Living With OCD: Guidelines For Family Members


To strengthen communication and cooperation between those with OCD and their family members, the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) offers several guidelines.

Naturally, the guidelines need to be adjusted to meet the needs of each household, and that may require the aid of a therapist specializing in OCD treatment.

This list of 10 guidelines summarizes IOCDF’s suggestions; for more detail go to the IOCDF website (link below):

  1. Because change of any kind can worsen OCD symptoms, it may help to modify or relax expectations during transitional times. Maybe say something like, “It makes sense your symptoms are worse right now, just look at the changes you’re going through.”
  2. When someone is in treatment for OCD, day to day progress comparisons tend to be counterproductive. It’s more valuable to focus on the overall progress since treatment began.
  3. Keep in mind there is a wide variation in how fast individuals with OCD respond to treatment. Letting go of compulsive behaviors can be scary so for many OCD sufferers gradual progress is the only way forward.
  4. Do your best to separate OCD from the person who has it. Though it’s important to avoid participating in someone’s compulsions, that individual still needs to feel accepted, and be encouraged as a person.
  5. Watch for and acknowledge the small accomplishments of people dealing with OCD. It may, for example, take tremendous effort for them to cut their homework time by ten minutes, or remain in bed instead of getting up to check the stove a third time. What seems small to us may be monumental for someone with OCD.
  6. If someone with OCD is having a bad day, often signified by a “bad mood,” he or she will have a diminished capacity to divert obsessions and resist compulsions. During those times It may be best to relax limit setting, unless a life-threatening or violent situation arises.
  7. When an individual with OCD seeks reassurance to assuage doubt, avoid providing lengthy explanations, or getting into debates. Trying to obtain absolute certainty is the essence of OCD, and the goal of treatment is learning to tolerate that uncertainty.
  8. Even if you notice medication side effects, encourage OCD sufferers to take their meds as prescribed. If you have concerns, ask the family member if you could accompany them to an appointment with the prescribing physician.
  9. It can be healthy for families to set limits on how much or often they talk about anxiety and OCD. This helps maintain a more normal home environment, and prevents OCD from running the household. Also, all family members need their private time, including parents or other care givers, and the person with OCD.
  10. The needs of non-OCD family members should not be ignored to avoid conflict, or to protect the individual with OCD from their fears. Through negotiation, and limit setting normal family life can be maintained as the member with OCD learns to tolerate their anxiety.

It’s recommended households see a family therapist specializing in OCD, or attend a family support group for OCD to create clear agreements on how to reduce tensions, and preserve the household while helping the member with OCD reach treatment goals.

Source: Barbara Van Noppen, Ph.D., and Michele Pato, M.D. / IOCDF
Photo credit: Brandon Atkinson

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