HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a debilitating disorder that millions of people suffer from nationwide. It doesn't just plague adults, it also affects children.
Doctors say children as young as three years old have been diagnosed with OCD, but there are signs parents can look out for to help their children cope with the disorder before it takes over their lives.
Doctors say OCD begins as an obsession developed from anxiety. They say patients become fixated on their obsession and in order to relieve the stress that comes with their obsession, they perform a certain behavior, which they call a compulsion.
Emily Woodhouse was only in second grade when she was diagnosed with OCD. She says her obsession when she was younger was with germs, specifically germs on her classmates.
"If they didn't wash their hands I would track them throughout the day and would not touch anything that they touched," said Woodhouse. "It was just a lot of work tracking everyone like if they touched the water fountain I guess I wasn’t drinking water anymore."
The pressure of tracking germs eventually caught up to Woodhouse, leading her to breakdown in front of her mother one day.
"We were in the bathroom and she put her purse on the ground and when she went to pick it up I said, 'Shouldn’t you wash your hands first?' and then I burst into tears."
Woodhouse was put into therapy and underwent Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. Doctors describe the treatment as putting patients into situations that expose them to their obsessions and keep them from performing the compulsions that they typically did. Woodhouse says the therapy helped, but years later she developed another trigger - instead of germs, it was an obsession with death.
"I thought when I woke up everyone would be dead," said Woodhouse. "I would sit in the car for a good amount of time going through all types of scenarios and then would stay awake at night and think, 'Well if they are going to be dead, maybe I should just call the police now.'"
More therapy eventually helped Woodhouse cope with her thoughts about death. Doctors say that OCD is not a curable disorder, but if patients are able to figure out their triggers they are able to cope with the anxiety that may arise in their lives. When it comes to children, doctors say parent may be able to get help for their kids before OCD becomes debilitating.
"The earlier we diagnosis OCD, the less those compulsions are ingrained so they are easier to treat at that point so they haven’t affected life so they aren’t affecting your quality of life," said Dr. Ryan Light of Tidewater Medical Center. "The earlier we can begin Cognitive Therapy as well as the ERP Therapy, the earlier it's going to be treated and the better the results are."
Dr. Light says parents should be on lookout for repeated behaviors or anxiety that comes when a child is unable to perform a certain task before starting another one.