OCD Facts: What OCD Isn't

What OCD Isn’t

As education and public awareness about OCD have grown, so has the use of the term “OCD” as a description of some kinds of behaviors that are not OCD.

When people use the terms ”obsessed,” “obsessive” and “compulsive” incorrectly, it leads to misunderstanding about OCD.  You may have even heard someone say, “That person (or child) must have OCD” when describing someone who is preoccupied with orderliness, has a strong interest in a subject or frequently performs the same activity (e.g., washes the kitchen floor every day).  As all educators know, labeling anyone, especially a child, can be misleading and even harmful.  Incorrectly labeling a child can have an even more serious impact.

OCPD - Easily Confused With OCD

Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) is sometimes mistaken for OCD.  While the names are confusingly similar, the disorders are quite different.  OCPD is a personality disorder, whereas OCD is not.

Usually identified in early adulthood, OCPD involves a preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism and control in virtually every part of an individual’s life.  People with OCPD may spend an extraordinary amount of time cleaning their homes because they want them to be immaculate.  They may want their closets to be particularly orderly and aligned, and may become annoyed if their orderliness is disturbed.  But rather than being anxious about this, they see their behavior and thoughts as being OK.

Others may find OCPD behavior “odd” or extremely frustrating.  In fact, OCPD may interfere with a person's social relationships. But it is not OCD.  Individuals with OCPD like the world the way they shape it.  In contrast, people with OCD do not like what is happening to them and are overwhelmed with the thoughts and fears that intrude into their minds.  They want their obsessive thoughts, fears, doubts, and urges to perform compulsive acts to stop, but they don’t know how to stop “the monster” in their heads.

Age-Appropriate Routines and Games

It’s important to note that most, if not all, children exhibit developmentally normal repetitive behaviors or routines.  Superstitions, ritualistic games, and repetitive play are characteristic of normal child development.  In fact, many childhood behaviors enhance socialization and advance development. These activities are not indicative of OCD.  The examples below illustrate the difference between normal childhood habits and OCD behavior:

  • Morning or evening routines or rituals:  Younger children frequently follow certain routines, which may involve their parents' participation.  They may want to get dressed in the morning in a specific sequence (shirt first, then pants, then socks) or eat breakfast in a certain order (a spoon of cereal followed by a sip of juice until the breakfast is completed).  They may also want a parent to read them a particular story over and over, or sing a particular song at bedtime.  This is comforting to the child and, as long as it is age-appropriate, is not a cause for concern and does not usually signify OCD.

    However, a 14-year old who still feels compelled to perform these routines or rituals in order to get dressed, eat breakfast or go to sleep at night, becomes highly agitated if the routine is interrupted or changed, and cannot stop performing the routine, is exhibiting worrisome behavior. 
  • Childhood games:  Children frequently engage in repetitive games or songs.  For example, youngsters who enjoy playing the game “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back” and avoid walking on cracks are exhibiting normal development.

    By contrast, a child who has OCD might not be able to engage in this game, believing that, by stepping on a crack, he or she could cause serious harm to his or her mother.  As a result, the child would find this activity very distressing.

Other Non-OCD Behaviors

OCD does not include having a strong interest in collecting items or in being drawn to a particular subject.  Children often collect stuffed animals, dolls or cartoon memorabilia; they enjoy receiving or acquiring items they are interested in and are excited to talk about their collections or show them to others.  Similarly, a young person who is interested in a particular sport may engage in lively discussions with friends about this sport and their favorite team players, and may amaze others by reciting a litany of sports statistics.  Normal age-appropriate interests in a subject do not indicate the presence of OCD.

School personnel need to be able to distinguish normal, age-appropriate interests not only from OCD but also from the unusual patterns of interest exhibited by children with Asperger syndrome.  These children have an all-encompassing preoccupation with a narrow, restricted interest that is either abnormal in intensity or focus (such as a consuming interest in train schedules).

In older children, teens and adults, OCD is not characterized by fans who are reportedly “obsessed” with celebrities, including television or movie stars, popular singers or professional sports team members.

Children or teens who have a “crush” on another person (especially a celebrity) do not have the crush because of OCD -- even if they seem to be “obsessed” with wanting to read every magazine article about their “idol,” collecting fan memorabilia, reading and contributing to online blogs and wanting to buy every CD, MP3, DVD or video download of their favorite personality. 

It is important to understand that popular magazines sometimes lead to misconceptions about OCD. Criminal and violent behavior may be labeled "obsessive" and/or "compulsive."  Articles presenting information on stalkers may refer to these individuals as being "obsessed."  Such portrayals can lead to inaccurate and sometimes disturbing conceptions of what people with OCD are like.  In addition, OCD is not characterized by compulsive lying, shopping, or gambling or other behaviors that reflect difficulties with impulse control.

It’s important for all school personnel to know the difference between what is “normal” childhood and adolescent behavior and that which is potentially OCD.  Getting familiar with the symptoms is a good start.

What are OCD Symptoms?

What Causes OCD?

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