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Supporting someone in your family with OCD

Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa
21 May 2020

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that consists of obsessions and compulsions. Someone with OCD may experience unwanted repetitive thoughts and the need to carry out certain activities to try and ease the distressing thoughts. These thoughts are not in your control and can cause high levels of anxiety. For some people, they may feel that they need to hide this from others.

Both children and adults can be affected by OCD and it may be particularly challenging at the moment because of coronavirus. Here we look at coping strategies for your child, for yourself or for a family member.

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Symptoms of OCD

Symptoms of OCD may include:

  • showering several times a day
  • not wanting to leave your house for daily exercise or go into the local community
  • withdrawing from others, even within your household
  • feelings of loneliness and isolation especially around adapting to the new way of life
  • concerns that other people aren’t following the government’s guidance in relation to the current pandemic
  • not wanting to go outside for fear of catching or passing on the virus
  • worries about shopping deliveries in relation to foods having been handled by others before entering your home

Supporting children with OCD

If your child has OCD, here are some coping strategies that may help make things a little more manageable for them.

Traffic light system

Have a ‘traffic light system’ in place. This includes your child using three pictures to share how they are feeling without necessarily having to speak. Each picture will represent an emotion which the child can either hand to you, point to, place on their bedroom door, or in some cases share with you via social media.

Worry jar

A worry jar enables your child to visually see that once the worry has been addressed, it doesn’t need to be a worry any longer. Write the worry down and then put it in the jar.

Brave jar

A brave jar allows your child to focus on a positive thing that they have achieved that day. Write down the achievement and pop it in the jar. This will help promote increased self-esteem and confidence.

Keeping a diary

Keeping a diary of what your child was doing when they started to feel anxious can help identify what triggers these feelings. This can also help your child learn how to manage these feelings and situations in the future.

Use ice

Give your child a couple of ice cubes (or plastic ice cubes) to hold in their hands. This can help them focus on the sensations of coldness, rather than any distressing thoughts or feelings.

Grounding techniques

Grounding techniques are coping strategies which help you feel reconnected with reality. The following can help young people feel back in control of their emotions.

  • Tell yourself you’re safe, and that these feelings will pass.
  • Acknowledge five things that you can see.
  • Acknowledge four things you can touch.
  • Acknowledge three things you can hear.
  • Acknowledge two things you can smell.

If you don’t have the right things around you to complete these steps, then ask questions such as: where in the world is cold?

Further support for adults and children

These are some additional strategies for helping you or a loved one manage.

Family meetings

Communication is key at this unusual and difficult time. You may find having regular ‘family meetings’ helpful. This will give you all time to discuss expectations, how you will support one another and what working together as a family unit will look like given the current situation.

Quiet time

Despite restrictions, people may need time to themselves. Try to create an area where family members can have quiet time. If space doesn’t allow, discuss how each person wants to be supported in having quiet time.

Individual support plan

Writing up an ‘individual support plan’ may help you and others around you understand how you would like to be supported during this time. Some questions to think about include:

  • How can I help myself when I’m feeling worried or distressed?
  • What positive distractions can help me at this time?
  • How can I let my family know that I’m struggling? What signs may I show?
  • How do I want to be supported? What things will I find helpful and what things will I not find helpful?

Communicating and sharing your thoughts with someone you trust will help. It may be that they have encountered a similar problem and can talk you through how they managed this.

It’s important that you continue any treatment and medication you’re on and to seek medical advice if you’re concerned for yourself or a loved one.

Harriet Finlayson and Danielle Panton
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa

    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. BMJ Best practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed April 2019
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. The MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision June 2018
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, last reviewed May 2019

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