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Parent series: My teen wants to do everything correct & right. Watch out for OCD!

Is OCD affecting your teen’s academic performance?

Teens work as hard as they can in school. Getting into college is hard and getting straight A’s is unfortunately almost expected for applicants. This immense pressure that your teen is under can make him extremely focused on doing everything perfectly, paying attention to detail, and having high expectations for the quality of his school-related work. The above qualities are great strengths that will benefit your teen in whatever they work towards in life; however, as with everything, there is the sweet and the sour together, your teen maybe spending more time than they need making sure that they have not made any mistakes, is it possible he’s dealing with OCD? How could you know if your teen is dealing with OCD. Here are some behaviors to watch out for:

– Re-reading the same page over and over because they didn’t feel like they didn’t read it right or truly understood it
– Writing something, erasing it, and re-writing because it didn’t lookright.
– Asking you to repeat what you said to make sure they heard it correctly or that you say it in the right tone of voice
– Creating multiple drafts of assignments trying to make it feel perfect
– Repeatedly using a thesaurus to try to find just the right work
– Spending lengthy periods of time on one assignment

This type of OCD is sometimes difficult to spot because your teen maybe avoiding the uncomfortable feelings their need for perfection bring up by procrastinating or not doing their work at all. Some avoidance signs to look out for:

– Avoiding doing homework that includes reading or writing
– Difficulty sending emails or submitting written online homework
– Turning assignments late
– Difficulty deciding what to work on when given choice of topic

Perfectionism OCD can difficult to spot because teens may be engaging in checking and checking… Click To Tweet

If you have seen any of the above traits in your teen and are worried that he is doing work beyond what is expected for a teen or his grade or he’s avoiding tasks due to struggles with perfectionism, sit down and talk with him. Ask specifically what thoughts, feelings, or even sensations are underlying his academic behavior that makes it challenging and a source of daily struggle. If he insists he cannot move on until something is perfect or reveals he has difficulty starting tasks because of anxiety associated with not being able to achieve the desired finished product, this could be a sign of perfectionism OCD

To give you an understanding of how academic perfectionism shows up as OCD let’s take a look at the chain of obsessions, compulsions, avoidance, and other things they might do to lessen their feeling that something isn’t right.

  1. Your teen is triggered by something relating to an academic task he needs to do: e.g. needing to send an email, reading an essay, or needing to start a project. (Trigger)
  2. They may have thoughts centered around not getting it right, not saying the word correctly, or a strong sensation that something is off and an urge to fix it. (Obsessions)
  3. In response to these thoughts, feelings, and urges they might continuously check their writing for accuracy, re-write their work, and spend lots of time trying to figure out the perfect choice. (Compulsions)
  4. In order to avoid the uncomfortable feeling that something isn’t perfect and the lengthy amount of time spent trying to fix this feeling they might simply avoid doing anything they are unsure about by not turning in assignments or not starting them at all. While it may look like they are slacking off or apathetic about their future, they are actually trying to avoid an overwhelming feeling that something is off or insistent and persistent thoughts about imperfections. (Avoidance)

 

Initially, your teen’s behavior or study habits may have seemed innocuous and harmless. However, the pull to engage in the things your teen does to feel better become stronger the more they use them. Every time your teen experiences a high level of anxiety and discomfort when starting an academic task that is minimized through a compulsion or safety behavior, this reduction in the anxiety is comfortable in the short term, but in the long-term becomes a problem. Even if you see your teen agonizing and seeming to struggle while engaging in their compulsions, they eventually experience some form of relief that reinforces and perpetuates their maladaptive perfectionism OCD.

Exposure therapy (ERP) treatment is the recommended for perfectionism OCD. Your teen has enough to worry about at this point in their life without struggling hours and hours beyond what might be considered to be a reasonable amount. Participating in therapy can help your teen to catch up on the tasks of a thriving adolescent.