Children with OCD often experience distress if their parents interrupt their ritualistic behavior.

How to Reinforce Good Behavior With Children Who Have OCD

by Anna Green

OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, is an anxiety disorder affecting both children and adults. Children with OCD generally experience significant worry if they do not perform a specific ritual -- such as washing their hands a set number of times -- or complete a routine in a specific order, explains Dr. Barry Saravet in "Pediatrics in Review." These children use their rituals to alleviate specific worries, such germs or something bad happening to family members. Since OCD causes children distress, reinforcing their use of positive coping skills can may help them address their anxiety in healthy and adaptive ways, as well promote positive behaviors over the long term.

Collaborate with mental health professionals. Typically, children with OCD require psychotherapy or medication, particularly if their condition is upsetting to them or is interfering with their home or school routines. That said, parents can reinforce good behaviors at home. Becoming engaged in your child’s therapy can be a valuable tool for learning about the specific nature of your child’s anxiety and her therapist’s treatment strategy.

Maintain realistic expectations for your child. Massachusetts General Hospital explains that children may be reluctant to change their OCD-type behaviors. Thus, Massachusetts General Hospital recommends parents set reasonable goals for their children and show patience as the child learns new, healthier behaviors. For example, if your child feels the urge to was her hands ten times before leaving the house, but is able to cut her behavior down to five hand-washing session, praising her gradual progress can show her she is able to control her behavior. Giving praise for meeting small but reasonable goals can also show your child that you are empathetic to her anxiety and support her efforts. Setting goals too high, however, for example, expecting her to cut out her hand-washing rituals immediately, will likely cause more distress and leave little room for positive reinforcement.

Foster open conversations about your child’s anxiety. Talk to your child about her anxiety regularly and learn about how her obsessions affect her and how her rituals make her feel. Because your child may not know anyone else who lives with OCD, she might feel alone and believe that you do not understand her anxiety, distress and ritualistic behavior. Although your child's OCD behaviors may not seem rational, validate her feelings while letting her know that she is safe. When your child knows that you understand her condition and recognize that her behaviors are difficult to control, she may be more open to open up to you about her obsessions and compulsions spontaneously. This will provide you with an opportunity to praise her progress and openness to try to address her behaviors and anxiety.

Praise your child regularly. When children are able to avoid completing their ritualistic habits, parents can reinforce these behaviors by praising the child’s efforts to stop her obsessions and compulsions. Thus, when you see your child avoid an anxiety-alleviating ritual, acknowledge her efforts, but be willing to comfort her if you see that she is feeling worried or distressed.

Avoid punishing ritualistic behaviors. Although you may find your child’s ritualistic behaviors distracting or frustrating, keep in mind that they are a coping mechanism. Thus, punishing your child for these behaviors will do little to deter them or alleviate your child’s distress. Instead, help your child understand the nature of her condition while making her feel safe, secure and loved.


  • If your child is working with a counselor or psychiatrist, he may be able to give you suggestions on how to gradually encourage new anxiety-alleviating behaviors.


  • Only a qualified mental health professional or doctor can diagnose obsessive compulsive disorder.

About the Author

Anna Green has been published in the "Journal of Counselor Education and Supervision" and has been featured regularly in "Counseling News and Notes," Keys Weekly newspapers, "Travel Host Magazine" and "Travel South." After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school, then earned her master's of science in mental health counseling. She is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group and personal coaching service.

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