It's Not Exactly A Secret, Sweetie, but Maybe You Shouldn't Tell Everyone That You Have OCD
November 30, 2010 3:10 AM   Subscribe

My 12-year old 6th grade son wants to mention that he has OCD for an in-class project and I don't know how to handle this. I know as a middle school teacher that his audience may not respond the positive/neutral way he thinks they will and while I want as a mommy to spare him unnecessary peer nastiness, I also don't want him to think OCD is something to hide. Help.

He has "bad thought" OCD and it's mostly under control; you wouldn't know he has it.

For an "All About Me" project, my kid mentions that one of the big things that make him who he is that he has OCD. Overall, he's a pretty with-it kid, he has a lot of friends, gets great grades, is considered the appropriate goofball in class by his teachers. To him, the OCD isn't negative, it's part of what makes him tick.

But I know kids and my teacher/mommy instinct is that he may very likely be targeted by not-quite-accepting-kids. And I want to spare him that because kids that age can be SO MEAN, and my kid doesn't quite get that.

I also don't want him thinking that his OCD is something to be ashamed of (and while I very much wish we lived in an open, accepting world where differences were celebrated, we don't and I don't need my kid to begin the one-littleman crusade for acceptance).

I've tried talking to him about oversharing, that whether I color my hair or curse when driving is something we can talk about in the family, but it's really only a family/best friend conversation. (FWIW, his teachers know and they're not sure how to let this play this out; at this point, in-class presentations are off and the reports won't be put on the bulletin board. But this is undoubtedly going to come up again.)

So how do I play this with him?
posted by dzaz to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Could you make it not about the OCD itself, but about medical details in general? After all, it would be equally inappropriate for him to go around oversharing in class about the plantar wart he had removed or his ongoing gastric reflux problems or whatever.

At 12, he's old enough to understand that some things are personal. There's nothing wrong with them (obviously we all go to doctors for various ailments), but sharing those details makes many people uncomfortable, so the polite thing to do is to keep it to oneself.
posted by Bardolph at 3:30 AM on November 30, 2010

Well, I agree that kids that age can be very cruel. I was a painfully shy kid and was miserable with all the teasing I got in elementary school, so I think I understand what you're afraid of. That said, I don't think I was teased because of the fact that I was a nerd before it was fashionable to be nerdy, or because I dressed like a cross between a farmer and a middle-aged accountant from the '60s, even though those things were true, even though those were the things I was teased about. Rather, I think i was teased simply because I was shy, instinctively hid from attention, and didn't know how to reply to or engage with other kids. The nastier kids kept coming back at me because I was perceived as vulnerable and ashamed, and for no other reason. I would've been much better off if I'd simply been proud of who I was, and able to talk about it openly without showing fear. I didn't manage to assert myself that way until the middle of high school. I wish I'd done it in the 6th grade.

I don't have kids, and I'm a long way from 6th grade so my judgment here is questionable, but my guess is that the OCD label doesn't matter much one way or another. What matters is how your kid responds to being teased, because other kids will take their cues from him.
posted by jon1270 at 3:54 AM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you've got quite the kick-ass kid, so you're instincts must have been pretty good so far.

That said, a tonne of the things I was ashamed and quiet about were the very things I should have been shouting about - all my other friends at the time were experiencing similar things and I would have felt so much less isolated. Your kid is willing to ve that brave so a kid like I was doesn't have to be.

Another thing: most of the popular people at my school were the sort that were well-liked because they were confident and accepting of themselves.

What if you role play a few scenarios so he feels prepared to respond to any bad behaviour, but otherwise let him be the gloriously confident young man he is?
posted by katiecat at 4:07 AM on November 30, 2010 [8 favorites]

I think it's important to be clear in your own mind whether the problem you perceive is him being bullied, or the inappropriatess of sharing. Or both.

