Reader Minimizing Dad writes,
My 8-year-old son seems to have some OCD-like habits, and I'm at my wits' end wondering how to help him. I know one obvious suggestion is to take him to a professional counselor, but I wonder if that's overkill or will lead to him feeling like there's something wrong with him?
The habits revolve around clothing fitting exactly right. The most common example is that he's obsessed with his shoes being tied extremely tight. Not only will he retie them many, many time each morning, he will avoid a lot of activities simply because he realizes he'll need to be wearing shoes to participate. And I'm not just talking about avoiding activities many kids would want to avoid... he'll reconsider going to an amusement park, once told that he'll (of course) have to wear shoes while there.
We've tried many things to minimize the conflict. In the summer, we happily buy him sandals or flip flops. But those are always deemed "too loose." The same goes for shoes with Velcro straps versus laces. He can't pull the straps tight enough and will spend 10 minutes unsuccessfully trying to make them tighter.
I wish I could ignore it, and goodness knows I try. But when it's always a big fight to get him off the floor (where he's retying his shoes over and over) and out the door for school, or listening to him groan and stomp his feet in frustration once he has his shoes on, it's not that easy. It also means he opts out of many things he says he wants to do. For example, skating, skiing, hiking or any sports that require cleats are either non-starters once he realizes the footwear required, or they become wholly unenjoyable to him once he starts.
The reason I hesitate to take him to a therapist is that he seems to be fairly well adjusted in most other aspects. He doesn't have other OCD symptoms that I notice, and is quite sociable, playful and outgoing. He also goes to a school for gifted students and a couple of his teachers have said that highly gifted children can often be quite sensitive to touch or how their clothes fit. And he is generally very picky about his clothes (we have similar challenges with things like his pants fitting tightly enough, but not to same degree as with his shoes). So, I don't want to overreact and lead to him thinking of himself as a kid who has disorders.
So far, none of our efforts to help him have worked. We've tried being stern, we've tried ignoring the issue and we've tried to just be patient. When we do the latter, he seems to make a bigger effort to have us "notice" that he's unhappy or annoyed with his shoes. I just wish there was a simple solution for what seems (to me) to be a minor annoyance. Can you help?
Look, you sound like a smart guy. Yet, from the moniker I gave you and my really subtle image choice, you can ascertain that I think you're in denial here. Your kid has a disabling phobia of shoes. Whether it's OCD or a phobia or a larger sensory or high sensitivity or even autism-spectrum issue, we don't know. But your kid is opting out of fun social activities because of this issue. It is severely impacting his social life and quality of life in general. Why let him suffer like this? This will not go away. It will seem weirder and weirder to the other kids, and will impact whether he makes friends.
As you note, therapy is the answer. Exposure with response prevention is a highly effective treatment for OCD, phobias, and for anxiety in general. The only reason your child would think that going to a therapist meant something bad about him would be if you acted like it was. For example, if you say, "I'm so sorry, and it doesn't mean there's ANYTHING WRONG WITH YOU, but we're going to take you to a therapist, and if you don't like it, we can leave," then you're going to have a kid with a complex about seeing a therapist. If you say, "This issue with the shoes is really stopping you from enjoying fun activities, so we're going to see a nice woman who can help you work on it," then your child will think nothing bad about himself at all.
More benefits of therapy: your child would build self-esteem and self-efficacy by gradually confronting harder and harder tasks and succeeding at that, your child would be assessed fully for other anxieties or obsessions or sensory issues or Asperger's behaviors which may be there, and you would know you did everything possible to facilitate your child's social and emotional health.
It would be useful for you to introspect about why you would even think twice about taking him to a therapist when he has such a discrete and disabling anxiety that isn't getting better and can easily make other kids steer clear of him. For some reason, you are minimizing this issue, and there can be various reasons why:
- You are anxious and scared and sad and in denial that you transmitted the anxiety to your child (probably not, since anxious people tend to catastrophize, not minimize, issues... but others reading this may feel this applies to them)
- Your kid's mom is anxious and you hate her anxiety and you hope your son doesn't turn out anxious like her
- You were made fun of for something as a kid, and now you don't want other kids to make fun of your kid for seeing a therapist (BUT THEY WILL ALREADY MAKE FUN OF HIM WAY MORE ABOUT THE SHOES, YOU KNOW)
- You felt inadequate in some way as a child and you are worried that seeing a therapist will make your child feel inadequate
Get your kid to a therapist, you owe it to him. Pretty much every adult I ever met with anxiety issues in childhood wishes their parents had gotten them help as a young kid, before the anxiety prevented them from living life to its fullest, socially, academically, physically, in every way really. I am one of those ex-anxious kids so take it from me. Anxiety can really sabotage a carefree childhood.
So, stop minimizing. Focus. Make your kid's OCD tendencies your personal project. Send him to a therapist and drive him there with a smile on your face. Deal with whatever your own issues are that you're projecting onto this situation. Read books with him, like this: What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming OCD (What-to-Do Guides for Kids). Be happy that you have the resources to get your kid help, and use them.
Good luck and thanks for writing in. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Come On, As a Guy You Know How Important Group Activities And Sports Are To Help Little Boys Fit In. Help Your Kid Out.