A father comforts his son at the table

A guide for parents and carers Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterised by anxiety-provoking thoughts (‘obsessions’), and repetitive or ritual behaviours (‘compulsions’). Find out more about this condition, what help is available and how you can support your child.

A mother comforting her sad daughter

Living with OCD can be exhausting for a child or young person, and for you as their parent or carer. It’s so upsetting to see your child distressed, and it might feel at times like you don’t know how to help them.

But getting a diagnosis and having treatment that’s been shown to work can make things so much better. Over time, it is possible for your child to come out the other side and feel okay again.

Here we outline how you can find and access the right help, and how you can make your child feel supported at home.

What is OCD?

OCD is an anxiety-related mental health condition.

Young people with OCD experience anxiety-provoking thoughts, called ‘obsessions’. They also carry out certain behaviours, called ‘compulsions’, to try to cope with these thoughts.

While we all have negative or unwanted thoughts sometimes, a young person with OCD often feels unable to put their thoughts down or move on from them.

Obsessions are unwelcome or intrusive thoughts, worries, feelings, images, urges or doubts. Everyone’s obsessions are different, but they can include:

  • worrying about something bad happening, like their home burning down or someone they love dying
  • worrying that they are going to harm someone else, or have already harmed someone else
  • worrying about becoming contaminated – for example with germs, viruses, infections, dirt or dangerous chemicals
  • intrusive sexual thoughts or images
  • intrusive violent thoughts or images
  • having a general feeling or sense that something is wrong, or that something bad is going to happen

Compulsions are behaviours or actions that someone with OCD feels they have to do when an obsession starts. They may do compulsions to try to:

  • reduce their anxiety
  • ‘get rid’ of distressing thoughts
  • ‘stop’ something bad from happening
  • become certain about something they are doubting

Compulsions are different for everyone, but they can include:

  • checking things – for example that they have locked windows and doors, or turned switches off
  • checking memories – for example to check that they didn’t harm someone in the past
  • asking other people for reassurance – for example asking people to tell them that something bad hasn’t happened
  • repetitively cleaning or washing – this may be their own body or objects
  • having endless internal arguments about whether they have done something bad
  • counting or repeating phrases
  • arranging objects in specific patterns
  • avoiding situations, people, places or activities that trigger upsetting thoughts
OCD rituals can be very hard to deal with on a practical level as well as an emotional one. My son spent so long showering that he was late for school every single morning. Whenever we tried to hurry or interrupt him we just made things worse as he became more anxious and had to start the rituals again. However frustrating your child’s compulsions might be, try to remember they are born out of anxiety and distress, not choice.
A parent

Carrying out compulsions can bring short-term relief, and it might feel in the moment like they are helping. But any relief is always short lived. Then the anxiety comes back and the person feels like they have to do the compulsions again.

This can create a cycle of obsessions and compulsions that can really affect day-to-day life. Obsessions and compulsions can take up lots of time and cause lots of anxiety or distress. They can make it hard to do important things, like sleeping, studying and socialising with friends and family. They might make a young person feel scared, disgusted or ashamed about their thoughts and behaviour. Or like their mind is full of horrible things they cannot control.

A parent's experience

My daughter’s OCD was really hard to understand. It started with getting ready. She would repeat the same things (putting on make-up, brushing her hair) again and again until she thought they were perfect. Generally they weren’t perfect and she would have to start again, becoming more and more distressed each time. Nothing we said made any difference. People told me it was a teenage thing and she would grow out of it, but the rituals became longer and more involved, and she started getting up at 5am to fit it all in before leaving for school. One day she was having a health check and the doctor asked about her morning routine. He immediately recognised OCD and referred her for support.

OCD is not just about cleaning or hand-washing (although for some people it is). It can affect eating, getting dressed, or leaving the house. It’s different from the routines that other people have because with OCD, if the person can’t perform the routine it causes them intense anxiety. My daughter told me that when she can’t fulfil her OCD routines it makes her feel like she’s going to die.

