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Guiding Teens With OCD Self-Care

Written by: Dr. Tiffany Bell
Edited by: Melissa Carmona
Medically Reviewed by: Erika Krull, LMHP

mother and teen daughter having pleasant conversation on couch

Adults can easily miss the early signs of OCD in adolescence. But with self-care, treatment and social support, teens can learn to live with OCD symptoms.

The teen years are defined by turbulence and change. Adults can easily miss the early signs of mental health issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Between 2–3% of children and teens develop OCD. It typically starts in adolescence, but symptoms may become apparent in childhood.

When parents are frustrated by odd repetitive behaviors, family relationships often become strained. This problem can occur with teachers and other adult mentors. Unfortunately, it often takes years for a person with OCD to get the correct diagnosis. Understanding OCD symptoms can help you identify this condition before it becomes overwhelming and disruptive.

Untreated OCD can interfere with a teen’s success at school, work and social circles. There is currently no cure for OCD, but you can help your teen understand and cope with the symptoms. It begins by learning how anxiety drives thoughts and behaviors in a harmful and isolating cycle. When you know more about how OCD works, you can decide which treatments and self-care habits may help your teen the most.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Today’s culture has made OCD a popular term. People use OCD to describe a person’s intense interest in something or personal habits. For example, you may hear someone say that they’re “OCD” about organizing their jewelry. This misuse adds to the stigma surrounding mental health, making it more difficult for teens to speak up about real OCD symptoms.

Clinical OCD is defined by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors driven by underlying anxiety. Obsessions are unwanted, persistent and disruptive thoughts that pop into a person’s head without warning. The presence of these thoughts creates stress. To make the thoughts stop, the person does elaborate rituals of odd repetitive behaviors (compulsions). However, these compulsions only add more stress, creating a painful and destructive cycle.

Obsession and Compulsions

Obsessions and compulsions can look unique to each person, but both parts make up the same harmful cycle that makes OCD so challenging to live with.

Obsessive thoughts can include:

  • Worrisome intrusive thoughts about yourself or others (getting sick, being injured, etc.)
  • Hyper-awareness of various things in your environment, including:
    • Small body movements and sensations (breathing, skin on clothes)
    • Stimulation from light, sound and texture
    • Suspicious thoughts that have no basis (others think poorly of you or have harmful intentions)

Compulsive habits can include:

  • Going through an elaborate routine to check, clean or straighten things
  • Counting things or actions a certain way to feel “right” (breaths, steps, touches)
  • Excessive hand-washing or bathing

Types of OCD

OCD can be divided into four main symptom categories. A person with OCD does their compulsions to soothe anxiety. They believe that, to some degree, their behaviors prevent themselves or other people from getting hurt.

Checking With checking OCD, a person may spend hours of their day going through an elaborate checklist before leaving their home or starting a task. They may focus on physical objects like water faucets, door locks or house lights. They may check less tangible things, like checking emails, seeking constant reassurance or replaying memories.

Symmetry Anything that appears out of balance can trigger a person with symmetry OCD. A person will feel the urge to arrange things in their environment until they feel right. They may spend time adjusting pictures, lining up food labels in the pantry and making certain home items appear spotless. The consequences of being late, missing appointments and avoiding social contact can be significant.

Contamination A person focused on contamination performs cleaning rituals to cope with fears of dirtiness and germs. They will often avoid public restrooms, crowds or medical offices. They may also feel uncomfortable handling money, touching door handles or touching other people.

Ruminations and intrusive thoughts Obsessions are intrusive and upsetting thoughts that repeatedly occur in a person’s mind. Rumination is a compulsive mental behavior done to make obsessions stop. The constant mental activity around these thoughts can keep a person in emotional distress for long periods of time.

Causes of OCD

There is no known direct cause for OCD. Some experts believe there may be hereditary or biological factors at work. OCD can be more common among family members. You may be more at risk for OCD if you’ve experienced intense or prolonged stressful events or if you have other mental health disorders.


Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), relaxation exercises and medication are common forms of OCD treatment. Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) is an effective research-based therapy often used to treat OCD.

Specifically for Parents:  Before seeking specific treatment for OCD symptoms, be sure they’ve had a full evaluation by their primary doctor or a psychiatrist. You may work with more than one professional or facility to form your teen’s treatment plan. Put together, your teen’s treatment plan will help them learn to cope and live with everyday situations in light of their OCD symptoms.

OCD Through Their Lens

Many of the symptoms are similar for teens and adults with OCD. However, adolescence is a time of significant growth and adjustment. A teen’s experience with OCD can differ in many ways from an adult with the same diagnosis.

The Effects of School Environments

OCD can harm a teen’s success in school. OCD symptoms may be hard to detect in a school setting, showing up as tardiness, irritability or incomplete work. These could easily be mistaken for lack of motivation or low intelligence. Instead, they may be the result of compulsions that constantly interrupt the flow of their school day.

The Effects of Peers

Peers become a more prominent influence on teens as they develop and grow. Close relationships can provide many positive benefits. A teen with OCD symptoms may quickly find themselves left out of the loop. They may be ignored, bullied or shunned. Supportive friendships are critical during this period of their life. They become an emotional safety net to help teens with OCD cope with their condition.

How Self-Image Affects OCD

As their minds and bodies develop, teens can struggle to balance their self-image with outside opinions. Content from social media, TV and movies can further distort a teen’s self-image. When you add obsessive thoughts and time-consuming compulsions to this mix, a teen with OCD can experience stress from multiple angles.

Tips for Self-Care

  • Avoid caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant and can hike up anxiety levels. Teens often enjoy caffeinated drinks like coffee and soda, but reducing these will keep their anxiety levels in check.
  • Avoid alcohol and other drugs: Many teens experiment with drugs and alcohol. Some substances may appear to settle their anxiety for a while, but as a substance leaves a person’s body, anxiety increases again. In the end, substance use can make OCD symptoms worse and increase their risk for a co-occurring addiction.
  • Get more sleep: Getting more sleep can help your teen stay energized and calm throughout the day. More than anything, avoid sleep deprivation. This can heighten anxiety and stress, making OCD symptoms more uncomfortable or prominent.
  • Stay active: Multiple studies have shown how regular exercise can combat anxiety. Cortisol is a natural hormone released in your body during stressful moments. Exercise reduces cortisol levels and triggers the release of hormones that calm the mind and body.
  • Try something new: Habits and routines can make life easier in many ways, but they also overlap with compulsive behaviors. Once in a while, breaking out of routines can teach your mind and body how to step away from these patterns.
  • Unplug: We are more plugged into electronics and social media now than at any other time in history. Social media keeps us connected but can overstimulate the mind and body. To lower anxiety, encourage time away from electronics. Suggest ways to unplug by spending time in nature, doing hands-on activities and having in-person social time with loved ones.
  • Deep breathing exercises: Deep breathing relaxes the body by triggering the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. Simple breathing techniques can lower blood pressure and slow heart rate in minutes. It’s an easy way to relax no matter where you are.

Teen life can be challenging enough without mental health issues. If you have concerns about your teen showing signs and symptoms of OCD and co-occurring addiction, contact us to learn more about treatment options that can meet your family’s needs.


Anxiety & Depression Association of America. “Countering Bullying, Teasing, And Aggressive Behavior.” June 15, 2017. Accessed February 17, 2021.

Mayo Clinic. “Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).” March 11, 2020. Accessed February 18, 2021.

Perlmann School of Medicine. “Ocd: Some Facts.” University of Pennsylvania. Accessed February 18, 2021.

Riley Children’s Health. “How does OCD affect children in the classroom?” Indian University Health, June 16, 2017. Accessed February 17, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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