Have you ever thought, "I'm to blame for my child's OCD."? This thought can get in the way of being the parent you want to be. Here's what to do instead.
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Have you ever thought, “I’m to blame for my child’s OCD?”
It seems like such an innocent thought; however, it is not.
In this podcast episode I will help you understand the the high cost to hanging onto the thought, “I’m to blame for my child’s OCD.” Or any variation of “I’m a bad parent.” You’ll see why it’s downright dangerous.
You’ll also learn and what to do when you have this thought, or your in-laws tell you that you are responsible for your child’s OCD.
We’ll also explore what to do when your child blames you for their OCD.
The Power of Thoughts
As I coach parents of adult children with OCD, it doesn’t take too long before I hear a parent say, “I’m to blame for my child’s OCD. If only I didn’t divorce. If only we didn’t move. If only I fed my child less sugar…”
I was there myself. I collected evidence that proved that I was a bad parent just like someone collects seashells. How could I miss my child’s diagnosis of OCD for so long? Why did it take so long to find the right help? And the question that kept me up at night was, what did I do to make my son vulnerable to being terrorized by his OCD bully?
I lost sleep trying to answer these questions. I beat up on myself. I spent many hours in therapy unpacking how and why I parented as I did.
However, nothing good ever came of self-blame or judgment or criticism.
Then one day I made a decision. I was no longer going to litigate my past parenting choices. I was done with the thought I was a bad parent. I would no longer get sucked into the quicksand when I believed I caused my child’s OCD. I was simply not going to entertain the thought that my bad parenting caused my child’s OCD.
Changing that thought changed my life.
I know that sounds dramatic. But’s my personal experience. It’s also the experience of the parents I coach.
As a coach my main job is helping my clients understand their own human brains, and offering them the tools to use their minds to manage their brains. In so doing, they get the results they want.
Your thoughts are nothing more than sentences your Human Brain offers you.
As someone whose life is touched by OCD, you know this better than anyone that thoughts are powerful. All OCD drama begins with a thought generated by the OCD Monster living in your child’s brain. We call these thoughts obsessions.
You also know that you your Human Brain would like you to accept each thought that comes to your conscious attention as valid and true.
But intellectually you know better. Your brain makes mistakes. Your brain lies to you. Your brain selectively seeks out information that proves you are right.
Your experience with OCD helps you understand that thoughts have consequences. You see with your child that their obsessions set the stage for action we call compulsions. The cycle of obsessions and compulsions can consume hours of their lives and keep them trapped.
You do not have to believe every thought your Human Brain offers you. In fact, your ability to witness and choose what thoughts to accept and which thoughts to reject as brain burps will impact how your life unfolds.
If you have every cleaned out your closet, you will usually pick up an item of clothing and decide: will I keep it, will I throw it away or will I recycle it? There might have been a time that you loved the article of clothing, but it just does not work today.
So, to, there are some thoughts that are keepers. There are some thoughts that belong in the trash. There are some thoughts that can be repurposed or recycled.
How do you decide?
As you examine any thought, the first question to ask is this: “Is this thought true?”
Imagine a friend might not immediately reply to your text. You have the thought, “She doesn’t like me anymore.”
Is that true? If you asked her, she would tell you that she likes you. She LOVES you. However, when you sent her the text, she was on an airplane.
To pass the truth test, you need to be able to prove a thought in a court of law.
I will tell you that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest that anything that you did or said or did not do or not say caused your child to have OCD.
Does your Human Brain believe me? Maybe or maybe not. Human Brains ignore science all the time. Why?
Your human brain wants to be RIGHT. Your brain has compelling ways of handling evidence that allows them to hang onto their beliefs.
If you’re invested in your belief that you caused your child’s OCD, you might say, “Well maybe other parents don’t cause their child’s OCD, but I have special circumstances. If the scientist came to my house and spoke with me, they would see that we are the exception, and I’m really to blame for my child’s OCD.
Next, as you look at a thought you can ask, “Does this thought still fit?”
The Human Brain treats thoughts like clothes in the closet. You keep adding clothes but rarely get rid of things. Your brain does not like to reject thoughts once believed to be true.
When George Washington was dying of what medical historians believe to be strep throat, his doctors delivered state-of-the-art medical care: bleeding and purging. When a young doctor at the bedside observed that Washington was struggling to get enough air, he suggested making a hole in Washington’s breathing tube. The idea was rejected as unproven. In retrospect, this may have saved Washington’s life.
Here’s a third and critical question to help you decide how to manage a thought: “Is this thought getting me to where I want to be, or is it keeping me stuck?”
You want to help yourself and your family be freed from OCD.
Are your thoughts helping you get there?
Let’s play out the consequences of hanging onto the thought, “I caused my child’s OCD.” We’ll illustrate with what happens in your child’s brain.
