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I had the privilege of visiting with a third-grader named Faith over lunch this past winter. She is the cutest nine-year-old in the world, all eyes and sweet, sweet smile.  Not kidding, you look at this little girl and think, Oh my gosh, a hug from this child could change the world.

Faith is the strongest, bravest nine-year-old I know.  She has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she is dealing AT NINE with obsessions that buckled me in my twenties.  My heart just breaks when I think about the daily battles she fights, and it makes me hate OCD even more than I already do for the way it could dare to target such innocence and loveliness.How do you talk about OCD with a third-grader?

That was the question that I grappled with in the week leading up to this lunch.  My OCD first appeared when I was seven, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to really discuss it until after my post-college diagnosis.  I am such a huge advocate for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and while it is possible for children to go through CBT, it gives me pause: when it nearly snapped me in half at age 26, is it even reasonable to expect someone one-third of that age to try something like it?

What we ended up talking about was the narrative therapy that I practiced on myself and my OCD.  Narrative therapy reminds us that the person is not the problem; the problem is the problem.  I chose to separate myself from my OCD by imagining it as a black dot that followed me around … and I got the upper-hand by belittling it.  Most often, I would “dress” it in a pink tutu and make it twirl around.  My OCD hated this.

Perhaps this sounds strange to you, but it was a good strategy for me … and hopefully for children too.  Faith was intrigued by the idea of the black dot, and I told her, “It’s okay to bully the black dot because it’s so mean and it’s a liar.  So you get to bully it back.”  

I tried to incorporate elements of ERP (exposure and response prevention) therapy into our conversation as well.  I told her, “When the black dot tells you that you have to have your locker clean before you go to your next class, you can ignore it because it’s a liar.  And when you feel like you need to wash your hands again, just to be safe, you can ignore the black dot because it’s a liar and a bully.  Instead …”

“… I tell it to put on its tutu!” she said, giggling.


Just last month, I had the opportunity to get coffee with 11-year-old Madeline and her parents.  Madeline is a bright-eyed, funny, precocious young girl who developed a sudden onset of OCD a few months ago, and she has been courageously diving headfirst into ERP.  “I hate it,” she told me.  “I have to say bad words, and they make me feel so guilty.”

We talked about how no one seems to understand either OCD or the crazy, seemingly backward therapy that is the best weapon against it.  We compared it to chemotherapy: no one likes it, it sometimes appears to be making the situation worse, but it really is the medicine that heals us.  I tried to make it clear to Madeline that when her parents enforced her evening exposure therapy, it was because they loved her and were just making sure she took her medicine. 

It was clear to see how worried Madeline was about her exposure therapy; she was especially concerned that it was sinful or that she might end up liking her exposures one day.  I tried to level with her that she would probably never enjoy going through ERP—but that one day she would be glad that she had gone through it.  She is a special girl and so blessed to have parents who are 100% on board with ERP.

I remember being that young, remember overthinking every single thing, remember the obsessions and the intrusive thoughts and wondering why no one else my age thought about these same kinds of things.  I am so glad that Faith and Madeline have a name for OCD at such young ages, but I am deeply saddened that they have to struggle.  My heart hurts for all obsessive-compulsives but today especially for the young ones, who are so confused, who feel so guilty, who are so scared.

I wish I could tear through the lies and fear for them, show them truth.  I am trying.  Grade-schoolers should be thinking about best friends, recess, and pencil collections—not carrying the weight of the world on such tiny, tiny shoulders.

For more information about talking to kids about OCD and ERP, please visit www.OCDinKids.org.

Jackie Lea Sommers (@jackieleawrites) also blogs about OCD at www.jackieleasommers.com.


  • Jackie Lea,
    I am so glad that children who are struck with OCD have you and other supportive adults to help them make sense of it all and to encourage them through therapy. It is really difficult to consider children dealing with adult-sized feelings and guilt, but it is a relief that there is hope. Thank you for writing about this.

  • Oh, those little girls are lucky to have you on their side, Jackie……I’m sure you are an amazing role model and support for them. It really is humbling to see children tackle illnesses of all kinds. So brave!

    • My heart just breaks for the kids dealing with something so crippling as OCD. They certainly are brave!

  • Wow, what a brave little girl! I too struggled with OCD at this age, but never fully knew what it was until I was around 15. If only we could catch OCD more often this soon and kick it in the butt before it plagues us for most of our life!
    Anyone else out there with OCD I encourage you to share your story on this Facebook page, and help create a community of people with OCD supporting each other~

  • Mikayla Smariege

    This is extraordinary, as an 18 year old young woman going through OCD and intrusive thoughts I completely understand, because like these young girls mine began at age 6. For the longest time I thought it was gone I lived a normal happy life, until 3 months ago everything seemed to come crashing down and I’m learning to pick up the pieces everyday. It is the toughest thing I’ve ever dealt with.

    • Mikayla, like you, my OCD began when I was young– age 7. It’s such a crippling disorder. I am so, so grateful for the exposure therapy that gave me freedom!

    • If you’ve not undergone exposure and response prevention therapy, please do consider it! It’s the best treatment there is for OCD!

  • Angi

    My daughter was diagnosed at age 9, and we were incredibly blessed to find an excellent ERP therapist with experience working with kids. Maia had severe OCD, and it seemed so hopeless…especially when “they” told us it would never be cured, but that she would hopefully be able to control it as she grew up.

    My girl is strong and stubborn, and worked through incredible exposures over the course of about four months. And was done! She has been able to nip any encroaching OCD thoughts in the bud since then, knowing she had it within her, with God’s help, to beat it. I’m so proud of her, and so thankful for people Iike you!

    • c nielsen

      It’s nice to hear that your daughter is better. Our son was just diagnosed. He is 9 years old. We just had CBT and ERP for two weeks in another state. We are back home and it is very hard to get going again. As a parent, I need strength to continue helping our son. It is so heart wrenching to watch them. We don’t have people over any more or have play dates. Our lives have changed. I hope with our new training in CBT and ERP we continue to be successful like you! I feel very much alone in this battle. It’s like a secret you have to keep so your child won’t be ridiculed.

      • I am sure it’s so difficult to watch your son go through exposures, but you’re great parents for getting him into ERP. Keep up the hard practice of exposures, and I have strong hopes that your son will experience freedom again! Blessings on you!

    • So proud of Maia for her hard work in battling through exposures! It’s not easy at ANY age, but for the young ones … wow. I’m just so impressed! What a brave girl!

  • Hilary

    I was diagnosed at 9. This came after my ADD diagnosis at 7. I remember an early CBT session where my therapist had me draw OCD in any form I chose. I drew and colored a trash can! From then on, we referred to OCD as “trash can”. At 22, I still view it as such. OCD is garbage, and there is no reason why it should stink up your life.

  • Sara McManus

    Hi Jackie,
    It sounds like you have inspired so many! Kudos to you!
    My 11 year old daughter is dealing with, (what I think is a mild case) of ocd. Right now it seems her thing is her closet. I cannot go near it without her pleading against me. She has to have her coats put in a certain area abd zipped to the top even when she knows she will need it again soon. Should I be concerned of this progressing?
    I appreciate any advice you can give me. Thanks!

    • Hi Sara!

      I’m not a therapist and so can’t really give any advice, but I’d keep an eye on it and get her in to see a professional if it progresses. There is a provider database at http://www.Iocdf.org! Blessings!


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