As education and public awareness about OCD have grown, so has the use of the term “OCD” as a description of some kinds of behaviors that are not OCD.

When people use the terms “obsessed,” “obsessive” and “compulsive” incorrectly, it leads to misunderstanding about OCD.  It’s not unusual not hear someone say, “That person (or child) must have OCD” when describing someone who is preoccupied with orderliness, has a strong interest in a subject or frequently performs the same activity (e.g., washes the kitchen floor every day).

Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) - Easily Confused With OCD

Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder is sometimes mistaken for OCD.  While the names are confusingly similar, the disorders are quite different.  OCPD is a personality disorder, whereas OCD is not.

Usually identified in early adulthood, OCPD involves a preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism and control in virtually every part of an individual’s life.  People with OCPD may spend an extraordinary amount of time cleaning their homes because they want them to be immaculate.  They may keep their closets extremely orderly and aligned and may become annoyed if their orderliness is disturbed.  Rather than being anxious about this, however, they see their behavior and thoughts as being OK.

Others may find OCPD behavior “odd” or extremely frustrating.  In fact, OCPD may interfere with a person's social relationships.  But it’s not OCD.  Individuals with OCPD like the world the way they shape it.  By contrast, people with OCD don’t like what’s happening to them and are overwhelmed by the thoughts and fears that invade their minds.  They want the obsessive thoughts, doubts, and urges that cause them to perform compulsions to stop, but they don’t know how to silence “the monster” in their heads.

Age-Appropriate Routines and Games

It’s important to note that most, if not all, children display developmentally normal repetitive behaviors or routines.  Superstitions, ritualistic games, and repetitive play are characteristic of normal child development.  In fact, many childhood behaviors enhance socialization and advance development.  These activities are not indicative of OCD.  The examples below illustrate the difference between normal childhood habits and OCD behavior:

  • Morning or evening routines or rituals:  Younger children frequently follow certain routines, which may involve their parents' participation.  They may want to get dressed in the morning in a specific sequence (shirt first, then pants, then socks) or eat breakfast in a certain order (a spoon of cereal followed by a sip of juice until the breakfast is completed).  They may also want a parent to read them a particular story over and over, or sing a particular song at bedtime.  These activities are comforting to the child and, as long as they’re age-appropriate, usually aren’t a cause for concern.

    However, a 14-year old is exhibiting worrisome behavior if he or she still feels compelled to perform these routines or rituals in order to get dressed, eat breakfast or go to sleep at night; becomes highly agitated if the routine is interrupted or changed; and is unable to stop performing the routine. 

  • Childhood games:  Children frequently engage in repetitive games or songs.  For example, youngsters who enjoy playing the game “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back” and avoid walking on cracks are exhibiting normal development.

    By contrast, a child who has OCD might not be able to engage in this game, believing that, by stepping on a crack, he or she could cause serious harm to his or her mother.  As a result, the child would find this activity very distressing.

Other Non-OCD Behaviors

OCD does not include having a desire to collect items or being drawn to a particular area of interest such as stamps, coins, antiques, books by a favorite author or even science fiction fantasy or cartoon memorabilia.  Collectors derive pleasure from the hunt for items they’re interested in, and enjoy talking about their collections or showing them to others. 

Similarly, sports enthusiasts may talk about their favorite sport or recite a litany of sports statistics.  Normal, age-appropriate interests in a subject do not indicate the presence of OCD.

In older children, teens and adults, OCD is not characterized by fans who are reportedly “obsessed” with celebrities, including television or movie stars, popular singers or professional sports team members.

Children or teens who have a “crush” on another person (especially a celebrity) do not have the crush because of OCD – even if they seem to be “obsessed” with wanting to read every magazine article about their “idol,” collecting fan memorabilia, participating in Twitter and online blogs and wanting to buy every CD, MP3, DVD or video download of their favorite personality. 

It’s important to understand that popular magazines sometimes lead to misconceptions about OCD.  Criminal and violent behavior may be labeled "obsessive" and/or "compulsive."  Articles presenting information on stalkers may refer to these individuals as "obsessed."  Such portrayals can lead to inaccurate and sometimes disturbing conceptions of what people with OCD are like. 

In addition, OCD is not characterized by compulsive lying, shopping, gambling or other behaviors that reflect difficulties with impulse control.  People with these problems may suffer from treatable mental illnesses, but they do not have OCD.

Finally, it’s important to distinguish OCD from the unusual patterns of interest exhibited by individuals with autism spectrum disorder, who have an all-encompassing preoccupation with a narrow, restricted interest that is either abnormal in intensity or focus.

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