Myths you might hear about OCD

There are still lots of myths about OCD, and saying someone is ‘being OCD’ is still a common joke about being neat or tidy. Some myths you might hear include:

  • ‘everyone’s a little bit OCD’
  • it’s just about wanting to be organised
  • it’s just about wanting to be clean, or always washing your hands
  • it’s because you’re fussy
  • you can just 'snap out of it’
  • it’s a personality trait that ‘neat’ people have

It’s important to understand that these things are not true. OCD is a mental health condition, and it causes intense anxiety and distress. These myths can create misunderstanding and stigma, making it harder for people to be open and get help.

How is OCD treated?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides guidelines for NHS treatments. They recommend that people experiencing OCD symptoms should have:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • medication in some circumstances, and more commonly if they are 18 or older

CBT is a specific type of therapy, and it is different to more general forms of counselling or talking therapy. CBT is recommended because OCD is a specific condition that usually needs specialist treatment to get better.

CBT is a type of talking therapy that focuses on changing the way we think and behave. Over time, a CBT therapist can help your child to develop a different relationship with their thoughts and how they feel about them. They can also support them to try out new ways of responding or behaving when they’re experiencing obsessions.

NICE recommends that CBT therapy for OCD should include Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) techniques. ERP involves purposefully letting obsessive thoughts come up without using compulsions to deal with them. This can help your child to realise that they can manage the anxiety without compulsions.

If your child is under 18, NICE recommends that you, or their other parent or carer, should be involved in the CBT so that you can support them with the techniques at home.

Your child may have online, in-person, group or individual CBT. NICE guidelines state that they should have a choice about which they would feel most comfortable with.

If your child is 18 or older, they may be offered medication alongside CBT. This will depend on the severity of the symptoms they are experiencing.

If your child is under 18, they will usually only be offered medication if they feel unable to do CBT. Medication should only be offered if there are arrangements for a doctor to check its effects.

Guide to medication
If your child is developing routines and rituals and you suspect it may be OCD, get a diagnosis as early as possible and ask for a referral to specialist OCD support. Routines can become entrenched very quickly. However, there is treatment and support which can really help.
A parent

Accessing treatment for OCD

1. Making an appointment with a GP

The first place to start is to make an appointment with a GP.

This might feel like a difficult step for your child if they’re feeling ashamed about their thoughts and behaviour. Reassure them that things can get better if they take this step.

If you’re going to the GP appointment, make a list of the things you want to tell the doctor. Try to include examples of the thoughts or behaviours you have noticed. The more honest and specific you and your child can be, the easier it will be to get the right help.

OCD-UK has a helpful form that your child can use during the appointment. This covers what they’re experiencing, the impact it’s having on them and the support they’d like to receive.

Find out more about getting support from the GP in our guide, including tips for if your child doesn’t want to see a GP.

Getting support from the GP
A mother and daughter having a serious discussion at home in front of a radiator

2. Getting specialist treatment through the NHS

At first, the GP will usually refer your child or young person to their local NHS mental health service for treatment. You can ask this service to provide a professional who has experience treating OCD. This might not be possible in all areas, but it’s still worth asking. If the service does not offer the recommended treatment, it’s also okay to ask for the treatment outlined in the NICE guidelines.

If things do not get better after this, NICE states that people should then be offered treatment at a specialist NHS clinic. You can ask for a referral to one of these.

  • The GP will refer your child to your local NHS mental health service for children and young people, called CAMHS or CYPMHS.
  • CAMHS will do an assessment and provide treatment.
  • Each CAMHS is a local service run by a local team in your area. This means that waiting times vary around the country.
  • Some CAMHS do not need a GP referral. They may accept a referral from your child, from you, or from another professional such as a teacher, youth worker or social worker. Go to your local CAMHS website or call them to find out how referrals work where you live. If you can’t find their contact details, get them from your GP surgery.

  • The GP will refer your young person to your local NHS adult mental health service.
  • This service will do an assessment and provide treatment.
  • Depending on the severity of what your child is experiencing, the GP may also discuss medication options. Medication should usually be offered alongside CBT rather than by itself.
  • Adults in many areas of England can also refer themselves directly to a local NHS service for CBT. Find your local NHS Talking Therapies service.
  • If your child lives in another part of the UK, they may still be able to self-refer to their local service. Ask your GP or another professional if this is possible in your area.

