Helping Your Parents Understand OCD

mother and daughter eatingI tend to write about obsessive-compulsive disorder from a parent’s viewpoint because, well, I’m a parent whose son has OCD. My friend Abigail over at unreasonably rational sees things from the reverse perspective, and we recently chatted about how young adult (and even “older” adult) children with OCD can help their parents understand what is going on with them. Our conclusion? It’s not easy.

Every parent-child relationship is unique, with its own set of  issues. Even in the best of relationships, parents will likely “mess up” and say or do the wrong things at times. I still cringe every time I think of the first thing I said to Dan when he told me he had OCD: “Are you sure, Dan? You never even wash your hands.” Pretty unbelievable, huh?

This comment, I’m sure, only solidified what Dan already suspected. His mother needed help. It was important that I become educated about OCD. So he handed me a book to read (not my favorite so I won’t endorse it here) which gave me an inkling of what he was experiencing. It was a smart move on his part, and one I’d recommend to adult children who want to help their parents understand their OCD. Educate them any way you can. Give them a book, point them to a website, have a conversation.

I know, that last one is tough. I suggest talking with parents during a calm, uneventful time, preferably when everyone is in a good mood. You might begin by telling them how much you appreciate their support and love (assuming you are getting that from them), and then bring up the issues you feel need addressing. Maybe they have preconceived notions about OCD that just aren’t true. Maybe they are saying things, or acting in ways that are hurtful to you. I know I always appreciated it when Dan “set me straight” or voiced his opinions. He was able to help me see things from his viewpoint, which is not always easy for parents to do. I wish he had spoken up even more.

I don’t believe I’m alone in saying that one of the strongest emotions felt by parents when they find out their child has mental health problems is guilt. Somehow it is our fault. Whether this is true or not isn’t even important; we believe it. I think guilt has the potential to work both ways. In some cases, it might make the issues harder to talk about, as parents would rather sweep it all under the rug and just pretend everything is fine. In other situations, feelings of blame might spur a desire to really understand what you think you’ve done to your child, so you can hopefully remedy it.

Of course, sometimes a conversation with parents, for so many different reasons, is just not going to happen. Maybe it’s too hard for you to talk about your OCD. Or maybe you are not on speaking terms, are dealing with a strained relationship, or just don’t see eye to eye. In these cases, maybe it’s best to just agree to disagree. The only behaviors any of us can change are our own, and those with OCD need a lot of strength to work toward recovery. I believe expending energy trying to change others rarely, if ever, works.

All of us, especially those who are suffering, just want to be heard, understood, and accepted by those we love the most. If you are not getting what you need from your parents, hopefully other family members, friends, and loved ones can fill the void. Support from those who care about you will surely help as you move forward in your fight against obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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34 Responses to Helping Your Parents Understand OCD

  1. I gave my mom a copy of “Kissing Doorknobs,” a young adult novel about a girl with OCD, and that helped! My mom did suffer from feelings of guilt, which was hard, and my dad didn’t like to discuss it AT ALL. I’ve come to realize that it was because he was mad at HIMSELF for not being able to FIX THINGS for his daughter. But at the time, he just seemed annoyed and frustrated with ME.

    Handing over a book for them to read made things so much easier!

  2. Ruby Tuesday says:

    As a 32-year-old “child” with many diagnoses, I would say this is wonderful advice for any type of mental illness. Very sage and insightful thoughts, Janet.

  3. megangraf says:

    For your Chicagoland readers, Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates has a parents support group twice a month. I wish it was there during my hard times for my parents.

  4. A very wise post, Janet. Your tips would work well with other family members and loved ones, too.

    When I was a child and teen, my parents were most concerned that I was “disobeying” them by continuing to perform rituals. It was a different time, then, I guess, though I know now help would have been available if my parents had really looked for it. It doesn’t matter for me anymore–I don’t need my mother to understand OCD now–but I feel for young people, especially children, who have to deal with OCD and perhaps don’t have understanding parents who are willing to learn and seek help for their child.

    • ocdtalk says:

      I agree, Tina, these suggestions could be helpful for all loved ones. I’m sorry your parents never understood your OCD. It’s hard enough having the disorder without the added stress and anxiety brought about by the misunderstanding of your actions. I also feel for those whose parents, for whatever reason, refuse to become educated about OCD.

