Parenting traps to avoid with your OCD offspring

Being a parent is probably the hardest job in the world, bar none. And being married probably comes in second. Anything added to the difficulty of being a parent is just extra work, like parenting a child with a disability. In that case, all of the normal difficulties apply, plus you have special issues related to the disability itself.

In the case of parenting a child with OCD, there are many potential traps and pitfalls to watch out for. Some of these relate to parenting any child, but they are ones that you may fall into just because you are worried about the OCD instead. Other ones are specific to the problems that OCD brings into the household. See how many of these apply to your own family. As always, comments about the traps I’ve listed, or even identifying other traps that aren’t listed, are welcome below in the comments.

1. Unintentionally enabling. You may have learned by now enough about your child’s OCD so that you no longer routinely give in to enabling his rituals. At least, you might recognize certain behaviors as enabling (like pouring his milk for him so that he won’t have to touch the carton, wiping off the TV remote after you use it, doing extra loads of laundry for him, or speaking the “good night routine” three times just the way she wants it). But what about unintentional enabling? These are traps you might fall into whether your child recognizes that they are part of his OCD or not. These include things like saying the “good night ritual” “just one time,” answering a question for him to which you are pretty sure he knows the answer, offering passive reassurance by being present while he does something of which he’s afraid (this allows him to feel comforted that you would let him know if there was, in fact, a danger), or doing something first to show her when she’s actually dealing with uncertainty. Even telling a child “that’s just your OCD” can end up being ritual reassurance if the child takes it that way. If you’re ever in doubt, ask the child something like “how hard would it be if I don’t” do this or that?

2. Problems with boundaries. Boundaries are descriptions of how far you are willing to go under certain circumstances. They are not limitations on the child’s behavior (those are separate parenting issues). Thus, “If you continue to screen, I will leave the room” is setting a boundary; “You may not continue to scream!” is not a boundary but rather a limitation, and one that you might not be able to enforce. Setting boundaries teaches children that their behaviors have consequences, and most children won’t like this. After all, which children actually appreciate negative consequences? As a parent, you may have difficulty setting boundaries if you are too concerned about your child always liking you, never feeling distress, never being unhappy with something you decide or if you have a hard time tolerating feelings of guilt. You may also have trouble if you try to set boundaries that you are unable or unwilling to enforce. Setting boundaries teaches children many lessons they need to learn, including that they can’t always get what they want, that they will experience disappointment, that their behaviors have consequences, that manipulating is not an effective life strategy, and that sometimes they must do things they don’t like. Be brave about teaching these lessons using boundaries; your children will appreciate it later.

3. Not allowing children to experience needs or wants. We currently live in an age where it is common to give our children not only everything that they want, but everything we think they want. If they never do without, they never experience needs or wants. When they do experience these things later on as adults, they will be completely unprepared to deal with these feelings. Additionally, having needs or wants leads to motivation, patience, strategy and tolerance. These are vital traits for navigating adulthood, and learning them sooner is much better than learning them later.

4. Giving into entitlement. Often related to needs and wants, entitlement is a feeling by the child that he or she deserves something. When a child fulfills a contract or in some other way earns a reward or privilege, then they in fact might deserve something. The problem with entitlement comes when they feel deserving without any effort on their part. “I want it, therefore I deserve it” or “Everyone else has one, so I should too” are common examples of childhood entitlement. Giving in to these feelings only reinforces the notion that the child really does deserve something with no effort, and never needs to tolerate disappointment. Ask yourself this question: in the adult world, is this realistic? The way you treat your children is the way you prepare them to be adults.

5. “Ownership” and “rights”. The area of whether children have the right of ownership is still murky, but it’s clear that children do have certain rights. However, it is also clear that those rights are superseded by parental judgment and by the common good (for example, in the school). If your child claims the right of freedom of speech (a common ploy), it does not mean that he can say whatever he wants without consequences. Parents and schools still have the authority to overrule the ways children can express themselves. And when your child says “You can’t take that away from me, it’s mine!”, it might even be that he cannot own anything yet before the age of majority. At the very least, he has possessions only subsequent to your approval. That means you can take away things. The Constitution is not meant to limit your ability to be a good parent.

6.  Privacy vs. protection. A specific case of “rights” as described above is the right to privacy. This, too, is subsequent to your permission. Children have no inherent right to privacy, other than what you give them. If your child has not earned your trust, and has shown you that he or she engages and dangerous or reckless behavior, your requirement as a parent to protect him or her supersedes any question about privacy. If, in your judgment as parent, you deem your child trustworthy and safe, you may extend privacy to them as you see fit. Otherwise, it’s okay to let them know you will access their phone, journal and friendships any time your ability to protect them comes into question.

7. The Myth of Fairness. One trap all parents get into is the Myth of Fairness. In common usage, fairness only applies to something being consistent with either rules or with relative merit. The idea that there is some over arching meaning for fairness is truly a myth, in that it does not exist. At least not the way children tend to use it. “It’s not fair!” really means “I don’t like that!” and nothing more. In fact, children benefit from learning early on that life is not fair, and that any two people, even if related, should not expect fair and equal treatment. For example, an older brother might get permissions that the younger brother has not yet learned. Is this fair? Certainly not, but it is appropriate. The sooner children learned not to expect fairness, the easier adulthood will be on them. However, if you make a bargain or a contract with your child, the fairness of rules dictate that you keep your word. Additionally, if you allow your other children a certain permission when they turn a certain age, the fairness of relative merit suggests that your younger children should acquire this privilege at the same age (unless, of course, other conditions reduce the relative merit of the youngest child, in which case the age consideration may not be sufficient). In the end, fairness is like Santa Claus: it’s an ideal, something we wish for and want to exist, but is really a fabrication of our own desires.

8. Being bullied by your own guilt. Parents often feel guilty about many things while raising children, but this is especially true when raising a child with OCD. You may recognize that he or she has limitations because of the disorder, and you certainly may feel sorrow and empathy for the condition. But guilt is only appropriate if you have done something wrong, and otherwise that guilt is simply unearned. Being bullied by your guilt means not having the strength to set boundaries and limitations, not allowing your child to learn from needs and wants, and not being able to recover from disappointment. Just as your child with OCD needs to learn how to tolerate anxiety and uncertainty, you may need to learn how to tolerate guilt without doing anything about it, especially if that guilt is unearned. To paraphrase a popular book on anxiety, “feel the guilt and do it anyway”.

9. Trying to be your kid’s friend instead of being the parent. As parents, you probably want to feel respected and acknowledged by your kid. But this is not an equal, two-way relationship. You cannot be your kid’s friend when you need to be his parent. His job as a kid (and especially as a teen) is to learn by making mistakes, to determine the limits of good behavior by testing the boundaries, and to determine his place in the world by challenging everything. Your job, as a parent, is to keep him safe while he does these things, and that usually means to set the boundaries that you can defend and then defend them. You can be friendly, but you can’t be a friend. When this comes to OCD, it might mean figuring out how to get your child to agree to treatment, especially if his perspective is that it’s easier to do nothing and simply suffer. A friend might agree to go along with that kind of attitude, but you don’t have that luxury as a parent. Protect them (even from themselves), educate them about the world, and give them the tools that they will need to be a successful adult. These are the jobs of a parent.

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