How to help a 7 year old with OCD (or OCD-like) problems?
December 10, 2010 3:50 PM   Subscribe

How do I help my super creative/smart son balance his imagination with the task at hand?

My son is 7 and exhibits some of the old family OCD. Specifically he has problems focusing because the narrative in his head takes over. The narrative might be a show he saw, a video game he played, or more often just a story he makes up.'s pretty clear he's having the same kind of glitch that all we OCD folk suffer from. At this point it's more of an annoyance to his teacher than anything else, but, given enough time, it could become something bad. He is aware of the issue, and is able to describe in remarkably meta-detail the process of thinking about his thought processes.

So how do I teach him how to turn that narrative off and save it for later?

We've restricted TV/games to the weekends only. But, for example, I made the mistake of showing him Minecraft six weeks ago, and he STILL talks about it, inventing complex narratives about how we could construct a catapult to launch zombies to kill approaching creepers.

He's far, far above grade level on all levels (and in a GT program) and very well adjusted and happy, and obviously I don't want to hurt the creativity, just want to give him some tools (cognitive / behavioral?) too help him belay that fantastic imagination until it's the right time.
posted by digitalprimate to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
One thing that helps me is thinking of focus as a literal point I can move from "inside" to "outside". He sounds smart enough to understand that sometimes our thought processes are going on about stuff inside our heads and sometimes on stuff outside our heads, and that there is a time and place for each.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:07 PM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Early is definitely the time to work with this before it becomes habit. Maybe you can get him a notebook that he can write the ideas down in while he has them, and then work with him to go back to the notebook later to re-imagine the ideas he had and work them into a story, drawing, etc.

This is how a lot of the prodigiously creative types manage it, and developing the habit early could be great for both his creativity and his task handling skills. Not only will he learn a constructive way to handle diversions, but he will also learn to make time to work with them later, so he will trust writing them down in the first place. And having a "parking place" for those ideas will let him keep them alive without them getting stuck in his mind. This can also help him learn not to hate (with the firey rage of 1000 suns) whatever the mundane task at hand is. But you'll have to help him with this- help him learn and believe that the better he can concentrate and successfully complete the "have to" tasks, the more time he will have to devote to the "want to" tasks.

Because just as important as learning to funnel creativity is, it's also really important to learn to NOT resent things that get in the way. It is great to be creative, but it is even greater to be creative and responsible. A lesson I've learned far too late in life...
posted by gjc at 4:14 PM on December 10, 2010

I was like this when I was a kid. Writing down the stories in my head helped a lot. I ended up with a big folder of stories that I kept expanding and elaborating on. I created whole worlds filled with detailed descriptions of places and characters. I stopped having to keep track of all this stuff in my head, so I had more mental bandwidth available for school and chores. It was a huge relief.

I think this helped me so much because little kids think in concrete terms. Your goal is to get him to separate "inside" narratives from "outside" tasks (as St Alia puts it), but that's really hard to do, even for grown-up brains. By writing down the "inside" narratives, he'll have a concrete representation of them that he knows he can return to later. If he starts to get lost in thought, you can remind him that he can think/write about it after he finishes what is right in front of him.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 4:26 PM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: SAotB - I disagree with you much of the time, but that was a very helpful and intuitive answer, thanks :)
posted by digitalprimate at 4:39 PM on December 10, 2010

In terms of a direct answer to your question, I think gjc's suggestion of a designated notebook for all the narratives (and then some!) is spot on. See Peter Beard, whose mother insisted he keep a diary with collage, even if he was not in school.

Which brings me to my true argument. What tasks can a seven-year-old really need to do, in the modern world?

My second child could not be derailed from whatever was foremost in his mind. Fashlights, tornadoes, frogs with their legs jumping out, the "idiot detector" he fashioned from pipe-cleaners when he was three and a half. I took one look and said, hmm, school will crush you like a bug. Best to stay home. Fuck, even when we went camping like normal people and his older sister wanted to fill out all the junior ranger forms, he would take the "Black Bear dot-to-dot" handout, turn it over and start drawing an incomprehensible map, or monster, or something.

He's 21 now, by the way, and actually can pass as a normal person.

Myself, as a teacher, a substitute at that, I walk into classrooms and see, within minutes (sometimes seconds on a good day) the one or two or three kids in the class who have absolutely no interest in staying on task, though some comply to meet the path of least resistance. They are not necessarily smarter or more gifted, but their minds are elsewhere, as in unfocused on what the general population is cooperating in being up to.

So if your son's behavior is "more of an annoyance to his teacher than anything else," I would suggest, homeschooling, or more honestly, unschooling, for the next couple of years at least (but insist on the notebook!).

Now, please do as I say and not as I do. And have fun with your boys. Before you know it they'll be 18 and 21 like my middle ones. Yeah, I know, I'm a sap, and all over the map.
posted by emhutchinson at 7:43 PM on December 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was your kid-- obsessive about TV, movies, and video games. I mean seriously completely obsessive; every art project I did was about The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Legend of Zelda. I wrote "scripts" for TV shows, covered notebooks paper with these stories and drawings, stayed up late thinking about them, dreamed about them. This never really changed for me--every year or so, I'd get obsessive about some new thing, take dozens of library books out about it, write about it, draw about it, talk everyone's ear off about it. I had some teachers who were more tolerant than others (the art teacher who let me do an art "show" of the drawings I did of the people in our local renaissance festival, as opposed to the one who told me to stop bringing my Beatles books to class) Over the years, I learned more social graces about it (around middle school, I realized that not everyone wants to hear about my Deep Space 9 fanfic, unfortunately), but the internal obsessions have continued. Today, I'm a writer.

And I don't have OCD.

