Is the Pandemic Bringing Out Your Child's OCD Tendencies?


In response to the coronavirus pandemic, people across the globe are dramatically changing their everyday behaviors. Kids and adults alike pay more attention to when and how they wash their hands, who they come in contact with, and what steps they take to ward off infection.

"It's interesting to see how children are navigating the pandemic, particularly since the climate looks much different now than it did in March," says Kelly Melistas, a child and adolescent psychologist at Henry Ford Health. "The anxiety kids are facing on a daily basis is unprecedented — and uncertainty regarding the coronavirus can fuel that baseline anxiety."

The end result: Kids may be more likely to display obsessive or compulsive behaviors.

How To Ease Anxiety In Kids

As the number of COVID-19 cases climbs, kids continue to miss out on what they know as "normal” life: friends, traditional schooling and maybe even the sense that they're safe in the world.

"We're inundated with information about the coronavirus every day," says Melistas. "With such unrest, some level of obsessive or compulsive behavior is a natural response." Maybe your kid washes his hands a dozen times a day, or maybe he's afraid to play in your own backyard without a mask on. He might be checking his online classroom every five minutes.

Most of these behaviors are an attempt to regain control. So how do you curb these responses and reassure your children? Try these four strategies:

  1. Control the narrative: Hearing about rising case counts and ongoing school closures can be scary for all of us, but especially for children. "It's important for parents to control the narrative — and limit a child's exposure to the news. Be selective about what you allow your child to watch and listen to. Gather as much authoritative information as you can and then share the facts with your kids in age-appropriate ways," Melistas suggests.
  2. Check yourself: Kids are astonishingly skilled at picking up on our emotions. If your anxiety level is off the charts, chances are good that your kids will feed off that nervous energy. "Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and don't try to hide them from your children," Melistas advises. "Just make sure you also model healthy ways to manage anxiety." Practice deep breathing, break out an adult coloring book or do 15 minutes of yoga. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you show your children that you're being proactive about managing complex emotions.
  3. Teach them new coping skills: Many kids are missing their usual ways of coping. They can't blow off steam with a game of hoops, vent to their friends or hit the gym for a tough workout. Instead, give them something positive to focus on. Go for a walk together, read a book or practice a new type of art.
  4. Know your kid: Some children need more reassurance than others. Knowing what works for your child and what makes them more — or less — anxious is invaluable. "Sometimes a vivid imagination can worsen existing anxiety," Melistas says. "When anxiety worsens, and kids don't have appropriate coping skills, that's when compulsive behaviors can happen."

The coronavirus pandemic has presented new challenges for all of us. The uncertainty, lack of normalcy and frustration can be upsetting, especially for children who haven't yet developed appropriate coping skills.

"It's important to validate your children's feelings and reassure them that it's okay to be worried; that you're doing all the things you need to do to stay safe and healthy," suggests Melistas. "Remind them that washing their hands, wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance between themselves and other people will help keep them safe and give kids a sense of control."

When To Get Your Child Help For OCD or Anxiety

If you notice excessive worry or anxiety in your child that persists for more than a week or two, make an appointment with a healthcare provider for advice on how to help them cope or whether it might be a sign of an anxiety condition, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by unwanted thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead to repetitive (or compulsive) behaviors, and it can affect both adults and children.

A few signs to watch out for:

  • An inability to function or complete age-appropriate tasks
  • Compulsive handwashing
  • Persistent worries about germs or bad things happening
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Disinterest in activities they used to enjoy

Schedule time every day to talk with your children. Kids and adults alike are inundated with tasks and information during the pandemic, so it's especially important to sit down with your kids regularly and check in with them about how they're feeling.

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To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Kelly Melistas is a child and adolescent psychologist at Henry Ford Health who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center - Columbus.

Categories: ParentWell