If it were only the former, you might have a conversation with him about how his less accepting peers might react and what he is going to do in return. Make him see the one-man-crusade problem, and how this may not be the right place for him to pick his battle. (If he insists, and if the teachers are willing to make this a teaching moment, who knows? Maybe you should let him give it a go? But as his teachers don't sound too enthusiastic...)
posted by Omnomnom at 4:11 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your talks about oversharing don't seem to be addressing the real problem - that other people can be complete dicks, and giving them ammo is a bad idea. Talk to him about the potential problems that might occur, get him to think about the whole class's reaction and not just his friends - and then, if he wants to go for it, support him wholeheartedly.

It's not about him being ashamed, and shouldn't be framed in that way - it's about other people needing to prove themselves by bashing others.

I agree with Omnomnom that you don't seem clear in your mind whether this is about oversharing or bullying. He seems far more cool with his OCD than you are, and he may well have thought through all this, including potential bullying.
posted by Coobeastie at 4:20 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hooray for your son! Or at least his desire to be honest about who he is. My first instinct was to agree with Coobeastie that you should prepare him well for a whole range of outcomes and let him go for it if he still wants to, but I suspect I'm terribly naive about kids and their cruelty, so would frankly discourage you from listening to me too closely on that basis.

But my other thought was that if this is going to keep coming up, and you think he is the kind of ballsy kid (yay you for raising him so well!) who is going to want to share it at some time during his school career, maybe better for it to be in an organised forum like a presentation rather than just telling a friend, who tells someone else, who tells someone else, until there's a Chinese whisper that he's officially nuts and people making whooping noises at him in the halls.

In the classroom he'd have time to explain the background, that it's not just him that has it, but it's a recognised condition, that lots of people have it in all sorts of ways, better and worse than him, and that it's really not a million miles from that thing loads of us do where we decide not to walk on the cracks in the pavement, or always lay our pencils out a certain way on the desk. The teacher could ask other people what little things they have like that that they like to do. I'm pretty sure when I was a kid I went through a phase of wanting to 'even things up' by doing something with my right hand after I'd done it with my left, and I would probably have been delighted to hear a brave, happy and confident presentation from someone like your son.

But I really know nothing about kids...
posted by penguin pie at 4:43 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

you don't seem clear in your mind whether this is about oversharing or bullying.

Bullying is a recognized problem at his school; I don't want him to make himself a target because no matter how well he shares it, he's going to be setting himself up for avoidable backlash.

I think at the very least we'll have the "some people are just kinda ignorant, sweetie," talk and see what he thinks.

I also may be overthinking this whole thing (it's just that every day at work, I see those nastier kids and when I imagine him walking in the hall and some jerky kids saying, "Hey, go wash your hands!" my heart breaks).
posted by dzaz at 5:03 AM on November 30, 2010

Yeah, he really really needs to be aware of the backlash.
You know your son best and how realistic he is, how you'd have to talk to him to make him understand what he might be up against. I'd be frank. Remind him of the bullying problem in his school. On the other hand, tell him you're proud of him for wanting to do this, too. He's a pretty cool kid!

I agree that this has nothing to do with having to be ashamed of himself. And also it doesn't mean that the world is a scary place he has to hide from. But he needs to be aware of the consequences, and whether he wants to challenge them. Because it's not really necessary.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:28 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of my very best friends - a man I've known for over 10 years - has been diagnosed with Bipolar I for several years. He is currently working on finishing his BA, and for one of his classes he will be giving a presentation on mental health policy. He asked me whether I thought he should mention his bipolar in the presentation. I advised him against it.

Not because I have a problem with it, or that I don't accept it, or whatever. And not that I think the other people in his college classes are going to bully him. It was more the oversharing angle ('you don't know these people') and that it would distract from whatever other ideas he was sharing, possibly for the rest of the semester. I know my friend well enough to know that those two things are important to him, and that he is not an overly outgoing guy, so would not be comfortable answering even the politest of questions about bipolar.

Your son might be seeing these kids for the next 6 years, you know? Would he be comfortable with having some of his classmates seeing him as 'that kid with OCD'? Would he be comfortable with the jerk kids trying to find his triggers for OCD behavior to set him off? Does he want to be an OCD ambassador for his classmates? Does he trust his classmates? Does he trust his teacher (if s/he is not already aware)? Are there safe spaces within the school where he turn to if it doesn't turn out so well?

