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What Causes OCD in Children?

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 3/7/2011

If your child has recently been diagnosed with OCD, you may be feeling guilty that you somehow "caused" the disorder. Understanding what causes OCD in children can help you come to terms with how the disorder developed so that you can move on to working with your child on treating it effectively.

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    The Blame Game

    When a child is diagnosed with OCD, parents start to feel guilty. One parent is sure that if she had stayed home with her child and given him more attention, he wouldn't have developed OCD. Another parent worries that he could have fended off the OCD by not asking for a divorce, and a third gets a "telling off" by an angry grandparent who is sure that the child developed OCD because he was disciplined too harshly. The reality of the situation is that none of these actions cause OCD. You can not "give" a child OCD by yelling at your children, disciplining them, giving them a bit less attention or subjecting them to the stress of divorce. If a child seems to have developed OCD after some of these issues crop up, there is a possibility that the issues are simply making the OCD symptoms more obvious or even worse - but they did not actually cause the original OCD.

    So if parenting techniques aren't to blame, what causes OCD in children? There are several possibilities, none of which have been proven as a conclusive cause of OCD.

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    Genetics

    Scientists have not yet definitively identified a gene that causes OCD. At the same time, they have found that OCD has a strong genetic component. For example, a twins study published in the 1980s (written by Carey and Gottesman in the Archives of Genetic Psychiatry) found a heritability estimate of about 80%, which means that there is a genetic link to OCD. It seems, however, that there is more to the disorder than simply genes.

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    Environment

    The child's environment can cause OCD symptoms, but only in that they introduce the child to habits that may be copied later. For example, children who see people around them constantly arranging and rearranging objects may begin to do the same thing themselves.

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    Brain Function

    It is also possible that the child's brain is simply biologically hardwired to function differently than others. One possible way that this can manifest itself is in a lower level of serotonin than normal. Serotonin is a brain chemical that transports messages to and from the nervous system. A person with too little serotonin may develop symptoms of OCD. That is why SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are often used as medication for people with OCD. SSRIs increase the amount of serotonin in the body, which enables the brain's messages to be delivered correctly.

    So what causes OCD in children? As of now, we're not sure exactly how all of these factors interconnect, but we do know that parenting techniques were definitely not the cause of your child's OCD. So take heart, and focus on trying to help your child work with the disorder.

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    References

    OCD Chicago. "What Causes OCD?" http://www.ocdchicago.org/index.php/parents/child/what-causes-ocd

    Mayo Clinic. "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Causes." http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/DS00189/DSECTION=causes

Children and OCD

Has your child been diagnosed with OCD? Do you suspect your child may have OCD? Or does a parent of a child you know have OCD? These questions and more will be answered in this series of articles about children and OCD.
  1. Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorders in Children
  2. What Causes OCD in Children?
  3. Dealing With OCD: How Do I Explain OCD to a Kid?
  4. The Connection Between Childhood Perfectionism and OCD