Helping your child to cope with OCD during a pandemic

As the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise across Australia we can probably all relate to feeling a little anxious in the face of so much uncertainty. Whether you’ve been out buying extra toilet paper, staying 1.5m away from colleagues, or singing happy birthday (twice) as you wash your hands it’s fair to say that a lot of Australians have been feeling and doing things a bit differently lately.

However, for people living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) the news of a global pandemic may be particularly distressing. 

This article is to provide some support and tips for the parents of children with OCD whose distress and compulsions may have increased or intensified over recent weeks.

Talk to your child about COVID-19

It is a little bit ironic, but not talking about something can make children worry more. Think about times for yourself when you feel like people are hiding lots of things from you; it doesn’t feel very good. Of course, we are not oversharing or burdening our children, so start by asking your child what they already know or have heard about coronavirus.

Encourage them to ask you questions and do your best to answer their questions in an age appropriate and honest way. Normalise and validate any feelings or concerns they bring up.

Be mindful that OCD may be getting your child to ask for reassurance

While not all your child’s COVID-19-related questions will be OCD reassurance-seeking, it is important to be mindful of the signs. For example, if your child asks the same question over and over, asks in a pressured way or needs you to answer in ‘the right way’ then it is likely that OCD is making them seek this reassurance. If you suspect that this is happening for your child, remember that giving OCD what it wants will only make the anxiety worse in the long run.

We know it can be tough, but if you hold out for a while and then tell the OCD what it wants, the OCD learns that it needs to put that much pressure on again to get its answer – so basically the reassurance-seeking will escalate quicker in the future.

If a plan for responding to OCD reassurance-seeking has not yet been discussed with your clinician, then it may be good to check in about how to approach this as a team.

WHO are you listening to?

One thing that you should be aware of is what are the current WHO (World Health Organisation) recommended safety precautions. Being aware of what is following recommendations and what is OCD. For example, WHO recommends that you engage with washing your hands before/after you eat, after close physical contact with others who may be unwell, before, during, and after food preparation, and after you use the toilet (to name a few).

General guidelines suggest washing your hands for 20 seconds. So although we are increasing that frequency, and for some the time, we are not washing our hands for hours at a time – which is more likely to be the OCD talking.

Limit your child’s exposure to news and social media

It is important to monitor children’s exposure to news and social media updates about the COVID-19 outbreak. Too much exposure to updates can increase their level of anxiety.

Try to be with your child when they are watching, listening or reading the news so that you can discuss any questions or concerns. Encourage them (and yourself) to take a break from endless Coronavirus coverage and set a limit on time accessing social media and news.

Maintain or establish routine

Maintaining routines and structure is important for the mental health and wellbeing of children (and most adults).  If routines are disrupted by school closures or working from home arrangements, try to to develop other routines and predictability to help the whole family adjust to this new temporary normal (e.g. mealtimes, play time, family time and bedtime).

Setbacks and Relapse

If your child has been in therapy, it may appear that they are experiencing a setback or relapse.  Remind yourself that setbacks and relapses are normal and considering some of the changes they are experiencing, it is normal to experience ups and downs at the best of times. We sometimes like to remind ourselves that ‘bad days’ can feel a bit worse once you have experienced some ‘good’ days because of the contrast between the two states. Your child can get back on track by using their strategies with support from you and their health care professional.

Look after yourself too

Be mindful of your own anxiety. If you’re feeling anxious or upset it’s best to take some time out before talking to your child about COVID-19. Talk to a friend, walk the dog, or do a breathing relaxation exercise and come back to the conversation later. Not only will you be in a better frame of mind for the conversation but you will be modelling healthy coping strategies for your child.

Written by Ellen Maclaine, Clinical Psychologist and Dr Joel Howell, Clinical Psycyhologist

More information

If you would like to learn more about OCD or book an appointment with one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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