How do I know my child is obsessing about an obsession and not just worrying generally?

Whilst worrying could be said that your child feels anxious about something which has happened or could happen in the future; obsessing on the other hand is to compulsively think something over at great length, usually about an irrational fear or obsession.

What are the solutions for both worrying and obsessing?

For worrying you can help your child reason with facts which generally combines with intuition. Once the worry is resolved with a simple problem-solving strategy (using intuition and facts), your child will find they are then able to move on.  Below is an example of the questions you would ask.

What is the problem? – My friend is hanging out with another classmate.

What are your thoughts about the problem? – She doesn’t like me anymore.

How else can you think about the problem? – I was asked to join in I guess.

Think about some solutions that can work for you. – I could try joining in. I could find another friend. I could sit alone. I could go to chess club.

Choose a solution from your list. – I could try joining in.

When will you use this solution? – Tomorrow.

Did the solution work, if not, what other solution can you use from your list? It worked.

What are your thoughts about the problem now? – That my friend did like me after all, I guess I’d just gotten used to the two of us hanging out, but the other girl is nice and I can see why my friend would want to get to know her.

For obsessing you would talk with your child about the particular obsession that he is dwelling on.  This is where you’ll notice how he might be compulsively searching for answers, mentally scrambling around to solve the problem within this very act. Mental reviewing about what-if scenarios and how he can prevent a catastrophe (or something else) plays over in his mind and offers little to no reprieve. No matter how many times your child becomes preoccupied about the things that matter to him, he never seems to settle on any concrete answer that would generally help him move on, and so it goes on.

So what’s the solution?

First you would identify with your child that she is obsessing. This is because obsessing and obsessions both take place in the mind, so it’s crucial to separate the two. If an obsession is present then the obsessing or ruminating is usually seen as the corresponding mental compulsion related to the obsession. For example, if a child’s obsession is that harm might come to people who cross the roads, then the ruminating will usually be going over the “what-if” scenarios, fearing the worst and feeling responsible for the outcome.

By having your child recognise that she is ruminating and feeding the obsession she will be able to see that she is doing what someone else would do when they have a germ obsession (or other obsession with visible compulsions) in which the compulsion is handwashing (or whatever the corresponding compulsion might be). The difference is that her compulsion is done in the mind and cannot be seen by others; whereas, the handwashing or other compulsion is done openly and can be seen by others.

Next, a problem-solving technique can be just as effective as it is when problem-solving a general worry. Further, encouraging your child to resist obsessing as you would with all other compulsions is the other part of the answer, since this is what starves the obsession.

What is the problem? – I was crossing the road and became anxious.

What are your thoughts about the problem? – I have to see the registration number of the first car that passes me as I cross, or my family will die.

How else can you think about the problem? – That this is an obsession, not facts; and that magical thinking makes me think something bad will happen when evidence proves that thoughts don’t come true.

Think about some solutions that can work for you. – I can use the STOPP method. I could resist my usual compulsion. I could call my mom. I could shift state.

Choose a solution from your list. – I could use the STOPP method.

When will you use this solution? During the next week on the way to school and back home again.

Did the solution work, if not, what other solution can you use from your list? Sometimes it did, and other times not.

What are your thoughts about the problem now? – To keep practising the STOPP method as this helps me stay calm as I cross the road; and to see the problem from a realistic viewpoint which can help me resist compulsions too.

How can I help my child resist the compulsion to obsess?

First, and in identifying that your child is obsessing, you would teach him to exercise control once he becomes aware that he is going over what-if scenarios in his mind. The difference here is that you will notice an element of threat; yet in contrast a general worry is a concrete problem/situation that usually gets resolved once it’s addressed. To come back to the topic of obsessing, resisting giving into mental reviewing means your child can follow through by shifting state, which has him focus his mind and body onto something else.

How would I do this?

Basically, you would encourage him to do a mindful activity, such as reading, watching TV, listening to music, baking a cake with you, taking up a hobby, stroking a pet, going for a walk and taking in the scenery, texting or phoning a friend, or taking 10 minutes’ breathing space from homework, anything that works for your child really.

How does this work in comparison to blocking or mentally escaping intrusive thoughts?

Well, intrusive thoughts are involuntary and cannot be controlled by blocking or mentally escaping them; yet behaviours can be controlled, whether mental or physical. And so by shifting state your child would be stopping an unhelpful behaviour, not a direct obsession.  In doing so, he would Acknowledge the intrusive thoughts, Accept they are there, and Allow them to pass as he continues to engage in his mindful activity.  This is a very effective strategy when practiced.

But will shifting state increase my child’s anxiety?

Most likely because resisting any form of compulsion produces an initial increase in anxiety, so do prepare yourself for this and let your child know that anxiety does reduce in its own time. Really, it’s having your child understand that bearing with the rise and fall of her anxiety is what’s important, because by doing so she will eventually start to build distress tolerance. This is part of the practice in reaching recovery goals. Also remind your child that ruminating increases anxiety the more she goes through the what-if scenarios, and so in the long run shifting state is the healthier option.

How can I help my child not go back to obsessing?

One useful tip is to convince her that any further ruminating will be given attention to in 15 minutes for a short period, say 10 minutes attention. It might be that when 15 minutes passes she’ll have forgotten to come back for whatever reason (e.g. preoccupied with something productive). However, if you find she does fall back into ruminating then use a timer and when this calls time after 10 minutes ask her how she’ll respond thereafter – for example, to continue dwelling and feeling worse for it; or persuading herself to come back to the situation in another 15 minutes. Her shifting state time can be increased to 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes and so on until she no longer feels the pull towards ruminating. Basically, the way out of this spiral is to help her be stubborn in training herself to resist becoming negatively preoccupied for longer than is necessary, and to be rewarded for her efforts.

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