Anxiety and OCD in Kids and Teens 101

Available with English captions and subtitles in Spanish.

A conversation with Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, and Jeff Szymanski, PhD, on the basics of anxiety and OCD in youth.

What Are Anxiety and OCD?

Anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are extremely treatable conditions, and the vast majority of children and teens benefit from treatment.

Watch now to learn more about:

  • How to recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety and OCD in kids and teens
  • The different types of anxiety disorders
  • How parents, teachers, and clinicians can help kids and teens who experience these mental health conditions

In this session, Coyne and Szymanski outline two criteria that determine if anxiety or OCD behaviors are a problem:

  • If the intense distress experienced by a child seems developmentally inappropriate
  • If the child is having trouble functioning at home, at school, or with friends

In their talk, the experts describe different anxiety disorders, including simple phobias, social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and OCD.

Coyne states that anxiety and the thoughts and feelings that come with anxiety and OCD are not necessarily a problem.

“The issue is what we do with those thoughts and feelings,” she says. “They lead to rigid patterns of avoidance-based behavior, so treating those patterns of avoidance is a critical element of care.”

The crux of anxiety is when someone has thoughts, feelings, and sensations they don’t want to have. As a result, they tend to avoid the source of their distress, which creates a cycle. This cycle of avoidance can lead to very rigid behaviors that prevent a person from having opportunities to realize they can have a different experience.

The most robust, rigorously tested treatment for anxiety and OCD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The most effective forms of CBT for anxiety involve exposure and response prevention, which requires exposure to the stressful experience and pushing past the tendency to avoid the feared situation.

According to Coyne and Szymanski, treating anxiety disorders in kids and teens is a group effort that involves parents, teachers, and clinicians.

“I am famous for saying OCD is a family affair,” says Szymanski. “Meaning that it gets into your school, your friendships, and family relationships.”

Coyne and Szymanski emphasize that this collective effort creates a support system that allows kids and teens with anxiety disorders to thrive and ensures they have the tools and resources they need to succeed.

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Audience Questions

  • What is the most important message to convey to adults helping children and teens with anxiety and OCD?
  • What are some of the biggest misconceptions around treating anxiety and OCD?
  • What is anxiety? How does it differ from fear and stress?
  • What does anxiety typically look like in children and teens?
  • At what point does normal childhood anxiety become problematic?
  • What are some of the most common anxiety disorders in children and teens?
  • Is OCD considered an anxiety disorder?
  • Are there certain subtypes of OCD that are more common than others in children and teens?
  • What should we know about panic disorder? Does it commonly occur with other disorders?
  • Can major disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic impact the onset or severity of anxiety disorders?
  • What should we know about self-harm relative to anxiety and OCD?
  • Are people with OCD at a higher risk of developing false memories?
  • What is the gold standard of treatment for anxiety and OCD for children and teens?
  • At what age can symptoms of anxiety and OCD start to appear in children?
  • How can a parent help make sure their child’s OCD symptoms don’t get worse? At what point should a parent be concerned?
  • How should clinicians go about diagnosing anxiety and OCD in children and teens? When might it be appropriate to refer out to a specialist?

The information discussed is intended to be educational and should not be used as a substitute for guidance provided by your health care provider. Please consult with your treatment team before making any changes to your care plan.

Resources

About Dr. Coyne

Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, and is a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital. She is also an associate clinical professor at Suffolk University in Boston, a licensed clinical psychologist, and an internationally recognized acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer.

Dr. Coyne has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters on anxiety, OCD, and parenting. She is the author of “The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years,” a book for parents of young children.

About Dr. Szymanski

Jeff Szymanski, PhD, a clinical psychologist, is the founder of Getting to the Next Level Consulting. Dr. Szymanski has over 25 years of experience in mental health as a clinician, supervisor, trainer, and administrator. He served as the executive director of the International OCD Foundation for 15 years following his role as the director of psychological services at McLean’s OCD Institute.

Dr. Szymanski is a lecturer on psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, where he supervises pre-doctoral psychology interns through McLean’s internship program. He is the author of “The Perfectionist’s Handbook,” has appeared in over 150 media stories, and has presented at a multitude of conferences as well as domestic and international trainings.