Pediatric Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Updated: Feb 10, 2022
  • Author: James Robert Brasic, MD, MPH, MS, MA; Chief Editor: Caroly Pataki, MD  more...
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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a neurobiologic disorder that can severely disrupt academic, social, and vocational functioning. [1]  The major features of this disorder are the presence of recurring obsessions (recurrent unwanted thoughts, urges, or images) and compulsions (repetitive excessive actions that interfere with a person's life). [2]  (See Etiology, History.) If OCD is suspected, referral to a mental health professional is indicated. [2] (See Epidemiology.)

Go to Pediatric Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Pediatric Panic Disorder for complete information on these topics.

Obsessions and compulsive behaviors

Obsessions are defined as recurrent and persistent thoughts, images, or impulses that are ego-dystonic, intrusive, and, for the most part, acknowledged as senseless. [3]  Obsessions usually are accompanied by dysphoric affect, such as fear, doubts, and disgust. [2]

Children and adolescents with OCD typically first try to ignore, suppress, or deny obsessive thoughts and may not report the symptoms as ego-dystonic or senseless. However, by trying to neutralize excessive thoughts, individuals with OCD very quickly change their behaviors by performing some type of compulsive actions, which are repetitive, purposeful behaviors carried out in response to the obsession. Usually, these repetitive actions follow certain rules or are quite stereotyped.

Some compulsions observed include behaviors such as washing, counting, or lining up of objects. Other compulsions are covert mental acts, such as counting or reading a passage again and again. [3]  Thus compulsions as mental rituals may not be apparent to those around the patient; patients may hide their compulsions from others. These compulsions serve to reduce the anxiety produced by the obsessive thoughts. If something interferes with or blocks the compulsive behavior, the child feels heightened anxiety or fear and can become quite upset and oppositional. (See History.)

OCD versus normal ritualistic behaviors

Not confusing OCD with normal ritualistic behavior of childhood is important. Most children exhibit typical, age-dependent, compulsive behaviors. Frequently, young children prefer that events occur in a particular way, they insist on specific bedtime or mealtime rituals, and they become distressed if these rituals are disrupted.

Cross-sectional research of ritualistic behavior in children demonstrates that these behaviors appear when the individual is aged approximately 18 months, peak when the individual is aged approximately 2–3 years, and decline afterward. Presence of these behaviors appears to be related to mental age; thus, children with cognitive levels at a developmental age of 2–3 years may have higher rates of compulsive behaviors, which are appropriate to their cognitive levels of development. These behaviors are best understood by acknowledging that they involve mastery and control of their environment, and, usually, they decrease to low levels by middle childhood. As a child ages, compulsive behaviors are replaced by hobbies or focused interests.

Normative compulsive behaviors can be discriminated from OCD on the basis of content, timing, and severity. Normative compulsive behaviors do not interfere with daily functioning. [4]

Mortality in OCD

One of the leading causes of death of patients with OCD is suicide. A population study in Sweden demonstrated that patients with OCD have a markedly increased risk of suicide. [5]

Patient education

For patient education information, see the Anxiety Center, as well as Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Hyperventilation.



Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is considered a neuropsychiatric disorder. OCD symptoms do not appear to represent intrapsychic conflicts within individuals. Indeed, relatively few OCD behaviors exist, and they are experienced in much the same manner by patients, regardless of their interpersonal histories. [6]

Initial successes in treatment of OCD with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have led to a neuropsychiatric explanation of a serotonin-mediated "grooming behavior" that has been disrupted. In addition, clear family genetic studies demonstrate that, in some cases, OCD and Tourette syndrome may represent expressions of the same gene. Tic disorders occur more frequently in individuals who have OCD, and first-degree relatives of patients with OCD have higher rates of tic disorders, Tourette syndrome (TS), and OCD. While there exists some overlap in the genetic basis of OCD and TS, the conditions represent two unique genetic structures. [7]

