What are typical obsessive thoughts?
Most teachers and caregivers would agree that children or adolescents get stuck on things that they enjoy. At times, it may seem like the child or adolescent is always thinking about their favorite show, song, game, activity, or toy. For instance, a 3 year old may frequently think or talk about a stuffed toy that is at home. A classroom of 5 year olds may insist on listening to the same song during movement time or watching the same YouTube children dance video. An 8 year old may talk relentlessly with anyone who will listen about a trading card game and be able to name all of the characters on those cards at any moment. Adolescents may talk about the same artists over and over again and know all about their lives. These types of obsessions are typical, usually not longstanding, and generally do not interfere with day-to-day life. It is also typical that some thoughts that are not wanted or that seem strange, such as thinking about throwing a phone out the window of a moving car, come to everyone's minds from time to time.
When should I be concerned about a student’s obsessive thoughts?
If a student is unable to clear their minds of thoughts or worries they don't want to have, this may be cause for concern. Unwanted thoughts can also leave children or adolescents feeling distressed or interfere with their schooling, activities, or social lives. These types of thoughts may be indicating a bigger issue.
Here are some examples of unwanted thoughts and worries that might be a cause for concern:
- Silently counting to a specific number or counting objects to ensure there are a certain number of them.
- Repeating words mentally until they feel comfortable or “just right”.
- Making and repeatedly reviewing mental lists.
- Thinking or “replaying” past interactions over and over again to reassure themselves that they did not offend someone or hurt their feelings.
- Having recurrent worries about bad things happening.
- Having frequent worries about germs or dirt (even when it is not justified).
- Repeatedly reassuring themselves that bad things will not happen.
- Asking a teacher about their worries over and over again.
As an observer, a teacher may have a tough time telling if a student is experiencing unwanted thoughts or worries. These children are often mistaken for being distracted or withdrawn. Other indicators may involve changes in the child’s or adolescent’s mood or friendships. In the classroom, a student’s obsessive thoughts may result in one or more of the following behaviors:
- Frequent requests to use the restroom. Trips to the restroom may be used to escape obsessive thoughts that occur in the classroom or to act in some way to make the thoughts temporarily stop (e.g., washing germs off of hands or pens, etc.).
- Frequent reassurance seeking. Students with obsessive thoughts may repetitively ask questions or ask for information to be repeated. These students may also give answers and ask the teacher to confirm that their answer was heard.
- Retracing steps. Students who worry that they are leaving things behind may go back to previous places they have been. Students who have bad thoughts in one place may go back to that same place to have a good thought, which will cancel out the bad one.
- Frequent erasing in schoolwork. A student who needs to see perfection in the way they form letters or how they present work on a page may erase a lot. Sometimes students write words that make them worry and then need to erase them (e.g., writing vomit then worrying about vomiting and erasing the word). Erasers worn down and holes in papers are indicators of frequent erasing as well.
What can I do to help a student with obsessive thoughts?
If a teacher notices that any of the above is happening repeatedly, or resulting in distress, there are a few things they may attempt:
- Talk and listen. Teachers may attempt to gain more information from the student. It is important to ask simple questions to understand the thoughts the student may be having, if the thoughts result in worries, if they are having trouble thinking of other things, or if they are feeling distressed.
- Be supportive. It is important for teachers to let the student know that they have noticed that something might be troubling them, that they care, and that they are there to help.
- Let students know that thoughts are not the same things as facts. A lot of thoughts come to our mind on a daily basis and not all that we think about are facts. So, sometimes, it is important to take our thoughts a little less seriously.
- Bring the concerns to a caregiver’s attention. A student’s caregivers need to know of anything concerning occurring in school. Caregivers may also be able to identify if concerns are present outside of school.
- Seek help from a school mental health professional. If the student is distressed or feels that they are unable to stop doing these things, help from a mental health professional might be needed.
- Seek support. With a caregiver’s permission, teachers may consult other professionals who specialize in helping children with emotional difficulties.
Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, whenever possible, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.
The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).
Teachers may also work with caregivers and mental health professionals to alleviate some of the stresses a student with obsessive thinking may experience in the classroom by:
Obsessive thoughts that are too frequent, intense, present in many different contexts, discrepant from those experienced by children the same age, and that negatively interfere with classroom daily activities may indicate the possibility of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Where to find more information
Specific, detailed, and clinical information on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].
If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.
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