We know that OCD drama begins with a thought. Maybe your child’s obsession—and an obsession is just a thought—just a sentence—a sentence is, “I’m going to stab my cat.” This is a thought offered by the OCD Monster. Your child would never intentionally hurt an animal
Thoughts create feelings. When somebody with OCD thinks that they might stab their cat, they may experience fear or disgust or anxiety.
The thought, “I’m responsible for my child’s OCD” might illicit guilt or shame or regret. In fact, any thought with the general thought theme, “I’m a bad parent” will illicit these feelings.
Our children with OCD also have illustrated that feelings drive action. The person who has the thought, “I’m going to stab my cat” might decide to avoid the cat, or even remove knives from the house.” The compulsions are all of the actions intended to ease the pain of the unwanted feelings.
When you have guilt or shame about your past parenting choices, you might withdraw from your child. Instead of spending time engaging with your child doing helpful things, you might be in your room behind a closed door replaying your parenting crimes over and over.
Your actions create your results. Every time your child goes through a cycle of obsession and compulsion, it gives OCD more power over their lives. It sets the stage for the next cycle.
The results of holding onto the thought, “I am responsible for my child’s OCD” might be this: you’re less less likely to do the things that you would like to do to free your child from OCD. This means that one day in the future you will use your withdrawal as further evidence that you’re a bad parent.
How does hanging onto the thought “I caused my child’s OCD” play out in your life?
When you think, “I’m responsible for my child’s OCD.” what feelings are elicited for you?
When you have that feeling, what actions do you take or not take?
Do these action bring you closer to the kind of empowered committed parent you want to be?
I hope by going through this exercise, you see that this thought will not help you get to where you want to go. It’s an expensive indulgent thought that eats away at your time and energy and focus.
If you’re with me, what’s the way out of this thought drama?
It’s doing the very things we’re asking our kids to do.
Step #1: Witness your thoughts. Imagine projecting yourself to the corner of the room and watching the thoughts that pass through your brain. What is the sentence your human brain is offering you? Write it down on paper. Look at it.
Step #2: Suspend disbelief. When you see a movie, you temporarily allow yourself to believe something that isn't true. Just as an exercise, ask yourself, “What if this thought were not true?” You can suspend disbelief with any thought—even for a few minutes.
Step #3: Offer your brain an alternative helpful thought to swap out for the unhelpful thought. Maybe it’s, “Today I act as an empowered parent.” Or, “As I know better I do better.” Or, “I learn from my mistakes.”
Maybe that’s too much of a stretch for your brain. You can try, “Good parents make mistakes.”
My own coaching mentor says, “Choose a thought that is 5% less poopy.”
Step #4: Gently redirect your brain to a helpful thought when it offers an unhelpful thought.
You’ve been practicing variations of the thought “I’m a bad parent” —and believing it—for years. It’s going to take some practice to manage the thought differently.
You might have to redirect your brain again and again. That’s okay. It’s just how the brain learns.
Step #5: Resist the urge to judge yourself for having a thought.
I was working with a mom who was practicing alternative thoughts to “I’m to blame” She said, “I’m such an idiot for thinking this thought. I know better.”
Her thought, “I’m an idiot; I know better ” is just another thought that takes her away from power parenting.
Do not use thought work to beat up on yourself.
Instead, this dedicated mom could say, “Oh I’m blaming myself for my child’s OCD. How human of me!”
Human Brains LOOK for someone to blame for the unwanted circumstances. That’s just what they do. Do not punish yourself for having a human brain.
Thought work can be hard work. Why do it? It’s because you want to do everything in your power to help free your child from the tyranny of OCD. You want the time and energy to fight OCD. Beating up on yourself is an indulgence you simple cannot afford.
What happens when someone else tells you that you are responsible for your child’s OCD?
Laurie said, “My mother-in-law makes me feel guilty. She constantly implies that my poor parenting is the reason my son Brian is struggling. ”
I asked Laurie to tell me what her mother-n-law Marge actually said. Laurie said, “Marge was over for dinner, and Brian went to the bathroom to wash his hands. I told Marge that with Brian’s OCD he would be in the bathroom about 15 minutes. I would wait a bit to put the food on the table. In the meanwhile I put out the paper plate and plastic utensils Brian insists on using. Marge said, ‘OCD, schmocD. The problem is that you just let Brian walk over you. Tell him enough. No more cleaning and disposable plates and utensils. He’ll sit down at the table and eat the dinner you serve on your plates.”
I said, “So your mother-in-law does not think OCD is a real thing?” Laurie said, “That’s correct. Marge thinks that OCD is just a way to excuse unacceptable behavior.”
I said to her, “Let me begin with good news. The only person who can trigger feelings like guilt is YOU. Your guilt begins with a thought. If your working thought is “I didn’t cause my son’s OCD” you are not vulnerable to guilt.