  5. kris says:

    I love your advice Janet. I suppose sharing you have OCD would be difficult in a loving parent-child relationship so add a “stressed relationship” or dysfunctional family to the mix and I can only imagine how hard it would be. Well, I guess I don’t have to “imagine” because that was me, but I was an adult so I had some maturity under my belt to handle it. My mom got really angry. Maybe that was her way of feeling guilt (which I never intended), but I took it as one more way I was being less than perfect, letting her down by having a mental illness. And my dad just wanted to me appreciate all my blessings, pick myself up by the boot straps and move on. So education, education, education all around. What I like most about what you wrote is that if you ca’t get what you need from your parents, find a family member, friend or someone else to help you. Yes, reach out to somebody and keep reaching out till you get the help you need.

  6. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks for sharing, Kris. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t get the support you needed from your parents, no matter how old you were.That must have been devastating for you.I find it interesting that your mom got angry; I guess you never know how people will react to things. I agree with you…….keep reaching out until you get the help and support you need!

  7. 71 & Sunny says:

    Great post, Janet. I’m in my mid-40’s and I still appreciate the support I get from my parents. I gave my mom Jeff Bell’s memoir to read and she also accompanied me to several CBT/ERP therapy sessions. That was helpful as she learned how to properly help me.

    • ocdtalk says:

      Thanks, Sunny. I think Jeff Bell’s books are a great choice to give to parents, as he really gives the reader a good understanding of OCD and he is also easy to understand. Thanks for sharing!

  8. maria says:

    hi janet i just want to thank you for this blog it felt having a support group i hope my family most specially my love will understand what me and my brother is going through w/ my case its responsibility ocd i know they will coz they love me and they mean the world to me .this site is the best site for understanding this kind of disorder from the bottom of my heart thank you ms.janet

    • ocdtalk says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Maria. They are much appreciated. I’m glad you have a supportive family to be there for you as you fight your OCD.

  9. Jik says:


    janet u said “I’m glad you have a supportive family to be there for you as you fight your OCD.” we never talk about it my father/ mother coz they are not aware what im going through ,before way back yrs ago i had worries of always blaming myself actualy til now involving and blaming myself for everything that happens such a torture. When i tell my family about it all of us are clueless whats happening to me why i blame myself always.til i grow mature and learn to surf the net also learn to endure the pain but at some point breaks down and cry to my boyfriend if i cant take it anymore.And til my brother shares also same experience with me but he said he had multiple types of ocd but me im certain its responsibility oc. I still go on w/ my life working to earn for a living being productive and having self worth also helping my love ones w/ financial needs… Even though we dont talk that much about this i know in my heart mama and papa will accept and love me and my bro unconditionally if they could just understand it fully i just dont want to give them worries and heartache for their daughters and sons condition. my brother, me and my boyfriend can handle this coz we share and talk about it sometimes . sorry for the long reply just got a little excited with the persons i know will understand. ur son Dan is very lucky to have you as his mother and im so lucky as well to meet you janet. P.S just call me jik…………. maria is too formal

    • ocdtalk says:

      Hi Jik, I guess I misunderstood, so thank you for clarifying.You sound like you do have a good support system in your brother and boyfriend, so that’s great! Thanks for the kind words.

  10. Jik says:

    by the way janet i took ocd test online and its itchy in my head/brain while trying to take the test he he he result even though they say do not rely on it its 24 and my bro its 33….

  11. The Hook says:

    Every parent should read this.
    A bold statement, I know, but one I stand behind.

  12. So here is another powerful post written by you, Janet, that nails my exact experience. I grew up on a small family farm with farm parents and as such they already have felt guilty for not always being able to provide those things for their kids that most others give to their kids (the luxeries, vacations, nintendos, Nike shoes etc.) especially when I was growing up in the late 80/early 90s. They did everything they could to work their butts off and keep the farm going and tried to be there for us and have us at the dinner table and go to church and along comes OCD from me, their oldest son, in his late teens/early 20s and just blows the whole thing up for them and for me. My dad took a while to get over the shock of his “little wrestler” not taking over the farm (but we all knew that LOOONG before I developed OCD). He still couldn’t morph me into his farmer son even after falling on my own butt and ending up back at home after my crash and burn in college and afterward. But that’s not the real issue, the real issue is that I always did grow up the black sheep of the family and being born such that I do not even fit the mold of a small-town, rural farm kid from the boonies and then to top it off, here my own life dreams has no appreciation for carrying on the work of the family, then to top it off with a cherry how do you tell your parents that you have had obsessive fears about removing their existence form the face of the earth and how do you tell your loved ones and your extended family that the environment you grew up in, they were raised in, and your parents and grandparents were born into is the very environment that does not lead to your own mental and
    emotional success.

