It is nobody’s fault that a family member has OCD.
Supporting your loved one involves being a loving family member, not their therapist.
Accommodations for family members with OCD negatively impacts recovery.
Families are systems, made up of moving parts. If one member of the family is suffering with an illness, this has an impact on the entire family system. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an illness, and whether a parent, child or other family member is suffering, OCD will impact the individual and those closest to them.
OCD is characterized by obsessions, defined as unwanted, intrusive thoughts that cause distress and reoccur despite the individual’s efforts to stop them. Compulsions are any repetitive behaviours or mental acts that are used as an attempt to provide temporary relief from the distress or other emotions (i.e. anxiety, guilt, shame) caused by the obsessive thoughts.
It is not your fault that your loved one has OCD. Attempting to deal with the time-consuming nature of OCD with your family member: helping them perform rituals, providing reassurance, or doing anything to help them avoid situations that trigger the OCD, keeps the family stuck in the OCD cycle.
You do not have to be an expert about OCD, or play the role of therapist for your family member. As Hershfield states in When a Family Member Has OCD (2015), “The golden rule for supporting a family member with OCD is to remain a family member.” Hershfield later clarifies how to support a family member:
Demonstrating unconditional love and kindness, for example; verbally stating or showing through your actions that you love and accept your family member the way they are in the moment without trying to change them.
Being supportive and encouraging by not criticizing your loved one and instead focusing on their strengths and abilities. Also, it is helpful to remind them of how far they have come in their journey and encouraging them to keep going.
Acting as a guide to point out when your loved one is headed in the right direction and when they might be slipping back into OCD territory. This will happen with educating yourself about OCD and knowing the types of compulsions your loved one engages in. For example, if you notice your loved one is engaging in a compulsion, then reminding them to focus on their recovery goals. A simple question that you could ask is whether or not this compulsion aligns with their values.
Accommodations are generally positive in relationships. For example, when two people live together, they make accommodations based on the space that they are sharing, which hopefully creates a harmonious environment. Alternatively, OCD accommodations are counterproductive because of the never-ending demands that OCD places on the family. Accommodations serve to strengthen the hold that OCD has on and the family. As Hershfield says, “You may be accommodating by waiting for rituals to be completed, avoiding doing things that might trigger your family member’s OCD, or even washing, checking, or doing other rituals yourself at your family member’s request.” By engaging in these accommodating and ritualistic behaviours, You are letting OCD stay in the family and run the show. By learning how to break this cycle, you are on the right path to kicking OCD out of your home and generating a safe environment where everyone can recover together.
Source: Hershfield, J. (2015). When a Family Member Has OCD: Mindfulness & Cognitive Behavioural Skills to Help Families Affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
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