This post originally appeared November 2011:
When my daughter was two or three years old, she had a bedtime ritual where she lined up ten of her dolls and stuffed animals on the floor. They had to be in the right order, at the right angle, touching or not touching each other in a specific way. If these “friends” were not arranged just so, she would get upset, and then have to adjust each and every one of them until she got it just right. Then she could go to sleep.
She does not have OCD.
Rituals are a normal part of childhood, and they play an important role in children’s overall development. Rituals create order for children as they grow and try to make sense of the world around them. For example, a bath, story time, and cuddles every night before bed give children structure and a sense of security. They feel safe; they know what to expect. Everything is as it should be.
Wow. Rituals never sounded so good. So how could something so wonderful cause so much distress?
Typically, children without obsessive-compulsive disorder will be soothed and comforted by their rituals, whereas a child with OCD will experience only a fleeting calm. Anxiety and distress will always return, and the child will feel compelled to complete the ritual again. As I discussed in this previous post on rituals, this feeling of “incompleteness” is a telltale sign of OCD.
Another thing to watch for if you think your child might have OCD is the amount of time he or she spends ritualizing, and how much it interferes with his or her life. Typically, spending an hour or more a day completing rituals should raise some red flags.
Diagnosing OCD in young children is not always easy, as there are many ways the disorder can manifest itself. And OCD is tricky. Just when I was really starting to worry about my daughter, she began to care less and less about the arrangement of her “friends.” On the other hand, my son, who has never lined up anything in his life, developed OCD.
It is known that OCD often begins in childhood. I know this is no surprise to a lot of people, as I’ve often been told, “I’ve had symptoms of OCD for as long as I can remember.” I’d love to hear from those with OCD. When did you first realize you had the disorder, or that something was wrong? What were your early symptoms? How did your families react? Chances are the more we share, the more people might see themselves or their children, and seek appropriate help.