Understanding OCD in Teenagers


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder where an individual struggles with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Often developing in late adolescence, OCD affects approximately 1-3% of teenagers.

OCD can make a teenager’s life more difficult, affecting their ability to be productive and form stable relationships with others. However, effective treatment can help them manage the disorder, reduce compulsive behaviors, and flourish as individuals.

What Is OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is often misunderstood. One of the most important ways to support young people with OCD is to learn and raise awareness about the mental illness.

Obsessive Thoughts

Obsessive thoughts are repetitive images or desires that may be unwanted or intrusive. Obsessive or unwanted thoughts tend to be negative and often cause anxiety or emotional distress. They can dominate a teenager’s daily life and thoughts, making it hard for them to focus on school or enjoy life.

Obsessive thoughts can take many forms, such as:

  • worrying about falling ill or dying
  • worrying about cleanliness
  • worrying about sexuality
  • disturbing sexual thoughts or urges
  • fear of behaving violently
  • fear that something terrible might happen
  • obsessions related to religion

Some teenagers may feel ashamed of these thoughts. It’s important to remind them (and ourselves) that it’s normal to experience thoughts like these, and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Compulsive Behavior

Teenagers with OCD may engage in compulsive behaviors to experience temporary relief from obsessive thoughts. While it can be healthy to develop rituals and coping methods to calm us down in moments of distress, teens with OCD may feel like they have to perform these rituals. They may think that if they do not engage in them, bad things will happen to them or those around them.

Compulsive rituals do not offer a long-term solution to obsessive thoughts – and often make them worse. Once the ritual has finished, intrusive thoughts usually come rushing back, sometimes in a more extreme form than before.

Compulsive behaviours can manifest in various ways, some more obvious than others. They may be noticeable to others or take place inside a teenager’s mind. Common compulsions include:

  • counting (often internally)
  • constantly ordering
  • constantly checking
  • constantly seeking reassurance
  • doing something repeatedly until it is “perfect”
ocd in teenagers

Why Do Children or Teenagers Develop OCD?

Scientists don’t know precisely what causes obsessive-compulsive disorder. Like most mental illnesses, there isn’t a single reason why a child develops OCD. However, research has identified several factors that may play a role, including:

  • family history
  • brain chemistry
  • life events, including bullying or neglect
  • anxious, meticulous, or responsible personality

OCD in Teenagers

Young adults face distinct life stressors that can shape the way OCD manifests and the ways we should approach and treat the condition. It’s important to understand how OCD affects teenagers so you can watch out for early symptom onset and know how to support young people with this mental health disorder.

Adolescence and Personal Growth

Adolescence is a time of change. At this age, many teenagers are discovering who they are – their interests, sexuality, and ethics. They may also be encountering increased personal responsibility, changes in their body, and new friendship groups.

These issues represent opportunities for personal growth – but the uncertainty often comes with anxiety. These questions can be easy for people with OCD to obsess over and may drive obsessions and compulsions. Young adults may feel paralyzed by the fear that they will get things wrong, choose the wrong path, or misunderstand themselves.

Hidden Compulsions

Compulsions are not always obvious. While some people with OCD engage in behaviours like washing hands and cleaning, other forms of compulsive behaviour are harder to notice.

If a teen is struggling with obsessions related to moral, sexual, religious, or violent content, they may respond with avoidance or mental rituals like mental review, reassurance, and neutralization. They may seem lost in their thoughts or “in their own world” a lot of the time – behaviour that may be mistaken for other mental health issues.

It’s important to keep an open mind about the different manifestations of OCD so that you can recognize OCD symptoms as early as possible.

OCD and School Work

Sometimes, the first signs of OCD appear in academic work and school life. Teens with OCD may repeatedly re-read or re-write assignments, excessively check for mistakes, and get stuck in their work when they can’t achieve exactness. They may constantly seek reassurance from teachers and other students or find concentrating difficult because of mental rituals.

How Do You Treat OCD?

OCD can be a serious condition, affecting young people’s happiness and disrupting their daily lives. However, plenty of support is available to help young people overcome OCD and achieve their full potential.

The first step in treating OCD is to visit a mental health professional. They can offer an in-depth assessment and diagnosis of a young person’s condition and discuss the best treatment options for them.

Many evidence-based treatment approaches are available and proven to support young people with OCD. These include:

  • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – which uses a technique called exposure response prevention to help young people face their fears and obsessions without engaging in compulsive behaviour
  • counselling
  • family therapy – which helps family members improve their understanding of OCD and learn how to be supportive
  • medication – anti-depressant medication called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can improve symptoms of OCD

Young people may see results fairly quickly with some treatments, like cognitive-behavioural therapy. Other treatment methods may need several months before they notice improvements. If a treatment method doesn’t seem to be working, young people should talk with their mental health provider to see what other options are available.

The Wave Clinic

The Wave offers specialized mental wellness treatment programs for young people living with mental health disorders. We combine top-tier clinical care with a “GAP year” experience, guiding young people on a transformative recovery journey. We focus on the underlying causes of addiction, supporting young people to long-lasting recovery and whole-person healing.

We believe that recovery means more than just overcoming the symptoms of mental health problems. We help young people to rediscover their dreams, goals, and aims, ensuring they leave our centre excited about the next stage in life. We equip them with the life skills they need to pursue their dreams and achieve their full potential.

At the Wave, we are uniquely positioned to offer young people the holistic and transformative experience they require. Our centre is situated in the beautiful landscapes of Malaysia, so young people can benefit from the healing powers of nature throughout their time with us. Our experiential programs – such as our kitchen garden – help young people connect physically with the world around them, offering a sense of grounding and fulfilment.

We understand that it can be daunting to be apart from your child, and take steps to ensure your peace of mind. We keep families involved in the treatment process from beginning to end, offering regular updates and in-depth information on our treatment theory and practice.

If your child is struggling with OCD or another anxiety disorder, contact us today to begin the journey of a lifetime.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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