What would you think if Marge said, ‘Brian’s like this because he was abducted by aliens and they’re controlling his mind with a laser zapper. Brian just needs an astro-exorcism, and he’ll be fine.’ You would just dismiss this as a crazy thought and not give it serious consideration.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that alien abductions are real, or that there’s a connection between alien abductions and OCD. This is just an illustration.
What I am saying is that if you are completely clear that you are doing the things proven to help your son manage his OCD, and you have a plan to get there, you can respond to your mother-in-law’s critical comments with the thought, “That’s just Marge being Marge.”
If you do have guilt after a conversation with Marge, that suggests that some part of you believes something Marge said is true. Sit down and pick out the thought that triggered your guilt. Explore it. Work on it.
If, for example, you believe that OCD caused by a lack of discipline, ask yourself, “Is my son undisciplined?” I would argue that if anything he is very disciplined. The problem is the discipline is misdirected towards his compulsions. Imagine what would happen if Brian could redeploy that discipline in something that makes a positive difference in the world.
I reminded Laurie that what other people think of us is none of our business.
I added, “You have a picture of where you would like to lead your family. You have a map to get there. You got this! “
You know from your experience that OCD scares people; many people like Marge just want the compulsions to stop so they’re more comfortable.
You will not be able to bring everybody onboard to your OCD roadmap.
Not everyone is willing to invest in education.
That’s okay. You do not have to take care of them. Just don’t let them slow you down.
Focus on your priority—helping Brian and the people who live in your home be freed from OCD.
Here’s a very difficult situation What happens when your child blames you for causing their OCD?
I remember when my son was in first grade. He had a loose front tooth. I served him a sandwich on a baguette. He took a big bite, felt a pop and looked down to see his tooth embedded in the thick bread crust. My son was beside himself. How could I serve him a baguette? Didn’t I know his tooth would come out?
When my son blamed me for the crime of serving him a baguette I could have been defensive and told him that I didn’t do anything wrong.
Instead, I tried to tap into my compassion. What was my son really telling me?
My son was scared about losing his teeth. If my son had his way, he would have kept his baby teeth into adulthood. He imbued me with mystical powers to protect him from the things he feared.
Here’s what I said to him., “I know you had been scared about losing your first tooth. You thought it would hurt. You thought you would have blood all over your clothes. Look! It happened and you lived! No blood anywhere!” Then I gave him a big hug.
Children have a deep longing that parents will protect them from painful things, or make the pain go away when they’re hurt.
If your adult child is blaming you for their struggles with OCD, what are they REALLY communicating? Could it be they’re saying, “It’s so hard living with OCD. It hurts so much and I wish I didn’t have to deal with this.”
Try to tap into your compassion when your child lashes out at you. Chances are good they’re lashing out at OCD. That’s where you can begin the conversation.
Get curious. Ask, “What’s it like for you to live with OCD?” Try to get a clear picture of what it’s like to be them. Don’t try to fix anything. Just listen. Chances are very good that you will see their strength and courage to get through each day. Tell him or her.
It’s okay to say, “I wish I had a magic wand and could make OCD just disappear. I wish I could put a bandaid on an OCD owie, kiss it and make it all better! Wouldn’t that be great!
While I can’t do that, I promise to be here, no matter how much pain you’re in. OCD doesn’t scare me. I know you can get through this!”
Both you and your child may be angry that you’re dealing with OCD. Blaming you could be a way of saying, “I’m angry that I have to deal with OCD.”
When things are calm, you can brainstorm about acceptable ways to get the mad out. You can also set boundaries and define behavior that is not acceptable in your home, like hitting or breaking things or screaming “I hate you.” The boundaries can and should be consistent with your family values and appropriate for child’s age and ability. Part of setting boundaries is laying out the consequences of violations of the boundary. As children grow and mature, you have fewer options for consequences.
The starting point for dealing with people who blame you for your child’s OCD is this: you need to decide whether or not you believe this thought. Do your own thought work before you take on other people’s thoughts.
You are not to blame for your child’s OCD. Scientific fact.
You might not believe that thought right now. However, you can do the thought work and change your belief. This thought work is optional, but I highly recommend it.
Do you own thought work before you take on other people who tell you that you are responsible for your child’s OCD.
Your highest priority can and should be holding the helpful thoughts and taking the actions that will help you and your family get to the other side of OCD.
Consider anything else, whether it’s the disapproving judgment of your mother-in-law or a hurtful comment from a friend or the unsolicited unhelpful parenting advice from a stranger as indulgent distractions. Decide that you will not give them airtime in your brain.
If you find yourself sucked into entertaining and even believing other people’s thoughts, say, “Oh, how human of me to want my mother-in-law to approve of my parenting. Now I’m going to shift my focus back to helping my child and family get freed from OCD.”
What do you think? I invite you to leave comments below.
If you found value in this episode? Please feel welcome to share it with others you know who are helping their adult children be freed from OCD. You’ve got this!
Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts or comments.