself, but very few healthcare professionals get specific training in the diagnosis and treatment of OCD. It often takes years to arrive at the right diagnosis and then even more years before effective treatment begins. After false starts with misdiagnoses and ineffective treatment, your child might give up hope.
As a parent, you want to do everything in your power to help your child learn to manage OCD and evolve into the best version of themselves. We call this being an OCD PowerParent.
It begins with understanding your child.
So, here are 5 things teens and college-aged kids managing OCD have shared with me. While your child might tell different stories, this can be a solid starting point in your efforts to step into the shoes of an OCD PowerParent.
1. “I’m in the battle of my life!”
OCD is a formidable foe.
OCD is caused by a brain-wiring glitch that causes the brain to serve up deeply disturbing thoughts or images into your child’s conscious mind. The glitch also makes it difficult for them to shift away from these unwanted thoughts.
Your child experiences the world as an uncertain, unsafe place.
Think of how you feel if you’re on an airplane and the pilot did not warn you about a patch of turbulence. Think of how you would react if you were at a concert and you heard gunshots. Or imagine waking up to find a masked stranger at the foot of your bed.
Now imagine facing similar life-and death situations on a day-by-day basis. Imagine being told that the only way to keep yourself and the people you love safe is to say or do very specific things such as washing your hands three times or stepping here and then there when you leave the house or offering an apology for imagined crimes.
Has your child ever been bullied? Now imagine that the bully follows your child 24/7, with no relief. That’s what living with OCD can be like.
One person told me, “My anxiety can make my skin crawl.” Another said, “My recent OCD crisis was like having a heart attack for two hours.”
Even though your child with OCD may have the insight that their concerns are not founded in reality and their behavior is irrational, their feelings tell a different story.
No matter how strong your child is, OCD can be stronger.
Action Step: I invite you to sit down and have a conversation with your child. Ask, “What’s it like being you? Suspend judgment and just listen.
2. ”I have a hard job.”
Think of OCD as a monster that sets up housekeeping in your child’s brain. The OCD Bully or the OCD Terrorist—whatever you call it—wants to get in the driver’s seat of your child’s life. OCD is like a super villain who creates unrelenting chaos by insisting that your child believe their lies and demanding your child engage in activities. Or else.
Every time your child completes the OCD loop—believing the OCD lies and performing the compulsions— OCD wins and becomes more powerful.
Every time your child avoids the OCD loop— seeing an obsessive thought as a lie and resisting the urge to perform compulsions—your child wins and becomes more powerful.
For our children to be freed from the OCD that holds them hostage, they master the skills of witnessing their thoughts, rejecting OCD thoughts, leaning into uncomfortable feelings and resisting urges.
As a life coach, I can tell you that many adults have difficulty mastering these skills. And, please remember that our kids’ brains will not be fully developed until age 26.
Here’s an example that might help you understand what your child is up against.
Do you carry guilt because you think you “caused” your child’s OCD?
There is no evidence in the medical literature that you are in any way responsible for your child’s OCD brain- wiring glitch. You might already know that intellectually. Still, your heart might tell you a different story. Do you believe your head or your heart?
You also know intellectually that self-blame will not move you any closer to being the parent you want to be. Doesn’t it make sense to manage your energy by releasing thoughts that don’t serve you?
Despite these two compelling arguments, how hard would you have to work to release your guilt? We’re asking our kids to dismiss thoughts their OCD brains insist are true.
How easy is it for you to resist the urge to enjoy an ice cream sundae once you made the wise decision to promote your brain health by giving up sugar? We’re asking our kids to resist the urge to listen to their obsessive thoughts and perform compulsions. AND part of your child believes that someone could come to grave harm or even die as result of resisting these urges.
How easy would it be for you to willingly dive into circumstances that elicit sadness or fear or anger? Many adults distract themselves from even mildly unpleasant feelings by working or binge-watching Netflix or over-drinking. We’re asking our kids to knowingly step into intense anxiety every time they resist their OCD urges.
And when was the last time you changed a habit? I decided that in order to complete my book, I was going to give up watching TV. The first few times I missed Jeopardy I kept looking at the black TV screen with longing. It was hard! Your son's or daughter’s compulsions may have become habits that can also be hard to give up.
Our kids engage in acts of courage every time they do the hard work needed to manage their OCD.
Action Step: I invite you to sit down with your child and listen to their experience of going through a specific OCD cycle. FInd out how many hours a day they invest in obsessive thoughts and compulsions. Explore what they have given up to appease their OCD Beast.
3. "See ME--Not the OCD.”
You might find your focus drawn to the chaos OCD creates for your child, your family and you. It’s very easy to keep a tally of all the ways your child’s life is going wrong.
