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Children, Rituals, and OCD

Children, Rituals, and OCDWhen my older daughter was about 2 or 3 years old, she had a bedtime ritual where she lined up 10 of her dolls and stuffed animals on the floor. They had to be in the right order, at the right angle, touching or not touching each other in a specific way. If these “friends” were not arranged just so, she would get upset, have a tantrum, and then need to adjust each and every one of them until she got it just right. Only then could she go to sleep. And she doesn’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Rituals are a normal part of childhood, and they play an important role in children’s overall development. Rituals create order for children as they grow and try to make sense of the world around them. For example, a bath, story time, and cuddles every night before bed give children structure and a sense of security. They feel safe; they know what to expect. Everything is as it should be. Here, rituals are a good thing.

But if you’re suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, the rituals you feel compelled to perform actually help perpetuate your OCD. How is it that something that can be so wonderful in one situation cause so much suffering in another?

Typically, children without obsessive-compulsive disorder will be soothed and comforted by their rituals, whereas a child with OCD will experience only a fleeting calm. Anxiety and distress will always return, and the child will feel, once again, compelled to complete the ritual. This is a hallmark of OCD; that feeling of “incompleteness” that causes sufferers to perform rituals over and over again. Over time, the original rituals become “not enough” and more elaborate rituals need to be developed. It becomes a never-ending vicious cycle.

If you think your child might be suffering from OCD, you can note whether rituals are soothing for more than a few minutes. Also, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the amount of time your child spends ritualizing, as well as how much it interferes with his or her daily life. Typically, spending an hour or more a day completing rituals should raise some red flags.

Diagnosing OCD in young children is not always easy, as there are many ways the disorder can manifest itself. And OCD is tricky. Just when I was really starting to worry about my daughter, she began to care less and less about the arrangement of her “friends.” On the other hand, my son, who appeared to have no use for rituals in his life whatsoever, developed OCD.

OCD often begins in childhood. I can’t tell you how many times sufferers have told me, “I’ve had symptoms of OCD for as long as I can remember.” I believe this is something all parents should be aware of, because the earlier OCD is properly diagnosed and the correct therapy is put into place, the less likely the disorder will spiral out of control.

If you suspect, for any reason, that your child might be suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, I’d suggest taking him or her to a doctor who can do a proper assessment. If your child doesn’t have OCD, you will have peace of mind, and if your child does have the disorder, he or she can benefit greatly from early therapy.

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Children, Rituals, and OCD

Janet Singer

Janet Singer’s son Dan suffered from OCD so severe that he could not even eat. After navigating through a disorienting maze of treatments and programs, Dan made a triumphant recovery. Janet has become an advocate for OCD awareness and wants everyone to know that OCD, no matter how severe, is treatable. There is so much hope for those with this disorder. Janet, who uses a pseudonym to protect her son’s privacy, is the author of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery, published in January 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield. Her own blog,, has reached readers in 167 countries. She is married with three children and resides in New England.

APA Reference
Singer, J. (2018). Children, Rituals, and OCD. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.