Supporting someone in your family with OCD

An image of Harriet and Danielle
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa
05 May 2023
Next review due May 2026

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can be very distressing. It can also interfere with a person’s day-to-day life. If you are living with someone with OCD, you may be wondering how to best support them. Here we explain what OCD is and how to help someone in your family with the condition.

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What is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder. People with OCD often have obsessions and compulsions. Both children and adults can be affected by OCD. For example, they may feel unwanted repetitive thoughts, and the need to carry out certain activities to try and ease the distressing thoughts. These thoughts are not in their control and can cause high levels of anxiety. For some people, they may feel that they need to hide this from others.

Symptoms of OCD

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms may include:

  • constantly checking things such as if you have your keys on you
  • being scared of contamination from dirt and germs
  • washing hands and 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
  • hoarding
  • asking people for reassurance that you’re okay
  • feeling that something bad may happen if you don’t carry out routines or rituals
  • distress when interrupted or unable to complete routines or rituals
  • being occupied or distracted by intrusive thoughts (which can be violent or sexual)

Living with someone with OCD

If you live with someone with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), you might find their behaviour frustrating. But remember that their fears are very real to them, even if they seem unrealistic or extreme. Here's a list of ways you can support a loved one with OCD.

  • Learn more about the condition. By understanding OCD better you can get an idea of what your loved one is going through.
  • Agree with them that you won’t go along with their compulsions. Say no to taking part in rituals or checking.
  • Encourage them to see a doctor or therapist if they are struggling, and ask if you can go with them.
  • Help find distractions for when urges become difficult, these can be put on a poster for children, or for adults distractions can be typed out on phone.

How to help a child with OCD

If your child has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), this can be hard for them. They may feel incredibly anxious and embarrassed. OCD can also interfere with their schoolwork. 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 having to speak. Each picture will represent an emotion. Your child can either hand this to you, point to it, place on their bedroom door, or in some cases share with you via social media.

Worry jar

A worry jar allows 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.

Keep 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?

Individual support plan

Writing up an ‘individual support plan’ may help you and your loved one to understand how they want to be supported. Below are some questions you could 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?

Communicate and share your thoughts with someone you trust, as this can help too. It may be that they have encountered a similar problem and can talk you through how they managed this.

When supporting someone who has OCD, remember to also look after yourself. Try not to take too much on. Share the responsibility of supporting your loved one with others if you can. By protecting your own mental health you’ll be in the best place to help someone else.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

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



Rasheda Begum, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Epidemiology. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed March 2023
    • Anxiety and stress-related disorders. Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry (4 ed online), Oxford Academic., published June 2019
    • What is OCD. Mind., published May 2019
    • Obsessive compulsive disorder. Mental Health Foundation., last updated February 2022
    • History and exam. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed March 2023
    • Symptoms of OCD. Mind., published May 2019
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Royal College of Psychiatrists., published October 2019
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Mind., published May 2019
    • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Related Disorders in Children and Adolescents. MSD Manuals., last reviewed April 2021

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