Parenting any child is a full-time job.  But parenting a child with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be particularly challenging.  Unfortunately, research is now confirming what any clinician specializing in the treatment of OCD already knows – that parents often inadvertently contribute to their child’s OCD.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times (June 17, 2009) reported on a new research study that focused on the way parents respond to their child’s OCD.  The research, conducted at the University of Florida, found that parents who attempt to alleviate the anxiety experienced by their children with OCD often end up making things worse.

How you ask?  Well, the problem is that well-meaning parents naturally want to reduce the distress their children feel.  This is a healthy and loving impulse.  Unfortunately, when a child (or anyone) with OCD feels high anxiety related to an obsessive thought, alleviating that anxiety teaches the child that the anxiety is unbearable, and that the best way to respond to it is to take active steps to remove it.

While it might sound counter-intuitive, the opposite is actually true – the best way to respond to an OCD obsession is to allow that thought to exist, to experience the distress it brings on, and, most importantly, to not do any compulsions or avoidant behaviors in an effort to reduce the distress.  And when parents do the compulsions or avoidant behaviors for the child, they essentially are doing the child’s OCD for them.  And in so doing, repeatedly reinforcing the child’s belief that their obsession is realistic, that the subsequent fear is unbearable, and that doing compulsions and avoidant behaviors is the best way to respond.

So what should parents do instead?  The best overall strategy is to be a loving, supportive, nurturing, non-critical parent, but without trying to alleviate anxiety related to obsessions.  The most important lesson your child has to learn about their OCD is that they are capable of handling the thoughts and feelings that are so distressing to them without doing compulsions or avoidant behaviors.  While this will be difficult, in the long-term, it is a lesson that will serve them for a lifetime.

•Tom Corboy, MFT, is the director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles, a private, outpatient clinic specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related conditions.  In addition to individual therapy, the center offers six weekly therapy groups, as well as online therapy, telephone therapy, and intensive outpatient treatment.  To contact the OCD Center of Los Angeles, click here.