  13. Hortencia Mota says:

    Hello Scott, I know I am little late to this blog but I just came across it. I am 36 years old and mother of two wonderful daughters. The oldest, who is 10 now was diagnosed with OCD around Oct. of last year. She loves sports and plays softball. Playing ball keeps her energized and focused on what she wants and not what OCD wants. Then in March of this year (two days before your post) she was struck by a car after a softball game and broke her right humerus. She was just starting to stand out as a pitcher too. Her season ended right then and there. She was out of softball until recently when she started practicing again (getting ready for this fall). My youngest daughter (8 yrs old) doesn’t show signs of OCD (I hope it stays that way) but she is in need of more atention from me since I’ve been so distracted with my oldest daughter’s challenges. I am trying to educate myself more about how I can help her and still not neglect my youngest daughter. There are good days, there are bad days and there are worst days. I have to remind myself that it’s a long process and it’s impossible to learn how to deal with the fears in a blink on an eye. I know I have a lot to learn and I am not always right. We are learning as we go trying to make the best of everyday. I think I have an idea of what you mean when you say you’ve always been the black sheep of the family. Even though I try to educate close family members about OCD I still feel they judge my daughter and I on our behaviours. They judge her by thinking she wants to be disrespectful and rude. More than once I’ve heard that she is “always” the one to blame for sibling fights, etc. I am constantly being judged or corrected (without asking for it) on how I am raising her. People say they understand and I should still do things differently. Do they really know? Are they in my shoes 24 hours a day? I want to believe that no one knows her better than us (Dad, Sister and I) and with that we know she needs our support and help. She is not the black sheep and neither are you. You have challenges to face, that’s it. As I try to tell her all the time: let’s take it one day at a time, one decision at a time so we chose right. I love her so much and it hurts when I realize I don’t have a magic wand that will erase her worries (in her OCD moments she worries obsesively about anything and everything).
    “Stay strong. It’s not impossible. We just need to work a little harder than some to get where we want to go.”
    I am very happy to hear succesfull stories like yours about children and adults with OCD. They give me hope to know she can and will have a happy life ahead. Her present dream is to play Softball in College [and wishes they bring it back to the Olympics soon = ) ]. I am totally OK with that. = )
    Thanks for listening.

    • Hi Hortencia, Thanks for sharing. You sound like a great mom and I wish your family all the best as your daughter continues to fight her OCD. I hope you have the support of a therapist who specializes in treating OCD, because getting the right help (ERP Therapy) is invaluable.

      • Hortencia Mota says:

        Hi Janet, thank you for your kind words. I don’t think I am close to great but I am trying my best right now. It’s so easy to feel defeated sometimes but I have to pull myself up again. Yes, we do have the support of a professional and praticing ERP.
        Looking forward to better days!

      • Oh, believe me, I understand how you can feel so defeated at times. But there really is so much hope for your daughter……better days ARE ahead!

  14. DTem says:

    There is a new Facebook parents group for ” parents of adult children with ocd” . Could you please let your readers know it is a good place for support for the parents and to help them encourage each other along this journey. Thank you

  15. So many people don’t really understand the “unreasonable” difficulties imposed by an OCD brain. Despite a great deal of “book-learning,” even a supposed EFD professional such as I certainly did not understand it very well until I observed it “up close and personal” in a friend & colleague with comorbid ADD/OCD.

    This is a WONDERFUL post, Janet – and I believe that, with a few tweaks, it applies equally well to any disorder that parents (and other loved ones) don’t understand. It also shifts the dynamic of power in a healthy fashion – from “family-problem” to family educator – whether it actually results in true understanding or not.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

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