If he has considered those things, and is comfortable with that role for himself, then, well, let him go for it. It would be a brave action, because this kind of disclosure can help to reduce stigma for mental and neurological disorders, but is not something that any 12 year old should tackle without some serious consideration.
posted by palindromic at 6:10 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would explain that it's not a great idea to share this private aspect of his life because people have to earn his gift of intimacy. That his private experience is something that is really precious and special, even the hard parts, and that not everyone can have it without sharing back something of equal value, or proving that they are accepting and worth sharing himself with. Pearls before swine kinda thing. And that there are lots of different levels of sharing, and lots of different kinds of friends with whom you can be pleasant and have a nice time without trusting them with your deeper parts.
And then if he still insists, let him know that if he does it, to go in with his head held high. Confidence at this age matters more than the subject matter. A super confident popular kid could go in and say they had leprosy and the rest would try to order leprosy off the internet.
Good luck.
posted by keener_sounds at 6:13 AM on November 30, 2010 [18 favorites]

My question would be whether his OCD is relevant to the presentation he is making. If it is, that makes a greater case for sharing it. If it is just an aside, maybe now is not the time.

Either way, it is a good teaching moment that not being ashamed of something isn't necessarily a reason to broadcast it to the world.
posted by gjc at 6:15 AM on November 30, 2010

I think that it would be unwise for your son to make any kind of public announcement that he has OCD. To have an officially diagnosed mental illness is too much of a stigma. If he wants to discuss it, he could talk about his personality, his thoughts, or his obsessions, without actually calling them a disorder. We all have our quirks, right? The whole concept of normalcy is rather abstract; there are no perfectly normal people. You can talk about what makes you into the person that you are, without having to turn it into a medical diagnosis. And after all, everyone is obsessive about something, at some time in their lives. Some are more so than others. Variations in human personality make life more interesting. I sometimes find it necessary to describe myself as a nonconformist. I definitely have my oddities. But it is not a medical condition (or at least, has never been officially diagnosed as such).
posted by grizzled at 6:35 AM on November 30, 2010

"I would explain that it's not a great idea to share this private aspect of his life because people have to earn his gift of intimacy."

This is good advice, I think. When I feel inclined to disclose personal details, I find it helpful to stop and remind myself that it's easy to share things, but impossible to unsay them once they've been said. This way, I'm able to evaluate whether it's the sort of thing that I really don't mind people knowing forever.

It's not as though I'm keeping secrets; I'm simply ensuring that there will never be a moment in the future in which I wish I hadn't shared something.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:57 AM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is he seeing a counselor about his OCD? A lot of times professionals can put a really good spin on an issue like this. I know someone who was in the exact same position as your son, and was really glad to hear what their counselor experience taught them about announcing one's OCD.

Just thinking that pulling in some additional help can really save your son from embarrassment later on. As someone with OCD, he's probably got this scenario in his head where he says "I HAVE OCD" and everyone gets all teary-eyed and a few people stand up and say "I DO TOO!!!" but in reality he's going to be dealing with the fallout of such a statement for months and years down the road. Not even mainly bitter fallout, but just awkward, standoffish fallout where people say, "hey, do you still have OCD or what? That was pretty funny when you announced it that one day" when he's having a bad day as a freshman in high school.

There IS a potential upside to making such an announcement, but for a kid of that age it's a risky bet.
posted by circular at 7:07 AM on November 30, 2010

Bullying is a recognized problem at his school; I don't want him to make himself a target because no matter how well he shares it, he's going to be setting himself up for avoidable backlash.


it's just that every day at work, I see those nastier kids and when I imagine him walking in the hall and some jerky kids saying, "Hey, go wash your hands!" my heart breaks

