What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a disorder categorized by the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions. A person with OCD experiences uncontrollable, recurring thoughts, and/or behaviors that they feel the urge to repeat.

What is an obsession?

Obsessions are repeated and unwanted intrusive thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety or other upsetting feelings. These thoughts, urges, and images may cause a person to feel out of control.

Common obsessions can include:

  • Contamination 
  • Taboo thoughts
  • Losing control
  • Perfectionism


Common obsessions of contamination can include fear of germs, disease, body fluids, chemicals, dirt, or other contaminants.

Taboo Thoughts

Common taboo thoughts may include unwanted or forbidden thoughts of religion, sex, or violence.

Losing Control

Common obsessions of losing control can include fear of acting on an impulse to harm others, fear of acting on an impulse to harm oneself, fear of violence, or fear of blurting out obscenities or insults.


Common obsessions of perfectionism can include inability to throw things away, fear of losing things, fear of forgetting information, or concern for evenness or exactness.

What is a compulsion?

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that someone feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought in an attempt to relieve or decrease distress. 

Common Compulsions:

  • Cleaning
  • Checking
  • Repeating
  • Mental


Common cleaning compulsions can include excessive hand washing, bathing, showering, grooming, or cleaning to avoid contaminants. 


Common checking compulsions can include checking to make sure no harm was done to others or themself, checking that nothing terrible happened, checking for mistakes, and checking conditions of people or things.


Common compulsions can include rereading, rewriting, routine activities, repeated body movements, or completing tasks in multiples.


Common mental compulsions can include praying to prevent harm, canceling or undoing negative actions with positive actions, mental review of situations to prevent consequences, counting to a “safe” number while performing a task, arranging things until it feels “right” or “safe.”

What causes OCD?

A child’s genetics plays a role in the development of OCD. An individual may experience OCD due to a communication problem between the front and deep structures of the brain. This problem may be a result of serotonin imbalance, brain circuit dysfunction, or a response to illness or chronic stress. 

Treatment of OCD

Treatment of OCD is unique to each child. Two approaches to treatment include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication. Combining CBT and medication to fit the needs of each child can be an effective approach to treatment. However, it is important to evaluate the child as a whole before making determinations about treatment.

What is CBT?

CBT is a form of psychological treatment that focuses on modifying emotions, behaviors, and thoughts that are problematic or intrusive. A specific form of CBT used in the treatment of OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP).

ERP is an approach to therapy that encourages children to face their fears. This form of “exposure therapy” is conducted by a psychologist, social worker, mental health counselor, or other licensed mental health professional who is trained in this approach. 

What Medications are Used to Treat OCD?

Medications that are frequently used to treat OCD are categorized as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications can be prescribed by licensed physicians or psychiatrists. However, medication is not the recommended treatment for all individuals with OCD.

It is always important to consult a healthcare professional before making decisions regarding medication, as these treatments can affect individuals differently, and a medication that works well for one person may not work well for another.

Do you have questions about your child’s development? Contact the Goldman Center to speak with one of our pediatric specialists who can answer your questions: (773) 998-8500.



American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA:  American Psychiatric Association, 2013.