3. Accessing private support

If it’s an affordable option, you might be thinking of accessing private support. This might be so that your child doesn’t have to wait for NHS treatment, or so they can get some help while they’re on the waiting list for NHS treatment.

If your child would like to try CBT privately, you can find accredited CBT therapists through BABCP (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies). It’s important to make sure they find a therapist who has experience supporting people with OCD.

A parent's experience

A qualified therapist thought they could treat it with just talking therapy. I noticed this made my daughter much more distressed and overwhelmed. So I had to keep looking for someone who was qualified to assess it fully – an adolescent psychiatrist. They diagnosed it as severe at the highest level, and recommended a treatment plan with a qualified CBT person and medication. They also recommended understanding and psychoeducation for the carers and parents to reduce anxiety in the home environment. The OCD improved and went.

Get support from OCD-UK

  • OCD-UK provides information, advice and support for people with OCD.

    You can access this support by visiting their website or by emailing parents@ocduk.org.

    You can also join a regular support group for family and carers.

    Your child can join a regular support group if they are aged 18 or over. OCD-UK sometimes run groups for under 18s too – check their website for details.

Get support from OCD-Action

  • OCD Action offers services and support for people with OCD, their families, carers and friends.

    You or your child can get information and support by visiting their website, by calling their helpline on 0300 636 5478 or by emailing support@ocdaction.org.uk.

    You or your child can join regular support groups. These include a group for parents and carers to share experiences, and a regular group for young people aged 16-20.

Sean Fletcher smiling and sitting on a rock by the coast
If I was to look back and give myself one piece of advice when Reuben became ill, I’d tell myself everything’s going to be ok. It would prove to be true, but for years it didn’t feel like that. Try to keep a positive frame of mind, and look to a brighter future with your child. Believe me, it’s possible.
Sean Fletcher

How can I help my child with OCD at home?

It’s important to remember that you cannot expect yourself to treat your child or young person’s OCD by yourself at home. OCD is a complex condition, and treating it is the job of a professional.

If you’re concerned, it’s important to make an appointment with the GP. But alongside this, there are things you can do to support your child, and to feel more informed and confident yourself.

A mother and daughter cuddling

OCD can feel overwhelming to be around at times. Understanding how the condition works and how it can get better can help you to feel more confident about managing things. Here are some places to start:

  • OCD-UK and OCD-Action have lots of useful information and advice on their website.
  • It might help to have a look for books and articles written by other parents. For example, in Parenting OCD, Claire Sanders shares her story of supporting her son, and the tips she’s learned along the way.
Get support yourself as to how to cope with OCD so you understand and can support them in the best way.
A parent

Let your child know that you’re there for them, and try to focus on listening and understanding their experience. Try to remember as you go that they may feel ashamed about their thoughts. You could say, ‘I’ve noticed that things seem really difficult, can you tell me what it’s like for you at the moment?’. Empathise with how distressing it must be to have these thoughts and to feel so anxious. You can find more tips on listening to your child in our blog.

Blog: How to really listen to your child
Don’t ask them lots of questions in the moment or when they’re finding it hard to talk. Encourage an environment where they feel able to talk to you openly when they want to. Listen to anything they are saying. It provides information as to what they might be struggling with, so you can support them in areas they need help.
A parent

Find out from your child what support they'd like from you when they’re struggling. Sometimes this could be offering a distraction like going for a walk or doing something creative together. At other times, it might be listening and providing emotional support. Your child can use OCD-UK’s booklet to let you know what kind of help they’d like from you, and you can use their parent guide to support you to respond.

If your child finds it difficult to tell you when they’re struggling with thoughts, try and find other ways of communicating. Some young people say they find it easier to agree a code word with their parent or carer. They can then say or text this word to them when they’re struggling with their thoughts and compulsions. This means they don’t need to voice what’s going on aloud, but can still alert you to the fact that they need support. Your child can also use OCD-UK’s booklet, in which they can write down the thoughts they’re having and circle the types of support they’d like from you.