I may be way off since I don't know what the environment is like at his particular school, but in my experience this is not really how bullying works. Literally everyone has something that can be used to make fun of them. The difference between a kid who is afraid to go to school and a kid who is liked by everyone is generally not the amount of available insult material. Yes, certain traits can make it harder for someone to fit in socially, but if his actual OCD is functionally invisible now it will still be functionally invisible if other people know about it. And there's really no difference between the mean kid who has it out for him saying "Hey, go wash your hands!" instead of any number of possible insults that mean kids have at their disposal. 6th grade may be a little early for him to decide to go public with this kind of information about himself, but in my opinion your specific reasons for not wanting him to share it are not really realistic.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:35 AM on November 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Bullying is a recognized problem at his school; I don't want him to make himself a target because no matter how well he shares it, he's going to be setting himself up for avoidable backlash.

Well, I could see how him announcing it and explaining it to his classmates might help prevent him getting bullied on this topic, since it won't be a secret and he's not ashamed of it. It's not very satisfying to taunt someone if they're not going to get mad or upset.

I think his expectations of how this will be received by the class might be a the bigger issue. At first, everyone will be curious and polite, but stereotypes do have a way of creeping in. What's his response to unexpectedly negative reactions from peers?
posted by desuetude at 7:40 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I may be way off since I don't know what the environment is like at his particular school, but in my experience this is not really how bullying works.

In my experience as a middle school teacher, unfortunately, this is EXACTLY how it works. In a way I'm lucky that I have the insider perspective here because I can anticipate problems.

And to that awesome and noble notion for those kids who are being harrassed and still keep their heads high and ignore it and do all the right things; those kids STILL get bullied on a daily basis. And I don't want that to be my kid.

Bullying in very recent years (with texting and Facebook especially) has become a much, much bigger problem.

I really appreciate all the responses here.
posted by dzaz at 7:52 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

One other thing which I haven't seen anyone mention yet - if he states that OCD is a mental illness/problem/issue, there is a high likelihood that someone in that room or in that school is going to associate OCD with ALL mental issues and instead of just "go wash your hands" your son will be hearing "retard" "loonie toon" "nutjob" "you should be locked up in a padded room" - pick your own worst epithet.

If he's the type of kid that can stand up to that, then go for it. But I would make sure he is aware of this possibility before he moves forward.
posted by CathyG at 8:16 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

if he states that OCD is a mental illness/problem/issue there is a high likelihood that someone in that room or in that school is going to associate OCD with ALL mental issues

His classmates are almost certainly familiar with ADD, Aspergers, depression, anxiety, accommodation of learning disabilities. I think kids have a more sophisticated understanding of disorders, now that diagnosis and treatment is less stigmatized.

Doesn't mean that kids don't get bullied for this stuff, of course, but I don't know that OCD would get lumped in with "crazy."
posted by desuetude at 8:45 AM on November 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have learning disabilities. I do not openly announce it unless I am with a group that I have known for a long period of time. In high school and college I would not even tell my instructors that I had problems unless someone forced me to show them my IEP.

Its not that I feared being bullied or thought that I would be made fun of. Just that people unknowingly treat you different if they know. To them having learning disabilities makes you stupid and they treat you as such.

I am "gifted with learning disabilities" this means that my IQ is higher then the people making fun of me, try and explain that to a middle school bully. I have, it does not go over well.

In high school I had instructors speak to me slower after they found out that they have learning disabilities. This was not helpful, I do not have auditory processing problems and speaking to me slowly just makes me think you are an ass. All of my in class comments get regarded as gold, I can be dead wrong and still have the instructor say "Awesome comment, you really have a great understanding of this". I have turned in hand written work that is unintelligibly written and still receive an As.

This got to the point that In high school I would write random sentences in my papers to see if anyone was reading them. I still have papers with the opening sentence being "You are never going to read this but...

You need to let your son know that telling people is fine, that he is an awesome kid who is no different then the people around him. He also needs to know the just because you understand this does not mean that the whole world will and selecting the people he tells carefully is a good choice.
posted by Felex at 9:57 AM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't know that OCD would get lumped in with "crazy."

Me neither, but it can get lumped in with something kind of silly and laughable. Like the TV show "Monk."