OCD may result from excessive glutamatergic activity in the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex. [8, 9, 10]

Neuroimaging studies suggest abnormalities in neurologic circuits that link cortical areas to the basal ganglia. These circuits appear to change in response to successful treatment with either SSRI medication or cognitive behavior therapies (CBTs). Increased emotional processing-related activation has been demonstrated in limbic, frontal, and temporal regions. [11] Also, neurotransmitter and neuroendocrine abnormalities have been documented in childhood-onset OCD. Anti-basal ganglia antibodies had been shown to be five times more likely to be detected in the serum of individuals with primary OCD in comparison with healthy controls, and patients with various psychiatric, neurological, and autoimmune disorders. [12]

In addition, investigators have found OCD symptoms that arise from, or are strongly exacerbated in, the context of group A beta-hemolytic streptococcal (GABHS) infection. Such conditions are referred to as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infection (PANDAS) characterized by a sudden exacerbation of OCD symptoms in the presence of an upper respiratory tract illness caused by antineuronal antibodies formed against group A beta-hemolytic streptococcal cell wall antigens, which cross-react with caudate neural tissue and initiate OCD symptoms.  [13, 14]




In the United States, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has a 6-month prevalence of approximately 1 in 200 children and adolescents, while the prevalence of OCD occurring at any time during childhood is assumed to be 2–3 per 100 children. [15]

Among adults with OCD, interview data indicate that one third to one half developed the disorder during childhood. Unfortunately, this disorder often goes unrecognized in children and adolescents. Onset in childhood or adolescence can lead to a lifetime of OCD. However, 40% of individuals with early onset may experience remission by early adulthood. [2, 16]

Race predilection

There are no differences in prevalence as a function of ethnic group or geographic region.

Sex predilection

Boys are more likely to have a prepubertal onset and a family member with OCD or Tourette syndrome. Girls are more likely to have onset of OCD during adolescence.

Age predilection

OCD has been studied most comprehensively at the National Institute of Mental Health with referred patients, who likely represent more severe cases. In those studies, the modal age of onset was 7 years; the mean age was 10.2 years. These figures imply the possible existence of an early-onset group in childhood and a second group with onset in adolescence. [17]

Family History

Since OCD tends to run in families, people with relatives who have OCD are vulnerable to develop OCD. [18]



No specific predictors of treatment outcome have been identified for pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Children who can identify their obsessions as senseless and their rituals as useless and distressing are candidates for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). A calm, supportive family environment in which parents and/or caregivers actively can support the child's coping strategies also should improve outcome. [19]  Pediatric OCD appears to have a better prognosis than adult-onset OCD. [20]  

Comorbidity of OCD with other disorders, specifically oppositional disorders and/or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), makes compliance with OCD treatment more difficult.


Patient Education

The large number of children and adolescents without treatment for OCD is a red flag to signal the urgent need for patient education. The methods to educate adults about OCD and other disorders may not be effective for young people. Novel methods to educate young people about OCD may include infomercials in the social media that are used by young people. Incorporation of characters with OCD who improve with treatment may be added to cartoons, video games, television shows, and other media used by young people. Incorporating children and adolescents with OCD in the team developing patient education for pediatric OCD would provide first-hand information about the activities accessed by young people.

Additionally patient education for pediatric OCD must include education of the adults who interact with children with OCD. Parents, teachers, pediatricians, and other adults must be alerted to look for evidence that a young person may have OCD. Children with obsessions may appear to be day-dreaming. Children with compulsions may take inordinate amounts of time to accomplish routine tasks. For example, a child with an obsession for dirt may take hours to wash hands and shower. The skin of the hands and other parts of the body may become red from the excessive washing.  Punishing a child for compulsions may be counterproductive. Instead emphasizing the existence of effective therapeutic interventions for OCD will point to a positive future. Assessment by pediatric mental health providers is key to establishing a diagnosis of pediatric OCD and developing an effective treatment plan.