All In the Family: Parents with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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Growing up is tough these days. But navigating the winding pathways through childhood and adolescence with a parent who suffers from a mental disorder can be devastating psychologically. At the same time, children often report developing strengths and “spiritual reserves” to help them cope. The experience of children being parented by an adult with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is not unlike that of a child being raised by an alcoholic or drug addict, or of a child who has lost a parent.

What is OCD?

OCD is an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer struggles with intrusive and repetitive thoughts (obsessions) or the need to perform certain actions (compulsions), or both, as a way of managing anxiety. For an adult to be diagnosed with OCD, his or her obsessions and/or compulsions must be time consuming, cause real distress, impair functioning or interfere with daily routines. In addition, the sufferer must realize that the obsessions or compulsions are abnormal.

While the media typically portrays people with OCD as excessive hand-washers, or “germaphobes,” the obsessions or compulsions can take many forms. OCD symptoms can involve counting steps or breaths, tapping surfaces, or any number of rituals or behaviors. What is consistent across OCD cases, however, is that the purpose of the behaviors is to reduce anxiety. If the behavior is resisted, terrible anxiety results.

Similarities

Children who grow up in families affected by mental illness, physical illness, or the death of a parent experience a set of similar emotional and psychological consequences regardless. These include:

  • Feeling guilty or responsible for the “bad thing” that the family is dealing with.
  • Experiencing the “bad thing” as abandonment because the parent who is ill is less available to the child, and the other parent is often focused upon the ill partner and therefore also less available to the child. This is often referred to as a “double abandonment.”
  • Feeling shame about being abandoned or ashamed of the ill parent.
  • Feeling angry or even rageful at being abandoned, and thus needing to deal with anger/rage often without awareness of its source.
  • If the symptoms of the parent’s illness are severe enough, trauma may result.

As adults, many of these children find great support and solace by connecting with others who have experienced similar childhoods. The Adult Children of Alcoholics self-help group offers support, education and extensive reference material both online and in 12-step group formats around the world. These groups can help reduce the isolation, rage, shame and guilt, helping people move forward in their lives despite the challenges they faced during childhood.

Differences

For some people, though, the differences and the specific circumstances regarding growing up in a household impacted by OCD may require specific support. While general feelings of abandonment and anger are normal, children who have grown up around parents with OCD may find:

  • As OCD is an anxiety disorder, the need to soothe the parent and allay a parent’s fears may be part of the child’s role in the family.
  • Avoiding activities that seem to trigger the parent’s obsessions, compulsions, or rituals may “just be easier,” and thus the child accommodates the parent.
  • For parents with elaborate rituals, some children may “help out” with the ritual (for example, checking that the stove is turned off) to assist in high stress times of the day (e.g., getting everyone out the door in the morning for work and school-this is a classic “log jam” time of day for parents with OCD as rituals can interfere with many different functions).

These OCD-specific challenges that children of parents with OCD face center around the role reversal that is classic in all instances of parental illness or impairment. The child has to be caretaker to the parent, either by running interference, handling situations, taking over certain tasks, or by soothing and allaying the fears of the parent. Acknowledging this role reversal and understanding it as both a loss/abandonment as well as a strength can be helpful to adults dealing with the legacy of their childhood.

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