Regularly doing activities that help them feel relaxed and soothed can help. Find out what works for them. It could be things like:

  • colouring or drawing while listening to music or podcasts
  • mindfulness and breathing exercises or meditation
  • doing exercise like running, walking, playing sport or yoga
  • finding ways to wind down in the evening
  • doing activities that give them something to do with their hands, such as doodling, sewing, knitting or making something

You can also help your child to do the daily things that support your wellbeing. These include getting enough sleep, eating regular meals, doing some exercise and spending quality time with friends and family. They might sound simple, but they do have an effect on our mood.

When you’re stuck in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions, it can feel like there’s no way out. Let your child know that getting the right professional support can make a huge difference and that, with help, it won’t be like this forever.

Your child or young person’s thoughts might sometimes feel shocking to hear about. If your child is experiencing violent or sexual thoughts, or worrying about harming someone, remember that people with OCD are very unlikely to act on their thoughts. Some young people say their intrusive thoughts are the opposite of who they are. Worrying constantly about these things can show just how much they don’t want to cause harm to other people.

Some of your child’s thoughts and behaviours might be very challenging for you to deal with. It might feel like they’re negatively affecting your relationship with your child, or your wider family life and routines. Try to remember that this cycle is exhausting for your child too. They cannot choose to turn off their thoughts or stop doing the compulsions. Learning to manage OCD will be a gradual process and things won’t get fixed straightaway. But with the right support, it can get so much better.

Remain as calm as possible. Keep yourself regulated in the moment and also generally.
A parent
  • Acknowledging and understanding what they are going through in itself was a first big step in supporting them. This can be very powerful, and parents are not always aware of the power this alone can have – feeling that someone understands and is there supporting.
    A parent
  • Remember your child doesn’t want this, they are not choosing it. It is their reaction to a situation that makes them feel anxious, and the OCD behaviours help them to feel calmer. Sometimes as a parent, you can feel upset by the repeated routines and compulsions. If this is happening, then walk away and get some support for yourself.
    A parent

Useful helplines and websites

While we take care to ensure that the organisations we signpost to provide high quality information and advice, we cannot take responsibility for any specific pieces of advice they may offer. We encourage parents and carers to always explore the website of a linked service or organisation to understand who they are and what support they offer before engaging with them.

  • OCD-UK

    OCD-UK provides information, advice and support for people with OCD.

    You can access this support by visiting their website or by emailing parents@ocduk.org.

    You can also join a regular support group for family and carers.

    Your child can join a regular support group if they are aged 18 or over. OCD-UK sometimes run groups for under 18s too – check their website for details.

  • OCD Action

    Offers support and information to anybody affected by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

    Website provides information and advice to help you access treatment

    Opening times:
    9:30am - 8pm, Monday - Friday
  • YoungMinds Parents Helpline

    We support parents and carers who are concerned about their child or young person's mental health. Our Parents Helpline provides detailed advice and information, emotional support and signposting.

    You can speak to us over the phone or chat to us online.

    You can speak to us over webchat between 9.30am and 4pm from Monday-Friday. When we’re closed, you can still leave us a message in the chat. We’ll reply to you by email in 3-5 working days.

    Opening times:
    9.30am-4pm, Monday-Friday
  • No Panic

    Supports people struggling with panic attacks, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and other anxiety-related issues - and provides support and information for their carers.

    Call 01952 680835 for a recorded breathing exercise to help you through a panic attack (available 24/7).

    Read information about call costs.

    Opening times:
    10am - 10pm, 365 days a year
  • Childline

    If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.

    Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support service.

    Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.

    Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.

    Opening times:
    24/7
  • The Mix

    Free, short-term online counselling for young people aged 25 or under. Their website also provides lots of information and advice about mental health and wellbeing. 

    Email support is available via their online contact form.

    They have a free 1-2-1 webchat service available during opening hours.

    Opening times:
    4pm - 11pm, Monday - Friday
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This page was reviewed in May 2023.

It was created with parents and carers with lived experience of supporting their child or young person with OCD. 

We will next review the page in 2026.

YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.

Whether you love the page or think something is missing, we appreciate your feedback. It all helps us to support more young people with their mental health.

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