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Coping with Intrusive Thoughts: A Guide for Kids and Parents

 by Jayada S. Sarela on 01/13/2024




Intrusive thoughts - unwanted and disturbing thoughts or images that seem to pop into your head - can be scary and upsetting. While we all experience some intrusive thoughts once in a while, they can become excessive and feel uncontrollable for kids with OCD.


Here are some common signs that may indicate a child is suffering from OCD:


  • Repeated rituals or compulsions to ease anxiety - Excessive hand washing, cleaning, counting, tapping, ordering items

  • Intrusive obsessive thoughts that won't go away - Violent or taboo thoughts that cause distress

  • Rigidity around routines - Distress if rituals/routines are disrupted

  • Perfectionism - Erasing school work repeatedly to “fix” mistakes

  • Seeking constant reassurance - Asking “are you sure?” frequently to parents

  • Trouble staying focused - OCD thoughts are distracting and time-consuming

  • Avoidance of situations/places/objects - Avoiding bathroom due to contamination obsessions

  • Poor sleep - Obsessions and compulsions interfere with sleep

  • Excessive fear of germs or illness - Overuse of disinfectants, gloves, masks

  • Feelings of anxiety when rituals can’t be completed - Heightened unease and tension

  • Spending over 1 hour a day on obsessions and compulsions - Severely impairs daily functioning

  • Insight that the thoughts or rituals seem irrational - But feels unable to control them


If you notice several of these signs significantly impacting your child's functioning, it may be time to seek professional evaluation. A child psychologist or psychiatrist experienced in OCD can diagnose and provide treatment guidance. Early intervention is best to alleviate suffering. Express your concerns and support your child in getting help.


OCD can develop in children as young as preschool age, though it more commonly appears around ages 10-12. Here are some key points about OCD onset in children:


  • Peak age of onset is between 10-12 years old. OCD symptoms often start emerging around puberty.

  • Children as young as age 3-5 can be affected. OCD has been diagnosed in preschoolers, though it is less common.

  • Boys tend to develop OCD at a slightly earlier age than girls, on average.

  • In childhood OCD, the most common obsessions revolve around fear of contamination, sickness, or danger. Common compulsions involve cleaning, repeating, ordering, and hoarding rituals.

  • Although OCD can begin at any time during childhood, the mean age of onset is typically between 7.5-12.5 years old based on studies.

  • Onset before age 5 is rare and may indicate a higher genetic predisposition. Kids this young may struggle to articulate obsessive thoughts.

  • The earlier age of onset, the greater risk OCD symptoms will persist if untreated. Early intervention is recommended.

  • Identical twins have a higher concordance rate for childhood OCD than non-identical twins or other siblings.

While OCD can emerge at nearly any age, pre-adolescence seems to be the most common window of onset. Seeking assessment and treatment early on gives children the best chance at managing symptoms. Support and patience is key.


For Kids: You are not your thoughts! Intrusive thoughts are just thoughts - they don't control you or mean there is anything wrong with you. Some strategies to manage them:

  • Let them pass. Don't engage with or try to suppress the thoughts. Acknowledge they are there, but don't react. Imagine them floating away like clouds.

  • Distract yourself. Shift your focus to something else - read, listen to music, call a friend.

  • Challenge the thoughts. Talk back to intrusive thoughts and question their truth/likelihood. "This thought doesn't seem rational or likely to happen."

  • Practice relaxation techniques. Try deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation. Reduce anxiety.

  • Stay in the present. Focus on your senses - what you see, hear, feel right now. Keep grounded.

  • Talk to someone. Speaking about intrusive thoughts can reduce their power over you.

You can get better at managing intrusive thoughts with time and practice. Be patient and compassionate with yourself.


For Parents: Intrusive thoughts are not your child's fault. Support them in learning to cope:

  • Don't shame, punish or lecture. This can increase anxiety and make symptoms worse.

  • Empathize and validate their experience. Acknowledge how scary the thoughts must feel.

  • Help identify triggers. Note situations preceding intrusive thoughts.

  • Encourage positive coping strategies like the ones above. Teach meditation or relaxation exercises.

  • Explore professional help. Therapy like CBT provides effective OCD treatment.

  • Focus on overall wellbeing. Ensure good sleep, nutrition, exercise, socializing.

  • Be patient. Skill-building takes time. Offer love and praise for effort.


With compassion, understanding and gradual exposure to fears, children can gain power over OCD intrusive thoughts. Support them through the process.

The road may not always be smooth, but have hope. Intrusive thoughts do not have to define your child's future. There are many resources and people who understand and can help. You've got this!

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