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I struggle with handwashing. Will my son inherit my OCD?

The Guardian
2020-05-22 | Since 4 Month

‘If your son asks to wash his hands when he doesn’t need to, you can say, “No, you don’t need to now.”’ Illustration: Lo Cole/The GuardianI have a son who is now two years old, and worry he has started to display OCD tendencies, and that I am passing it on. Though I am far better than I was, I struggle with managing some behaviours, including handwashing. With the threat of Covid-19, this has ramped up, and I have been fastidious about the whole household washing hands. I try to do it in a “normal” way, but sometimes feel I need to wash my hands more often. I wonder if my son picks up on the fact that I am more stressed when we wash his hands. He recently said: “I need wash my hands again – I dirty” and got upset when I tried to dry his hands with a towel, wanting a different one; just being touched by the towel I had offered provoked him to wash his hands again.
We have just started toilet training, which has opened up a new world of opportunities for my son to touch the toilet/potty, and I don’t know how to be reasonable about what contact necessitates handwashing. How can I keep my OCD under wraps and act as normally as possible around my son, to avoid him developing similar issues?
It’s great you are so thoughtful about your behaviour and how it may affect your son. I consulted psychotherapist Graham Music ( and the first thing we both wanted to know was: what happened to you aged 14? This felt like an important piece of information. My own OCD behaviours stemmed from my mother going to hospital when I was nine; they can still rear their heads – but in a diluted form – when I’m anxious and am seeking to control my immediate environment because my usual coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. This is probably what’s happening to you. In your treatment, I’m sure you learned that OCD is a particular set of behaviours around intrusive thoughts.

“First,” Music said, “let’s think about your boy. There’s something that happens around that age anyway; two-year-olds can be quite obsessional; that’s normal. He’s very likely imitating you, rather than starting to display true OCD behaviour which, generally speaking, manifests later.”

Your son may be picking up on your anxiety for everyone to keep their hands clean and wanting to do the right thing – and nothing more. Of course you don’t want it to turn into something else, but in these heightened times, and with your history, you may be picking up on something you recognise, and giving it more meaning than it deserves.

One thing that may help, Music advised, is “if you could find ways of relaxing a little, looking after your anxious self”. What might those be at the moment? Maybe talking about it to your husband, who you say in your original letter is very supportive; or checking in with a trusted friend? If you can find ways to dissipate your angst, that will go some way to helping you to deal with your son in a more relaxed way; it will also help you eventually see your son’s behaviour as the separate entity it is. (Is your husband worried?) Remember also that when we worry about things, it’s very hard to step back, have an air of confidence and joke about them, all of which would be useful tools right now.

Practically speaking, could you allow yourselves to wash your hands when you come in, and have certain protocols around toilet training and washing hands before eating, etc, but try to relax about touching things that are already in the house? Forgetting, if we can, about coronavirus for a moment, a sterile environment is not optimal for our immune system.

If your son, for example, balks at using a towel he perceives to be dirty, you could gently model that “Mummy can use it”, and if he asks to wash his hands when he doesn’t need to, you can say, “No, you don’t need to now.” Remember the way you say things is probably more important than what you say; and also remember that he may need time to take this message on board.

If you can, you might also want to consider both of you going outside into the garden, if you have one, and getting (safely) dirty. Slowly he will learn the difference between when to wash his hands and when to be more relaxed about it.

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