How to Navigate the Holidays when your Child has OCD

How to Navigate the Holidays when your Child has OCD

“Don’t get upset. It’s Christmas” (Wilson, 2020).

This sentiment may ring true for many, but children with OCD can dread and fear the very activities parents and siblings look forward to during the holidays.

Activities such as visiting and hosting family and travel can provoke “what-if” thoughts, avoidances, and mental compulsions. As a result, the feeling of happiness and excitement parents and siblings express are not shared by the child, promoting a sense of shame and guilt. To make matters worse, fear surrounding upsetting their parents and ruining the holidays for their family can consume children with OCD. To combat this, parents must recognize the signs of OCD-induced guilt and shame this holiday season and what they can do to promote recovery.

How might we combat these feelings of shame and guilt? The elephant in the room needs to be discussed for it to go away. During the holidays, children with OCD are likely to experience heightened shame about their symptoms and having OCD. It’s a double shame sandwich when it comes to OCD. Luckily, parents are uniquely positioned to help. Shame-based thoughts such as, “I should be excited too, why can’t I be excited?” or “I’m going to ruin the holidays for my family” are common during the holidays. To reduce shame is to talk about it; shame gets worse the more it’s not discussed. If you notice your child, this holiday season:

  • Performing more compulsions
  • Staring off into space or lost in thought
  • Having tantrums when travelling, shopping, or family is discussed

Have a conversation with your child:

  • Talk about how you have noticed more OCD symptoms
  • Tell them it is ok they are having a hard time right now
  • Discuss how others with OCD also have a hard time during the holidays
  • Explain that it is ok that they are not looking forward to the things the rest of the family is
  • Communicate understanding that if OCD were not interfering, they would be looking forward to the holidays too

Worrying about your in-laws takes on a different meaning with OCD.

Family visits are re-emerging this holiday season, and aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents may be visiting for the first time since the pandemic. It may even be the first visit since your child began exhibiting signs of OCD, bringing up an array of emotions – guilt being one of them. Different than shame, guilt is the emotion that arises when we feel we have done something wrong or bad. Guilty thoughts such as, “I need to stop ritualizing, or I’ll disappoint my mom during Christmas” or, “I can’t stop this compulsion, I’m sorry I can’t stop” or even “I can’t hug grandma” are common guilt-ridden thoughts. Parents and children alike will be fearful of this first visit, particularly if the extended family is unaware of OCD. If you notice your child:

  • Asking if a family member knows about OCD
  • Wanting to plan for family visits
  • Seeking clarity about what or how much family members know about OCD

Talk about it!

  • In a developmentally appropriate way, be honest with your child about the extended family’s knowledge about OCD
  • Express your concerns about how OCD will show up at the holiday gathering – be very clear that OCD is what you’re concerned about (not the child)
  • Ask your child if they have similar concerns about the OCD
  • As parents work with their child to reduce shame, the child’s feelings of guilt will also alleviate. This occurs because children feel heard and accepted; parents and children work together against OCD, and both parties understand OCD is really to blame.

The devil is in the details.

Committing to helping your child through the holiday season requires planning, following through on that plan, and consistency with the plan. The conversations with your child will illuminate the OCD, and you will get to know and understand the shame and guilt triggers. Use this information to collaborate with your child on a plan.

Some things you may want to consider:

  • Have fun with the plan! Call it something funny (i.e., Mission Christmas). Having fun or making it silly will make it easier for both parent and child to use the plan when it’s needed. In addition, if the child is having fun, feeling guilt or shame is difficult.
  • Is there a fun, super-secret way your child can alert you if a trigger arises, or if you notice a trigger is starting? (i.e., a wink, blowing a kiss, asking for a milkshake, etc.).
  • Once your child has sent the signal, have a place to meet (i.e., bathroom, child’s bedroom, etc.) It might be fun to call this the “rendezvous point”
  • Once you’ve both arrived at your rendezvous point, discuss the trigger, and use your ERP strategies to overcome it!

It’s okay to get upset – even at Christmas. Talking to your child about OCD-related shame and guilt normalizes and un-shames the disorder. Listening to understand, asking the right questions, and developing a fun plan for previously feared activities can have a profound impact on your child’s experience this holiday season. From initial discussions to the execution of the plan, collaboration with your child is the best way to help them get back to enjoying the holidays. There is no greater gift than that.


Wilson, Z (2020). OCD & Christmas. Retrieved from:

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