Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) | Diagnosis & Treatment

How is OCD diagnosed?

If you are concerned that your child may have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you should have him or her evaluated by a qualified mental health professional, which may include a psychiatrist, psychologist, nurse practitioner, or licensed clinical social worker. The diagnosis is made through a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. Parents who note signs of severe anxiety or obsessive or compulsive behaviors in their child or teen should seek an evaluation right away, as early treatment can often prevent future problems.

In order for a diagnosis of OCD to be made, the obsessions and compulsions must be pervasive, severe, and disruptive enough that the child or adolescent's activities of daily living and function are adversely affected. In most cases, the activities involved with the disorder (i.e., hand-washing, checking the locks on the doors) consume more than one hour each day and cause psychological distress and impaired mental functioning. In most cases, adults realize that their behaviors are unusual to some degree. However, children and adolescents often do not have this critical ability to judge this type of behavior as irrational and abnormal.

How is OCD treated?

Research shows that OCD can be most effectively treated with a combination of individual therapy and medications. Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the child and family.

Individual therapy usually includes both cognitive and behavioral techniques. Cognitive therapy focuses on helping the child or adolescent identify and understand their fears and learn new ways to resolve or reduce their fears more effectively. Behavior techniques help the child or adolescent and their families establish contracts or guidelines to limit or change behaviors (such as establishing a maximum number of times a compulsive hand-washer may wash his/her hands.)

Medications used most often to treat OCD are classified as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), medications that selectively affect neurotransmitters mechanisms in the central nervous system. If OCD is found to be linked to a streptococcal infection, then a series of antibiotic medications may be prescribed by your child's physician. Treatment recommendations may include family therapy and consultation with the child's school. Parents play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

Specific treatment for OCD will be determined by your child's clinician based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of your child's symptoms
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference