4 Ways To Help Your Child Cope With OCD During a Pandemic

Father helping son put on face mask.

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Key Takeaways

  • According to a recent study, many children and young people with OCD are experiencing worsening OCD, anxiety, and depressive symptoms during the pandemic.
  • Children with a longstanding diagnosis of OCD appear to be more at risk.
  • Caregivers should be aware of the risk, take actions to help, and talk to a healthcare professional if symptoms worsen.

A recent study shows the pandemic can worsen obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) episodes in children and young people.

The October study, published in BMC Psychiatry, relied on self-reported symptoms and behaviors from two different samples of young people. The 102 total participants ranged in age from 7 to 21.

Researchers found that almost half of the participants who were newly-diagnosed with OCD reported that their symptoms became worse during COVID-19. That figure was even higher among participants who'd been diagnosed with OCD years earlier; 73% of them reported their condition worsened during the pandemic.

“[I’m] not surprised by the findings that children with OCD worsen during the COVID-19 crisis and the following lock-down, as this was not unexpected," Per Hove Thomsen, MD, one of the study authors and clinical professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, tells Verywell. "The most interesting finding is that the associated symptoms of anxiety and depression seem to increase significantly.”

Thomsen stresses the importance of monitoring your child's OCD symptoms and helping them manage any related behaviors amidst the pandemic.

“Parents and caregivers must pay specific attention to worsening of OCD symptoms in their children and adolescents diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Thomsen says. “It is of utmost importance that parents offer the possibility for children to talk about their increased anxiety and worsening OCD symptoms, and convince them that although COVID-19 is a real threat and a very dangerous situation, we will win this battle together."

What This Means For You

It’s normal to be concerned about how your child is coping during the pandemic. Talk to your child about what we can and can’t control. See your healthcare provider if symptoms of OCD, anxiety, or depression worsen significantly.

How to Help Your Child

OCD is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts and/or behaviors that they feel the urge to repeat over and over, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In the U.S., about one in 100 children have OCD.  

It’s normal for parents and caregivers to be concerned if they notice their children's OCD behaviors worsening due to COVID-19. Thankfully, there are certain steps you can take to help your loved one during this time.

Calm Yourself First

In order to manage your child's anxieties about the pandemic, it’s important to calm yourself first. When you are calm, you’re more likely to help your loved one. Janice Presser, PhD, a relationship consultant and author, tells Verywell the extra stressors of COVID-19 that most people are experiencing can make it challenging to balance your child's OCD behaviors as well.

"Make sure you have some healthy way to take care of yourself and, above all, be open about your own frustrations with the COVID-19 situation and how much harder it is to control your own behaviors,” she says.

Assure Their Safety

“Assure the child that they are safe in their own home and that you are following all of the advice from the scientists and health experts," Lynne Erb, PhD, who specializes in learning disabilities and offers ADHD testing in Delaware and Pennsylvania, tells Verywell. "Children also need to know that experts say that they are safe at school as long as they wear a mask and wash their hands before lunch and after playing outside. The children need to focus on fun things they can do now instead of thinking about a future trip in the far distance.”

Jordan Elizabeth Cattie, PhD, a psychologist based in Atlanta, Georgia, says it's important to communicate that while we can't control our thoughts and feelings, we can control our behaviors.

"Explain in language they can understand what actions are helpful and why (for example, wearing masks in public, washing hands)," she tells Verywell. "Throughout the day, narrate which actions you are doing and want to encourage them to do; this becomes their 'job'. This way, they don't have to guess how to keep themselves and others safe."

Once those healthy behaviors are established, you can help kids turn their attention toward other areas, like enjoying an activity together, according to Cattie.

"Parents can model for kids that having a worried thought doesn't mean it needs our attention or actions," she says. "Model noticing thoughts and then noticing whether there are any helpful actions needed at that moment. This helps to show kids that we have thoughts all the time but are still able to make choices about our actions."

Normalize Their Feelings

Cattie also suggests normalizing and validating the emotions that your child is experiencing. It's important to be curious about the emotions they're experiencing, offering positive reinforcement when they openly share their difficult emotions with you.

"We can't control or prevent difficult emotions or scary thoughts, and normal healthy brains will experience the full range of emotions," Cattie says. "Noticing them (not pushing them away or trying to 'get rid of' them) is the first step to any effective coping skills or strategies. Kids feel less afraid when they understand that they are not alone with their fears or worries and that having these fears and worries makes sense in this context."

Redirect Behavior

Talking to young people about the future can be helpful. “Try a little future-casting," Presser says. "For your younger child, it might be engaging them in a plan to do something they love that’s impossible now due to COVID-19. For the young adult, get them to talk about the brighter times ahead as they move into their next stage of life."

Redirecting a child's behaviors can also be helpful. “They need distractions now, such as thinking of ways to help others," Erb says. 

Erb offers the following activities as suggestions:

  • Writing notes to seniors in nursing homes
  • Playing board games as a family
  • Interviewing relatives about their interests and lives

Erb also suggests that young people practice gratitude.

"Before bed, they should name three things they are grateful for so they go to bed with a positive feeling," she says.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nissen JB, Højgaard DRMA, Thomsen PH. The immediate effect of COVID-19 pandemic on children and adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder. BMC Psychiatry. 20(1):511.

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

  3. BeyondOCD. Facts about obsessive-compulsive disorder.

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.