Detecting the Early Signs of OCD in Young Children

The early signs of OCD can help you detect the condition early and seek a professional opinion.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is often portrayed in the media inaccurately. It definitely can present as a problem with dirt or germs, but there are so many other forms that focusing in on what you’ve seen on TV or read in books is often unhelpful.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a personality disorder that is characterized by obsessive thoughts, and compulsive actions. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder affects an estimated 1 in 200 children. It is often found alongside other conditions like ADHD, Autism, and anxiety.

Nobody really knows yet what causes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but scientists have evidence that it may be hardcoded in our genes and “turned on” during a stressful period like a long-lasting infection or a life event that is more stressful than usual. Basically, sometimes it just happens and we don’t know why but it is not your fault and your child did not do anything wrong. If you’re concerned that your child may be suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, here are a few signs to watch out for.


Your child’s thoughts may be occupied a lot of the time with various obsessions, causing them to zone out or have emotional breakdowns seemingly without reason. Figuring out what is going on inside someone else’s mind can prove difficult and even more so in a young child. If you are super observant though they may be showing signs of obsessive thinking.

Often obsessive thoughts revolve around religion, death, germs, illness, or that vague feeling that something is wrong, very very wrong. You may notice your child bringing these things up a lot, more often than you would consider typical for a child that age.

If they don’t outright talk about their obsessive thoughts, they may repeatedly ask for reassurance or ask to go over the schedule or agenda over and over to make sure they are correct in their assumptions.

They may have trouble concentrating, be irritable or easy to upset, have trouble deciding or choosing things going back over and over to try to make sure it’s right, or take too long in the bathroom or getting dressed.


One of the ways people with obsessive repetitive thoughts learn to cope is by performing rituals that help calm them. The example you’re probably thinking of is washing hands repeatedly to help assuage the fear of germs or dirt, and while that definitely can be a sign of OCD so many other things may be happening as well.

For example, your child may be tapping something repeatedly, or ask you for a hug after hug until one “feels right” or even have more organized rituals like getting ready for bed in a certain order or turning a light off and on again a special number of times.

It is not just superstition, your child may on some level realize that tapping her spoon to her bowl 3 times before eating really does not have much to do with whether or not her food is safe, but the thoughts will continue and intensify until she completes the action. If the thoughts continue even after the ritual your child may repeat it, again and again, trying to regain some peace in their own mind.

If your child is performing actions like these it’s definitely something to keep track of and talk to your doctor about. Many kinds of disorders can cause this type of symptom though so don’t try to self-diagnose.


What’s the difference between normal worrying and problem worrying? Frequency and the level of disturbance, basically if the thoughts or rituals are interfering with regular life it’s time to talk to a professional. Adults with OCD can often get into a loop of rituals for so long that they are late for work, for example. Children with OCD, especially young ones may be unable to recognize what is happening which can make the emotional reaction to their repeated thoughts and their need to do rituals even stronger.

If your child’s quirks are causing them to miss out on fun, or are disturbing them to the point that they are very upset more often than not, it’s time for outside help.

Your role

Not every anxious kid has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and it’s important not to feed their fears, because obsessive rituals can be a learned behavior as an extension of trying to cope with anxiety. Most therapy for OCD involves learning to cope with the stress of the obsessive thoughts without performing rituals, but it is best that these types of intervention be under the care of a doctor who is trained and experienced in treating children with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Being emotionally supportive and patient can help your child much more than shaming them or trying to modify their behavior based on your own preferences or understanding. New research into this disorder is ongoing and the latest science may only be accessible through a professional so don’t give up until you find a specialist that you feel comfortable with.

Learning to live with and work around Obsessive Compulsive Disorder takes a whole family at times, and it’s best if everyone is on board with the plan, knowing how to support without coddling, how to handle your own anxiety when you see your child struggling, and what to do to help your child cope when they are in crisis. It is important to educate anyone caring for your child about their condition and what to do once you have a diagnosis. As always, gentle guidance and acknowledging your child’s feelings and worries without adding to their stress is the best plan and reaching out for help when you need it is key.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is usually managed without medication but sometimes it may be needed, especially during stressful times like puberty or other times of turbulence. Most of the time though, it will come down to self-reflection, mindfulness, and having a good support system as they learn to cope with overwhelming feelings and compulsions.