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What Teachers Should Know About OCD

The anxiety behind a child's rituals

Writer: Jerry Bubrick, PhD

Clinical Expert: Jerry Bubrick, PhD

en Español

Kids spend nearly a thousand hours per year in school, which means that teachers are often spending more time with kids than parents are. With all this time spent together, it’s especially important for teachers to be clued in to how to help a child with OCD function better. Understanding the anxiety behind OCD is an important first step.

The basics

OCD is an anxiety disorder, and kids who have it struggle with either obsessions or compulsions or both.

  • Obsessions are unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images or impulses. Obsessions make kids feel anxious.
  • Compulsions are things kids are driven to do to get rid of anxiety.
    Teachers might notice these behaviors and find them confusing.

We use the analogy of a mosquito bite. When you get bitten by a mosquito, it itches, so to make it feel better you scratch, and while you’re scratching it feels great, but as soon as you stop scratching, the itching gets worse. That’s exactly how OCD plays out. You’re feeling anxious so you do something to fix it temporarily, but that ritual makes it worse over time.

Kinds of obsessions

Contamination: Kids with this obsession are sometimes called “germophobes.” In schools, this plays out with kids worrying about other kids sneezing and coughing, worrying about touching things that might be dirty, or getting sick in many different ways. This is the most common obsession we see in children.

Magical Thinking: This is a kind of superstition, like “step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” taken to extremes. For example, kids might worry that their thoughts can cause someone to get hurt, or get sick. A child might think, “Unless my things are lined up in a certain way, mom will get in a car accident.”

Catastrophizing: Some kids easily jump to the conclusion that something terrible has happened. For example, if her parents are five minutes late to picking her up, a girl who is catastrophizing might tell herself that they’ve decided to abandon her.

Scrupulosity: This is when kids have obsessive worries about offending God or being blasphemous in some way.

What Ifs: Kids may be plagued by a lot of different kinds of thoughts about bad things they could do. “What if I hurt someone? What if I stab someone? What if I kill someone?”

The “Just Right” Feeling: Some kids feel they need to keep doing something until they get what we call the “right feeling.” When OCD first develops, from about AGES 6-9, kids may not know why they are doing something, but just that they need to do it until they get the right feeling. So: “I’ll line these things up until it just kind of feels right, and then I’ll stop.” And then over time—in the 9-12 range—it evolves into magical thinking and becomes more superstitious in nature.

This article was last reviewed or updated on January 30, 2024.