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.

Exactly!

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

obsessive-compulsive since age seven

My OCD struck at age seven.  Strep-throat-gone-to-hell and all of the sudden curse words were running through my head as if I were some foul-mouthed sailor, when the truth of the matter was that I was a shy (Yes, really!  Hard to believe now!) girl from a conservative home, who would have never DARED to utter those phrases outloud.

I began to worry that I would lie if I gave my opinion, so for a while, my answer to everything was “I don’t know.”  Favorite color?

I don’t know.

Did I like my teacher?

I don’t know.

Should we do this or that?

I don’t know.

Ridiculous.

I have this image in my head of running to find my mom under the clothesline, smacking my fist against my forehead, and confessing.  My poor mom.

I wish we’d known then.  It would be another fifteen years before my OCD would even be named, but I’ve wondered what life would have been like had we caught it back in the summer of 1989.  Drat you, internet, for coming along too late!

Every once in a while I google things like “my daughter is attacked by bad thoughts” or “my daughter has bad thoughts” or “my daughter keeps confessing” to see how quickly the trail leads to OCD.

My heart breaks for the obsessive-compulsive children out there, wild minds racing, hearts terrified, robbed of childhood.

Parents can look for the following possible signs of OCD:

  • repetitive confession
  • constantly seeking reassurance
  • raw, chapped hands from constant washing
  • unusually high rate of soap or paper towel usage
  • high, unexplained utility bills
  • a sudden drop in test grades
  • unproductive hours spent doing homework
  • holes erased through test papers and homework
  • requests for family members to repeat strange phrases or keep answering the same question
  • a persistent fear of illness
  • a dramatic increase in laundry
  • an exceptionally long amount of time spent getting ready for bed
  • a continual fear that something terrible will happen to someone
  • constant checks of the health of family members
  • reluctance to leave the house at the same time as other family members

I waited fifteen years to be diagnosed.  Just take your kiddo to the psychiatrist.*

*I’m not mad at you, Momma. 🙂  How could we have known?  You’re my favorite.