The International OCD Foundation’s annual conference is different from other conferences. Instead of just convening professionals, the IOCDF conference includes people with OCD. A large portion of their programming is aimed at people personally impacted by the disorder—kids and adults with OCD as well as parents, spouses, and siblings. This is because the association includes nonprofessionals in its membership, which gives a unique immediacy to the work being done there.

A team from the Child Mind Institute attending this year’s conference seized the opportunity to run a workshop for kids with OCD called A Weekend Adventure of Kicking OCD’s Butt! Led by Dr. Jerry Bubrick and Dr. Rachel Busman, the team provided what’s known as exposure and response prevention—a cognitive behavioral therapy used for treating OCD—to over 30 children over the course of two days. The conference was in Atlanta, but the kids participating came from all across the country—from Seattle to New Jersey, Florida to California. What’s more, the kids came with a wide range of experiences with cognitive behavior therapy. Some kids had never received CBT, some received regular CBT back home, others were used to driving several hours for treatment because there aren’t any providers near them—an all too familiar story. There was a range of ages in attendance, too—from 9 to 15 years old—but the kids were able to build a supportive community, which is important for the kind of therapy they were doing.

Exposure therapy works by gradually exposing people to things they are afraid of, with the idea that our anxiety over something diminishes the more we become accustomed to it. With the help of CMI staff Marc Shuldiner, Jessica Meister, Erika Rooney, Naomi Reyfield, and Julia Brilliante, the kids performed what’s known as “exposures.” Some kids at the workshop were afraid of germs, so they’d practice handling money, sitting on the hotel conference room floor, and not washing their hands. Some kids with obsessions over symmetry or making things “just right” practiced not correcting mistakes, wearing twisted socks, or putting shirts on backwards. Kids who were afraid of heights took rides in the hotel’s big glass elevator with Dr. Bubrick. One boy who was very troubled by aggressive thoughts that he couldn’t control practiced holding a plastic knife to a clinician’s arm.

The idea of doing something you’re afraid of in a room full of strangers sounds tough, but in this case it might have actually been an advantage. At the beginning of the workshop the team from the Child Mind Institute spent time explaining what OCD is and what symptoms might look like. “We saw a lot of head nodding,” said Dr. Busman. “Kids would call out, ‘Oh, I used to do that.'” Some kids remembered each other from attending past conferences, but others got to know each other quickly, bonding over shared experiences. The boy who was disturbed by his aggressive thoughts told the group that just admitting that he had these fears was an exposure on its own, but his peers were in a unique position to understand what he was going through, which helped destigmatize his confession.

The kids also understood how to help each other during exposures. One of the hardest concepts for parents of children with OCD to grasp is how to provide comfort without giving reassurance, which can actually exacerbate a child’s anxiety. During one difficult exposure, Dr. Busman remembered one boy who recognized the dilemma telling her, “I want to say something supportive, but I don’t want to be reassuring.”

Parents didn’t participate in the workshop directly. Some watched from the sidelines, but many attended parent-targeted talks happening elsewhere at the conference. Instead, the kids worked through their exposures together, and everyone made progress. “It was very challenging and very cool,” said Dr. Busman.

The workshop was a mini version of Fearless Friends, the Child Mind Institute’s intensive weeklong treatment program for kids with OCD and specific phobias that starts again August 19th. The Child Mind Institute also hopes to do another workshop for next year’s IOCDF conference in Los Angeles.