You might assume the job of “OCD thought police” constantly surveilling your environment to identify new ways OCD is disrupting your child’s life. You might feel like you’re walking on eggshells trying to avoid an OCD crisis.
You might find yourself nagging your child about what they’re doing to get to the other side of OCD.
You might observe your child’s compulsions and want to yell, “Just STOP!”
When you look for problems, you will find them. They will grow.
However, let me remind you that you have an amazing child. They are much, much more than their obsessions and compulsions. Your child has gifts and hopes and dreams.
Consider how hard they work in service of the demands of OCD. They don’t wake up one day and say, “I need a vacation from OCD.” They get the job done every day.
Now imagine what could happen when your child redeploys their grit, perseverance and dedication to bring their gifts to the world.
You as the parent are the family leader. Stephen Covey says, “Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.” You can remind your child of their potential on days in which they forget.
Action Step: I invite you to find simple ways to connect with your child in joy. Do the things you love to do together, whether it’s going out for a bike ride or baking together. Even if they’re away you can do activities together over Zoom. Revisit their hopes and dreams. Remind your kid of their gifts. Regularly celebrate wins.
4. “You’re the most important person in my life.”
No matter how old you are, you never outgrow the longing for your parents’ unconditional love. A friend of mine was 70 when her mother died after a long battle with dementia. I called her up to see how she was doing, and she burst out into tears, saying, “I’m an orphan!”
You might be the most powerful force for healing as your child learns to manage OCD.
As a parent, you are most likely the coach, the cheerleader, the provider and the soft landing place for your child.
You may find yourself stepping into each of these roles as your child learns to manage OCD and get back in the driver’s seat of their lives.
You are not there to be your child’s physician or therapist. Let the experts do their jobs. However, you can be there to amplify the healthcare professionals’ messages.
Many young adults tell me they made the choice to exclude their parents from their lives as they were learning to manage OCD. Their parents didn’t believe that OCD is real and didn’t take the time to educate themselves. Or their parents saw the OCD-related behaviors as evidence of character flaws or moral lapses. These young adult didn’t want to simultaneously fight both OCD and their parents.
Others told me they placed distance between themselves and their parents because their parents couldn’t handle their own discomfort as they witnessed their child struggle. These young adult didn’t want to take care of their parents as they did the hard work of taking care of themselves.
No parent is perfect! You might regret things you have said and done in the past. I have! And do you know what my son said when I apologized? He said, “I forgive you. You’re just trying your best and I know how hard this is for you, too.” No matter what has happened in the past, my guess is that your child longs for you to show up as they parent they’ve always wanted today.
Action Step: I invite you to have a conversation with your child. Start with, “Thank you for helping me understand what it’s like for you to live with OCD. I want to be here for you, no matter what.” Then say, “OCD is new for me, too, and I want to rise to the challenge. Can you give me some examples of ways I have helped you—and ways I could do better?” Remind your child, "I have confidence that you can get to the other side of OCD.”
5. “I’m going to do this my way. Let me make my own choices —and my own mistakes.”
Is there anything harder than seeing your child in pain? Every part of you might fight against the reality OCD has created. You might want to negotiate with God or whatever you call the Creator and say, “Please, let me be the one struggling with OCD. Just free my child.”
You may have nudged your child to do the things you know would help them manage OCD. You might have sent them books on OCD, links to videos or lists of resources. You might find yourself nagging, “Have you called the therapist yet?” You may have lost your temper or offered ultimatums.
Here’s the cold hard truth. Your child—not you—is the person doing the hard work to get to the other side of OCD. Your child will move on his or her schedule—not yours.
OCD PowerParents recognize that the only person’s behavior they can control is their own. You cannot control your children or your partner or your extended family.
The investments you make to show up as the kind of parent you want to be is the single best use of your time, your attention and your energy.
Yes, your child will make mistakes. There will be backsliding. It’s all part of the process. You can live with that.
Yes, your in-laws could criticize your parenting and tell you what you need to do. You can live with that.
Yes, members of your online OCD parenting support group might offer comments that do more harm than good. You can live with that.
You make the biggest difference in your child’s life by modeling the changes you want to see in them. Educate yourself. Choose your thoughts carefully. Lean into your discomfort. Be present so your child trusts they are not in this alone. Hang onto hope that OCD IS manageable.
How can you expect your kids to up level their self-management skills if you do not up level your parenting skills?
There’s a possible future in which your child’s obsessive thoughts become nothing more than the annoying buzzing of mosquitoes. It might be unpleasant but it does get in the way of plans. Then your child can launch into the full life you’ve always seen for them
Action Step: Notice how often you accept your reality as it is in this moment—and how often you resist it. Notice how often you can sit with your child in his or her unpleasant feeling without needing to fix it. Notice how often you are showing up as the kind of parent you want to be. Notice how often you understand that your child’s OCD is about THEM and not about YOU as a parent.