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Helping Parents Understand OCD

Janet Singer's son Dan suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) so severe he could not even eat. What followed was a journey from seven therapists to ...Read More

I tend to write about obsessive-compulsive disorder from a parent’s viewpoint because, well, I’m a parent whose son has OCD. 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.

But back to my comment about hand washing. I’m sure it 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 one of the strongest emotions felt by parents when they find out their child has mental health problems is guilt. Somehow it is our fault. Whether this is true or not isn’t even important; we believe it. I think guilt has the potential to work both ways. In some cases, it might make the issues harder to talk about, 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 to really 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, and how it has been dealt with (if at all) in the past will likely affect how the disorder will be perceived by parents and other family members. For example, if your family has a “just snap out of it” mentality, that might be exactly what they will expect you to do. Of course it isn’t possible.

Needless to say, 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. Or 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 to just agree to disagree. The only behaviors any of us can change are our own, and those with OCD need a lot of strength to work toward recovery. I believe 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.

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