I have very vivid memories of my OCD fears when I was small. As I’ve said before, I didn’t have the full-blown version of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, where the disorder takes control of your life. I did, however, have certain obsessive fears that returned over and over again. They were present enough to keep me up at night for hours, or to stand staring at the toilet until my mother came to see where I was. They were fears that I felt I couldn’t explain to my friends because I knew that at best, they wouldn’t understand me, and at worst, they would make fun of me and tell other kids. I felt trapped inside my own mind sometimes.
As adults, we generally have the capacity to choose words that truthfully express how we feel. We know who we can trust with our secret fears, and we can seek professional help if we need it, such as counselors or therapists. I really feel for children who harbor OCD fears, however, because they generally lack the verbal ability to express themselves, and even if they have it, the emotional maturity isn’t developed enough yet to use those words.
When our children begin exhibiting signs of fears, it’s easy to simply assure them nothing is going to happen and that they’re worrying too much. We need to stop and think, however, about how we’re addressing their fears. Though we’re trying (with good intentions) to show them that the things they fear are too small to be feared, what we’re often in danger of doing is telling them that their fears aren’t important enough for our big adult world. I wanted to write this post to help adults understand their children’s fears from a child’s perspective.
What Are OCD Fears?
People with OCD are the “worst case scenario” people. We have the ability to imagine the worst things happening without any likelihood of them actually happening. I like the way the International OCD Foundation article, “What is OCD?” puts it. “Your brain is telling you that you are in danger when you are not.” Whatever kind of OCD one has, the brain is constantly signaling that there could be danger.
It’s like a broken record. When a record (the old fashioned kind) was manufactured, it was made to play a certain note in a certain place. That note had a specific function in the specific place it was inserted, and was considered good because it was needed at that moment in time. When you play the record, however, and the record becomes stuck, however, the note plays continually. It no longer sounds good, and it becomes annoying. You can’ts top thinking about how awful this note is while it’s on repeat.
OCD thoughts and fears are the same way. Psychology Today’s article, “The Many Flavors of OCD” by Allen H. Weg, compares OCD types to flavors of ice cream. Here are the kinds of “flavors” it lists:
- Hit and Run OCD
- Need for Symmetry
- Sexual Obsessions
- Fear of Loss of Impulse Control
- Others, such as hoarding and health anxiety
I like how Weg finished the article. “The themes are always the same, however: A sense of uncertainty or incompleteness that needs to be righted in some way is the obsessive experience.” And he’s right. The individual who has OCD feels like the only way to fix the imbalances of life is through the obsessions and compulsions.
From a Child’s Perspective
As I said earlier, adults often have a better ability to handle these struggles than children simply because they know how to verbalize their fears, and they can contact professionals for help if they feel so inclined. Children, however, don’t know other help exists. They’re simply aware that they worry, and they’re often aware that their levels of worry are abnormal compared to their peers.
Let’s take, for example, my fear of under-cooked red meat, a fear I had when I was seven or eight, I believe. I’d seen a news report on red meat and how it can make you sick if you don’t cook it all the way. So I began to inspect every single bite before I ate it whenever I ate red meat. This would be my inner dialogue when my mother bought me a hamburger from McDonalds (not that she did that often).
“The outsides look cooked. That part is even black. But this part definitely looks lighter brown. I’d better eat the black parts first. I’ll make my bite as small as the little bumps on the patty. Each bump should be cooked the same way through, right? I hope so. What if the bump isn’t cooked all the way through, and I get a bite of it when it’s pink? I could die. I could get really sick after Mom puts me to bed. It’s dinner after all, not lunch. If I go to bed, I could get sick in my sleep and die, and Mom wouldn’t check on me until morning. That would be very irresponsible of me. It would be my fault I died because I didn’t check it all the way. I’d better make a few bites smaller, just in case…”
And it went on and on. It was the same way with the fear of choking, the fear or electrical fires, the fear of the toilet, the fear of aliens invading our house through the windows at night, the fear or doing harm to my parents and brothers when they were sleeping. And it would have been very easy for my parents to brush it off and say, “That rarely happens. You’ll be fine,” and leave it at that.
My mom knew better, however. I know, looking back, that my fears were tough on her. She wanted so much for my fears to leave me alone, but unfortunately, fears don’t work that way in children with OCD tendencies like me. So instead, she would talk to me. Instead of getting angry with me, she was kind. She assured me over and over again that the things I feared were either unlikely or impossible, but instead of leaving it at those remarks, she would explain why.
Now, did I listen immediately? Were my fears dissolved with her assurances? Absolutely not. In my head, I was saying,
“You don’t know for sure, Mom. The man on the TV said it’s possible, and that 5 out of every 1000 people get this. You say it’s not likely, but that means there’s a chance. It’s irresponsible to take risks, and this is a risk. You mean well, Mom, but you don’t know. You could be wrong.”
I would often get either unreasonably rigid or sad during these exchanges. With my mother practically pleading with me to eat the burger, the fear would often drive me to the inability to listen to what she said. I was going to check every teeny, tiny bite of that burger no matter what she said. In my mind, if I didn’t get it right, and I wasn’t 100% responsible all of the time, something bad would happen.
So it was a battle between my fears and my mother’s assurances and prayers. And do you know what helped win the battle? Time. Time proved to me as I continued to live not only to the morning after eating the burger, but days and weeks and months, that perhaps the world wasn’t quite as terrifying as the news made it seem. Perhaps I was more likely to live than to die from things like E. coli in my McDonalds burger.The fears weren’t reasonable, but my mother was kind, and life continued to teach me as I got older.
How to Detect These Strange Fears
One of the first signs of these kinds of fears are repeated requests for assurances. Are my hands clean enough? Does this meat look red to you? I haven’t made the toys straight enough…over and over and over again. If you notice your child continually asking the same questions not matter how many times you answer her, there’s a reason she’s suffering from these kinds of fears. Of course, only a licensed professional could make that call, but it’s something to be on the lookout for. The important thing to remember is not to give up on your child. He doesn’t like the obsessions any more than you do. He just needs help moving the needle of that broken record, and you can help him do that with love and patience.
Do you have experience or questions about OCD? I’d love to hear! Please share you comments in the Comment Box below, or email me. If you’d like to learn more and get free information on topics like this and my writing, please subscribe to my newsletter. As always, thanks for reading!