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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Approximately 1 million children and adolescents in the United States suffer from OCD.

OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by obsessions (repeated involuntary thoughts, urges, impulses, or worries) and compulsions (purposeless repetitive behaviors).
Approximately 1 million children and adolescents in the United States suffer from OCD. In other words, OCD affects about 3 to 5 youngsters per average-sized elementary school and about 20 teenagers in a large high school.
OCD is as or more prevalent than many other better known childhood illnesses such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and diabetes.
The symptoms of OCD may have their onset in children as early as age three or four, but very young children and their parents may not recognize the symptoms.
OCD in children often exists concurrently with motor tics and/or Tourette's disorder.
OCD affects children and adolescents during a very important period of social development. It often affects their schoolwork, home life, and friendships. While young children may be unable to understand that their thoughts and actions are unusual, many adolescents feel embarrassed. Not wanting to be "different" from their peers, they worry about their uncontrollable behavior.
Children and adolescents often involve family members in their rituals. For example, they may insist that their laundry be washed several times, demand that parents check their homework repeatedly, or become outraged if household items are in disarray.


Common obsessions:

  • Fear of contamination/serious illness 
  • Fixation on lucky/unlucky numbers 
  • Fear of danger to self or others 
  • Need for symmetry or exactness 
  • Repeated doubt

Common compulsions:

  • Cleaning/washing 
  • Touching 
  • Counting/repeating 
  • Arguing/organizing 
  • Checking/questioning 
  • Hoarding

Causes OCD is not caused by bad parenting or an individual weakness in the person with OCD. Research has shown that OCD tends to run in families and it appears that a biological imbalance of the brain chemical serotonin can be passed on to succeeding generations. Thus, the tendency to develop OCD may be inherited, but the actual disorder may not be.

Treatments OCD will continue for years if left untreated. The symptoms may become less severe at times, but generally OCD is a chronic illness.
A primary form of treatment for OCD is medication. Medications that regulate serotonin reduce obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. However, medication is not completely effective for everyone with OCD.
Behavior therapy is commonly used in combination with medication. This type of therapy exposes a person to a feared object or thought. The person is then discouraged from carrying out the usual compulsive response.
The most effective way to treat OCD is to use both medication and therapy.

Medications: Clomipramine (Anafranil) is usually the first choice of medication.
Fluoxetine (Prozac)
Medications may take up to ten weeks to take effect. If the medications most commonly used in treating OCD are not working, other medications such as Lithium, Fenfluramine, Buspirone, and other antipsychotic medications may be beneficial.
Between 50and 80 percent of patients with OCD improve with medication. However, they still may have some obsessive and compulsive behaviors remaining.

Suggested Reading

  • The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing, by Rapoport, Judith 
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, by Levenkron, Steven 
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: A Guide, by University of Wisconsin

Other Resources: OC Foundation-PO Box 70, Milford CT 06460-0070 or
The OC Foundation publishes an excellent newsletter and has information about support groups. They also publish a newsletter for support group leaders.

This information was provided by:

National Alliance on Mental Illness-Iowa
5911 Meredith Drive, Ste. E
Des Moines, Iowa 50322-1903
Phone: (515) 254-0417
            (800) 417-0417