Dealing with Repetitive Behaviours and OCD Tendencies

I’m going to be sharing with you my top nine tips for helping a young person who has some obsessive type tendencies. I’m trying to steer away from saying OCD here. OCD is a very rare and unique disorder and most of us are somewhere on a spectrum of OCD-type behaviours, but some people are just more extreme with it. First, you’re going to make sure that in speaking to the young person about this particular repetitive behaviour that they have, we are not humiliating them in how we refer to it.

A good frame around doing this will be to remind them most people find comfort in things that they do repeatedly and that is just straight-up human nature. We get a sense of excitement, and on a more extreme end, uncertainty when things are brand new to us and we do not know what we’re doing but when we have mastered something, and we’re good at it, then we get feelings of comfort and certainty.

Sometimes when our lives are a little bit bumpy in some other area, we might end up seeking out more comfort and certainty in a different area. For example, you might notice that your young person is having repetitive type behaviours at home because they’re having great levels of uncertainty at school. What we want to point out is that it’s quite normal for people to want to do more routine things to increase their sense of comfort, so we tend to enjoy doing more repetitive things.

When someone has straight-up OCD or some repetitive type of behaviour, they have high levels of anxiety and there might not be anything that’s circumstantial that’s causing that anxiety to be there. It could be old anxiety that’s outdated but they haven’t shaken it off yet. It’s perhaps delayed trauma which is just manifesting itself now. If you’re a parent or a teacher don’t go exploring what the trauma is, find a qualified therapist who will be able to help them through that and if they seem to be having unidentified anxiety that will be the way to go.

We want to get logical because very often these compulsive and repetitive type behaviours seem to help in some way for that young person, but logically they know doing that thing doesn’t help with the bad feeling. We want to have these conversations where we break things down logically and say, “you do realise that doing that behaviour doesn’t make that feeling go away”.

We want to get their agreement on starting to be brave and taking risks. We want to get their agreement on stepping outside of those behaviours, that they’ve created, these rules that they have made. When we’ve got their agreement then we need to discuss needing to be very brave in those moments – you’re not going to switch the light switch on and off four times, instead, you’re just going to switch it off once and leave the room. Make sure that you’ve got some strategies in place to redirect your thoughts, and distract yourself so that as soon as you’ve changed your pattern you can quickly move your mind onto other things so that you don’t keep running it through your head repeatedly.

The next thing is that we’re going to break down this behaviour a little bit every day. We don’t attempt to eliminate the behaviour completely all at once, this will happen over days or months. Very often when a young person is experiencing repetitive behaviours it’s because there is something that they have doubts about and it’s normally the thing that they should be most confident about.  For example, they might have doubts about people being safe and, for the most part, people are pretty safe so they think that by doing their repetitive behaviour it somehow gives them a contract with the universe. That means, that the person that they’re concerned about is going to be safer. If they stop doing their repetitive behaviours then that person will no longer be safe, that’s just one example.

We want to make sure that we are pointing out to them all the flaws in their logic, and we want them to know that we see them and acknowledge them when they do things in their new way. We don’t want to over-praise them as that will embarrass them and it could create new problems where they find other ways to seek out attention by doing things that are always going to give them those rewarding behaviours. We want to get to a stage where they do those things because it’s the right thing for them to do for themselves not because they got praised for it. That’s another reason why we want to avoid going overboard with the praise as they start to avoid their repetitive behaviours because we don’t want them latching on to that praise as a substitute for the comfort that they were getting from the repetitive behaviour.


By Gemma Bailey


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