Lunch with Faith: discussing OCD with children

I had the privilege of visiting with Faith over lunch last week.  Faith is a nine-year-old third-grader, and she is the cutest nine-year-old in the world, all eyes and sweet, sweet smile.  Not kidding, you look at this little girl and think, Oh my gosh, a hug from this child could change the world.

Faith is the strongest, bravest nine-year-old I know.  She has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she is dealing AT NINE with obsessions that buckled me in my 20s.  My heart just breaks when I think about the daily battles she fights, and it makes me hate OCD even more than I already do (with the passion of a thousand and one suns) for the way it could dare to target such innocence and loveliness.

How do you talk about OCD with a third-grader?

That was the question that I grappled with in the week leading up to this lunch.  My OCD first appeared when I was seven, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to really discuss it until after my diagnosis, which didn’t come until after college.  I am such a huge advocate for cognitive-behavioral therapy, but I’m so ignorant as to whether this is even possible or appropriate for a child to tackle.  When it nearly snapped me in half at age 26, is it even reasonable to expect someone one-third of that age to try something like it?

What we ended up talking about was the narrative therapy that I practiced on myself and my OCD.  Narrative therapy reminds us that the person is not the problem; the problem is the problem.  I chose to separate myself from my OCD by imagining it as a black dot that followed me around … and I got the upper-hand by belittling it.  Most often, I would “dress” it in a pink tutu and make it twirl around.  My OCD hated this.

Perhaps this sounds crazy to you, but it was a good strategy for me … and hopefully for children too.  Faith was intrigued by the idea of the black dot, and I told her, “It’s okay to bully the black dot because it’s so mean and it’s a liar.  So you get to bully it back.”  (Please, Jesus, don’t let me be teaching her bad life lessons … can’t you just picture her telling a teacher, “I bullied the kindergartener because he was mean to me first, and this girl I met told me that was okay!”  Oh gosh.  Ha!)  But I think she understood that we were talking specifically about the disorder, the black dot.

And we sort of talked about CBT elements too.  I told her, “When the black dot tells you that you have to have your locker clean before you go to your next class, you can ignore it because it’s a liar.  And when you feel like you need to wash your hands again, just to be safe, you can ignore the black dot because it’s a liar and a bully.  Instead …”

“… I tell it to put on its tutu!” she said, giggling.


So … there is the element of response prevention.  Hopefully introduced in a way she can understand.

I hope it helps her.  I know it helped me, but I was also going through intense CBT at the time.  What I do know is that I hate OCD, which could dare to steal joy from this sweetest little girl, who should be enjoying third grade, best friends, recess, pencil collections (or was that just me in third grade? ha!), and Jesus, her Savior, whom she loves, and about whom her OCD whispers lies to her.

I remember being that young, remembering overthinking every thing, remember the obsessions and the intrusive thoughts and wondering why no one else my age thought about these same kinds of things.  I am so glad that Faith has a name for OCD at such a young age, but I am deeply saddened that she has to struggle.  My heart hurts for all obsessive-compulsives but today especially for the young ones, who are so confused, who feel so guilty, who are so scared.

I wish I could tear through the lies and fear for them, show them truth.  I am trying.

Does anyone know of tools for obsessive-compulsive children?  Is CBT an option?

sad girl3

15 thoughts on “Lunch with Faith: discussing OCD with children

  1. She sounds so precious! I love that you got to meet with her! I don’t know about OCD in kids so much (or about using exposure therapy with them), but CBT in general is used for kids frequently.

  2. You did such a wonderful thing, talking with Faith about OCD and giving her ideas for ways to cope.
    I don’t know a lot about OCD in children. I started with my symptoms as a child (some symptoms by age 6 or 7) but I wasn’t “officially” diagnosed until I was in my 20s. It was never discussed when I was a child.
    I hate to think of anyone suffering from OCD, especially children, who don’t yet have the tools that adults have to deal with such adversity. But I’m glad there’s more help now for children than was available for me.

    • Tina, my story is similar to yours … I had OCD as a child, but I didn’t know how to talk about it until I was in my 20s. So, while I can understand/empathize with a young sufferer, it’s like I need to develop the right language around it!

  3. This post really hit me Jac….( I had to get up at Caribou and grab a tissue) You are such a lovely person with such a heart for sharing this horrible disorder….even with the little ones. Faith is a lucky girl to have you in her life, someone who’s actually LIVED it. I only wish you would have had someone to do the same for you when you were a little girl, but I thank God for your success at overcoming, and now your openness and willingness to share and educate.

    • Thanks Jackie! You’re so sweet. I think God has really blessed me by making me bold and unashamed about my OCD and in that way, I am able to reach out to others. It’s a heartbreaking disorder, and it hits so close to home to have such a little girl struggling with the same things I struggled with (some at age 7, but some later on in my early 20s). It’s just so overwhelming, and children just DON’T KNOW what in the world is going on with them. You feel like you’re this anomaly and wonder why no one else is thinking and worrying about the same things as you are.

      I wish I could do more to stamp out this horrible disorder, but the best I can do is listen, relate, and then point people in the direction of appropriate exposure therapy!

  4. A beautiful post, Jackie, and Faith is lucky to have you in her corner. I have certainly heard of ERP Therapy used with children so I hope Faith’s family can find a therapist who specializes in treating OCD in young children. Also, there are some very good children’s books (just search Amazon) she might find helpful.

  5. I am so happy that you got the chance to talk with her about OCD. I remember as a child not knowing why I would think such things or why others weren’t thinking these things. It will be such a blessing for her to know from such an early age what she is dealing with.

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