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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

How We Treat Teen Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Teens ages 14 to 17 with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often are admitted to our adolescent OCD residential treatment program in Atlanta.

Skyland Trail uses only evidence-based practices and therapies to treat teens diagnosed with OCD. Individualized treatment helps adolescents learn to cope with intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and ritual-like behaviors (compulsions). At the same time, family-focused programs help parents and siblings learn more about OCD, how to support their loved one's growth, and how to rekindle trust and support among all family members.

Skyland Trail does not offer treatment programs for adults with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a psychiatric illness that can affect children, teens and adults. About one-third of adults with OCD begin experiencing symptoms as a child. About 1 to 4 percent of all children and adolescents experience symptoms of OCD.

Teens with OCD get caught in a cycle. They have unwanted thoughts or ideas that cause them to worry constantly or be intensely afraid that something bad is going to happen. The intrusive thoughts or ideas are called obsessions.

As a response to the obsessions, adolescents often develop a pattern of behaviors, sometimes called a ritual, to try to address the ever-present fear or prevent the bad thing from happening. The repeated behavior patterns are called compulsions.

Together, the obsessions and compulsions can crowd out everything else in an adolescent's life. OCD can interfere with a teen's ability to enjoy relationships with friends and family, participate effectively in school, or reach developmental milestones appropriate for their age.

Signs and Symptoms of OCD

Obsessions are unwanted or intrusive thoughts, ideas, images or urges. Obsessions can induce extreme worry, fear and doubt.

Common obsessions for adolescents with OCD include:

  • Fear of dirt, germs, or becoming ill
  • Fear of death, dying or losing a loved one
  • Obsession with safety, fear of harm from intruders, attacks, etc.
  • Fear of making a mistake, perfectionism, or believing that they cannot make a mistake without losing the love of important people in their lives or other serious consequences
  • Fear of violating the rules or expectations of their religion
  • Intrusive words or sounds

Compulsions are repeated behaviors, often appearing as a ritual. Compulsions may appear irrational to the observer, but are connected to and driven by often painful obsessions and unwanted thoughts that a teen is trying to control or prevent. Adolescents with untreated OCD are not able to "just let it go" or stop engaging in these compulsive behaviors and may expect  or require family members or friends to participate in their rituals as well.

Common compulsions for adolescents with OCD include:

  • Frequent and repeated checking (the door is locked, the iron is unplugged, the homework meets all the requirements, etc.
  • Excessive hand washing, showering, teeth brushing or cleaning
  • Repeatedly arranging, organizing or counting objects
  • Praying, confessing or engaging in other religious practices excessively

Someone with OCD spends at least 1 hour each day on these thoughts and behaviors. While the behaviors may create short-lived relief for the adolescent, teens do not experience pleasure while performing the behaviors.

Causes of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Like most mental illnesses, researchers believe obsessive-compulsive disorder is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.  This is called the "stress-diathesis model." For individuals with a genetic predisposition for OCD, experiencing stress or infections or being exposed to toxins in the environment can increase the likelihood that symptoms will develop.

OCD is thought to be more heritable than some other brain disorders; about 40 to 50 percent of individuals with OCD have a close relative with the illness. But that does not mean that a child will definitely develop the disorder if one of their parents has OCD. Likewise, a teen with OCD may have no family history of the illness.

Effective Treatments for Teen OCD

Effective evidence-based treatment for teens with obsessive-compulsive disorder usually involves medications and a combination of exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Exposure with response prevention therapy allows teens to confront their obsessions while receiving support from mental health professionals to change how they think, feel and react when they are exposed to what is causing them fear or pain.

A class of medications called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) can reduce OCD symptoms in teens and often work well in combination with ERP.


Contact our admissions team to learn how Skyland Trail can help you or your loved one.