Honestly, one of the things my parents did that was right--and they didn't do everything right--was to leave me and my interests alone. I would have been an incredibly unhappy if they micromanaged these interests, because I took them as seriously as an adult takes their job. If he's happy and well adjusted and doing well enough academically to be in gifted classes, then he's fine; I deeply suspect that the problem is that his teachers think he's weird more than anything. And they might be right, but that's not necessarily a problem. Please honor your creative son (and do look into the alternative schooling emhutchinson mentions), no matter how wacky his interests are.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:56 AM on December 11, 2010

Response by poster: @emhutchinson

Which brings me to my true argument. What tasks can a seven-year-old really need to do, in the modern world?

Well, that's the problem: the GT program he's in is an academic one, and he's clearly excelling in it for now. I'm concerned (as is his teacher) that if he can't stay on task, third grade is going to kick his ass. And, yes, I know exactly how fucked up that sounds. But that's the system we live in nowadays, and I want to help him navigate it as best he can.


And I don't have OCD.

The difference here is that how he's described to me how the mental loop starts is exactly what happens in OCD people's minds; more importantly, even he's a little concerned that he can't turn it off. And he has a few other (at this point) minor OCD symptoms. As I said, it runs in both sides of the family, so this is no real surprise.

and...I deeply suspect that the problem is that his teachers think he's weird more than anything.

Probably, but they and anyone else can fuck right off about that. I introduced him to many of the things rattling around in his brain, and I'm just as "weird" myself. I love how his little brain works. But, yeah, you're probably right that other people think it's weird. I can teach him how to manage any future social aspects of this easily enough, but I want him to give him the tools to manage his own internal life on his own, if that makes any sense.

Thanks all for the great answers!
posted by digitalprimate at 4:57 AM on December 11, 2010

Response by poster: @PhoBWanKenobi

On (mis)preview, that came out sounding a little confrontative with all the profanity - not my intention at all to sound like that to you. Just perhaps to the rest of the world that doesn't deal well with we "weird" people :)
posted by digitalprimate at 5:00 AM on December 11, 2010

I'm a special ed teacher (and one of my kids has OCD), and from your description of his behavior, this really doesn't sound like OCD. With pediatric OCD, the recurrent thoughts and repetitive behaviors are distressing to the child; it's not a narrative of a game, show or made up story. The thoughts the kid gets stuck on aren't fun thoughts or creative tales (believe me, I wish my son had repetitive creative and happy thoughts...he doesn't). The thoughts are more about scary things happening that become a vicious loop in the kid's head, and they upset the kid to the extent that they can't really go meta about what brought them to that point because they're too upset.

Based on your description, this doesn't read OCDish, it sounds like maybe something else.

To get a better sense of what's going on, it might make sense to have your son get full neuro-psychiatric testing, not that there's anything wrong with him, by the way. But it might help to have a clearer picture of how he thinks and what's going on in his head done by a child psychiatrist.

You're right to want to figure out how to help get him the internal resources so he can learn to remain awesomely creative but also be able to "do" school so he doesn't feel squashed and miserable.

I think perhaps your next step could be testing. Memail me if you have questions.
posted by dzaz at 5:38 AM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think dzaz might be right that if there are other OCD signs here you should get him tested. But be aware that if this is something you are expressing concern about, it's really easy for your bright kid to pick up on this--the fact, for example, that his six-week-later-mention of minecraft is distressing to you, when again, there's nothing that sounds particularly dysfunctional or even weird about that to me, as someone who was a highly imaginative and creative kid.

Here's what I'm grappling with in your response: you think it's kind of fucked that your son is in a system where you have to worry about third grade kicking his butt academically because he's more compelled by the stories in his head. If you're not interested in unschooling, there are programs for gifted children out there that actually do allow kids who are creatively gifted to flourish (I was in one, as a child; we had lots of unstructured time with art supplies and book in addition to time spent doing analogies), and it would be well worth it to explore them. Not all gifted children are gifted in the same way, or need the same type of instruction to best honor and develop their skills. And it can be dangerous to enact measures to try to stifle your son's natural abilities--it is possible for even well-meaning parents and educators to kill creativity in children. There are many books out there about how to foster creativity in children which might best help you navigate this; this one looks good, and might be worth a look.

The development of paracosms and complex narratives is normal for many nascent writers and artists, as is a commitment and interest in these stories that might seem obsessive to the outsider. At the very least (and again, I've been there, and came out the other end of it a healthy, well educated, and creatively successful adult), you should be giving your son time every day to explore these interests without concern about how distracting they are or how they're a poor use of his mental energies. This goes deeper than a notebook--you need to give him time to do these things, and space, and paper, and art supplies, and many many books. Because, in your original post, and your follow-up, it's clear what you're doing to restrict these activities, but not clear what you're doing to honor them. And it's going to be difficult for him to learn to balance these energies within his every day life unless the adults around him honor their importance first.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:03 AM on December 11, 2010

Agreeing with dzaz. From what you've described, this is not OCD. OCD is an anxiety disorder: the initial thought causes increased anxiety, and then the resulting compulsion (which may be a mental compulsion in some cases) is performed to reduce the anxiety. That is what definitively makes it OCD.

What you're describing sounds like he is obsessive, but this is not the same as a clinical anxiety disorder. I only say this because you might be better able to locate the appropriate strategies/resources if you correctly identify the problem.

Regardless of what we're calling this issue, it's clear that it is interfering with his functioning at some level. I agree that perhaps some neuropsychological testing would be appropriate. The neuropsychologist will be able to give clear suggestions, and possibly recommend academic accommodations (like increased test time, etc.) if appropriate.
posted by Bebo at 10:16 AM on December 11, 2010

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