True story...last year, my son's 5th grade teacher was clearing off her desk and made a joking, self-deprecating comment about having OCD because she was organizing.
What I mean is that to a lot people, OCD is something that's joked about.
posted by dzaz at 10:26 AM on November 30, 2010

Middle school? Have him mention that Megan Fox also has OCD. No need to get into the subtleties of her condition versus his; just make it clear: the woman who is currently celebrated as the hottest and most popular person on the planet, has essentially the same condition I do.

Other OCD celebrities can be found here and here.
posted by foursentences at 10:39 AM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Excerpting from those pages, with an eye to whom middle-schoolers might know:

Cameron Diaz
David Beckham
Justin Timberlake
Leonardo DiCaprio
Harrison Ford
Howard Stern
Albert Einstein
Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit

I want to be clear that I'm not trying to minimize this; it's a sticky social situation. But if your son is determined to take a stand rather than bend to stigma -- and more power to him, by the way, that that's his instinct -- then the best way to destigmatize it might be to associate it with superlatively-popular people. Nobody makes fun of the physically handicapped in the school where the head cheerleader uses a prosthetic.
posted by foursentences at 10:47 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am not a middle-schooler (college student, in a rehab assistant program), and I have ADHD, not OCD, but I do share my condition with people (classmates, instructors, coworkers in peds hospital), in the hopes of educating them (because I am seemingly *not* what the "typical person with ADHD" looks like in the minds of the general public). I think that as ADHD is still underdiagnosed in girls/women (I wasn't diagnosed until 28), it's important for me to share, so that someone else can maybe be spared the many years of misery (culminating in chronic depression - that's something that I don't necessarily share with others now, but I was pretty open in high school, and honestly, it never once bit me in the butt) that I experienced. And I share so that people might realize that ADHD does not = stupid, or unable to succeed academically. I also speak about how Ritalin finally enabled me to be successful in post-secondary ed, because there is so much misinformation and fearmongering out there about stimulant medications.

As noted, I am an adult, not a pre-teen, but I think that there is tremendous power in sharing our experiences with others, no matter our age. I recognize that my perspective is probably also coloured by working in an integrated rec program in said peds hospital, in which kids with disabilities participate along with kids without disabilities, and we're all pretty open about discussing differences.
posted by purlgurly at 11:05 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

foursentences: "Middle school? Have him mention that Megan Fox also has OCD."

He takes great delight in this, believe me! Ben Stiller, too.
posted by dzaz at 3:57 PM on November 30, 2010

That's nice advice for coping with a disorder, but bullies really don't give a rats ass who else has a disease when they are out to make fun of someone. You are trying to appeal to rationality with someone who has none. Or at least chooses to have none. Bullies aren't making fun of the disease or the hair color or the [whatever]. They are picking on the individual in any way they can think of, and trying to argue with them just gives them more ammunition.

The flower children didn't call capt. Kirk "Herbert" because they forgot his name. They did it to get under his skin.
posted by gjc at 7:36 PM on November 30, 2010

You don't reason with the bullies, you reason with yourself. If the taunts don't get under your skin, they don't work as a weapon.
posted by desuetude at 8:22 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Update: I talked to him and he decided to take the OCD part off of the presentation. Thanks everyone.
posted by dzaz at 12:10 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you already made your decision, but really, the hard part is getting your son to be ok with it. Sounds like you guys are already there.
posted by DTHEASH1 at 4:27 PM on December 1, 2010

I was going to say let your son speak of something that is part of him but keener_sounds brought in valuable advice. In this age where we are showing everything about our families and of ourselves... I think it's good to keep something for yourself and let others earn the right to know you when they reveal something of themselves. I have OCD but not everyone knows that. They just think I'm a sweetheart who sometimes comes up with off the wall things. :-) And that's fine. I go with confidence as to who I am and I'm comfortable with that. Not everyone has to be my friend. It took many years of being a friend before I could call her my best friend. It took many years of cultivating and maintaining friendships to call them my family. Things like that. Good luck to both of you! You sound like an amazing family.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 7:29 AM on December 2, 2010

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