Over the years I’ve chatted with some OCD sufferers about the reverse perspective: how young adult (and even “older” adult) children with OCD can help their parents understand what is going on with them. These discussions have led me to a simple conclusion: It’s not easy.
Every parent-child connection is unique, with its own set of issues. Even in the best of relationships, parents will likely “mess up” and say or do the wrong things at times. I still cringe every time I think of the first thing I said to my son Dan when he told me he had OCD: “Are you sure, Dan? You never even wash your hands.”
While I meant well, I basically had no idea what I was talking about. OCD is not about washing your hands. Another common reaction from parents is to minimize their child’s suffering with the hope of making them feel better. “Oh, I do that too,” or “That’s no big deal,” might be comments from parents when their child shares symptoms of his or her OCD.
This type of reaction can be devastating for the OCD sufferer who desperately needs to be taken seriously.
I’m sure my comment about handwashing only solidified what Dan already suspected: His mother needed help. It was important that I become educated about OCD. So he handed me a book to read which gave me an inkling of what he was experiencing. It was a smart move on his part, and one I’d recommend to adult children who want to help their parents understand their OCD. Educate them any way you can. Give them a book, point them to a website, direct them to a support group, have a conversation.
I know, that last one is tough. I suggest talking with your parents during a calm, uneventful time, preferably when everyone is in a good mood. You might begin by telling them how much you appreciate their support and love (assuming you are getting that from them), and then bring up the issues you feel need addressing. Maybe they have preconceived notions about OCD that just aren’t true. Maybe they are saying things, or acting in ways that are hurtful to you. I know I always appreciated it when Dan set me straight or voiced his opinions. He was able to help me see things from his viewpoint, which is not always easy for parents to do. I wish he had spoken up even more.
I don’t believe I’m alone in saying that guilt is one of the strongest emotions parents feel when they find out their child has mental health problems. Somehow it is our fault. It isn’t important whether this is true; we believe it. Guilt also has the potential to work both ways. In some cases, it might make the issues harder to address, as parents would rather sweep it all under the rug and just pretend everything is fine. In other situations, feelings of blame might spur a desire really to understand what you think you’ve done to your child, so you can (hopefully) remedy it.
To complicate things more, OCD sometimes runs in families. Having dealt with it previously probably will affect family members’ perceptions. For example, if your family has had a “just snap out of it” mentality, that might be exactly what they will expect you to do. Of course, this isn’t possible.
Sometimes a conversation with parents, for so many different reasons, is just not going to happen. Maybe it’s too hard for you to talk about your OCD. Maybe you are not on speaking terms, are dealing with a strained relationship, or just don’t see eye to eye. In these cases, maybe it’s best just to agree to disagree. We can only change our own behaviors, and those with OCD need a lot of strength to work toward recovery. Expending energy trying to change others rarely, if ever, works.
All of us, especially those who are suffering, just want to be heard, understood, and accepted by those we love the most. If you are not getting what you need from your parents, hopefully other family members, friends, and loved ones will step in and fill the void. Support from those who care about you will surely help as you move forward in your fight against obsessive-compulsive disorder.