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How to Help a Child with Intrusive Thoughts

Reading Time: 7 minutes

An intrusive thought is any unwanted image, urge, impulse, or feeling that arises in your mind. These thoughts can be triggered by environmental factors or appear seemingly out of nowhere. And for children and teens, they can feel distressing, overwhelming, and scary.

Understanding more about intrusive thoughts in children and teens, including causes and how to cope, can help parents better support their kids. It’s also important to know when to seek treatment for the underlying causes of intrusive thoughts.

Key Takeaways

  • Intrusive thoughts are involuntary, unwanted, and often distressing thoughts, images, or urges.
  • Persistent intrusive thoughts may be symptomatic of underlying mental health issues like anxiety, OCD, ADHD, trauma, or depression.
  • ADHD intrusive thoughts often involve hyperfixations, ruminations, and uncontrolled racing thoughts. OCD symptoms include both obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.
  • Parents can support a child with intrusive thoughts by normalizing their experiences, helping them accept their thoughts, reframing negative thoughts, and seeking appropriate treatment.

My Child is Confessing to Bad Thoughts—What Does it Mean?

Intrusive thoughts in children and teens can range from worries about schoolwork, to fears about death and dying, to graphic sexual images, and many other “bad” thoughts. The comment element is that they are unwanted and disturbing. A child with intrusive thoughts often experiences worry and distress as a result of their constant rumination.

For example, if they have intrusive thoughts about someone getting hurt or injured, they might become increasingly worried about that person’s health and safety. Sometimes they put so much effort into trying to push the thought, impulse, or imagery out of their mind that they can’t focus on anything else.

Intrusive thoughts are scary when you don’t understand what’s happening and why. They can feel terrifying to a child and cause alarm for parents. But having these types of thoughts is actually a fairly common occurrence among young people. Intrusive thoughts aren’t inherently harmful or bad.

However, they can be symptomatic of mental health issues like trauma, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, ADHD, and more. If intrusive thoughts are interfering with your child’s daily life and activities and are causing significant distress, seek professional treatment immediately.

Examples of Intrusive Thoughts in Children and Teens

Intrusive thoughts in children and adolescents can include the following:

  • Worries about school
  • Concerns about death and dying
  • Worries about causing themselves or others harm
  • Fears about upcoming events or situations
  • Obsessions with germs or dirt
  • Thoughts related to a specific phobia, like fear of spiders or heights
  • Flashbacks to a traumatic experience
  • Thoughts focused on body image


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Sometimes, intrusive thoughts are just part of being human. But if they feel persistent, distressing, and disruptive, it’s worth taking a closer look into what might be causing them – and how to keep them at bay.

Mental Health Problems That Cause Intrusive Thoughts

It can be difficult to tell whether a mental health issue is causing intrusive thoughts or making them worse. Having intrusive thoughts doesn’t always mean there are underlying mental health issues. However, if intrusive thoughts are a recent development or have become more extreme, one or more of the following mental health factors may be playing a role.

  • Anxiety: Generalized anxiety disorder can cause worst-case or fear-based scenarios or imagery to play in a loop in a child’s head. These might include worries about upcoming events or more existential fears, like fears about death and dying.
  • Depression: Depression symptoms can include intrusive thoughts that a teen or child can feel powerless against. These may include thoughts about loneliness, suicide, or self-harm.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD involves both obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. A child or teen with OCD may experience a distressing, obsessive thought that they don’t know how to get rid of, and which causes anxiety, fear, shame, and other difficult emotions. They may then engage in compulsive behaviors in order to decrease their feelings of distress.
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): People with ADHD often experience intrusive thoughts. They struggle to regulate their attention, which means they sometimes go down a “thought rabbit hole” without meaning to. They may also obsessively hyperfocus on a new task or activity.

Sometimes mental health problems like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can cause intrusive thoughts as well. A person with schizophrenia, for example, may seem paranoid that someone is watching or following them, or may describe experiencing things that are difficult for an outsider to understand.

OCD vs. ADHD Intrusive Thoughts

Both ADHD and OCD can cause or exacerbate intrusive thoughts. Both are misunderstood and stigmatized. Knowing the difference between types of intrusive thoughts for each condition can help parents get their child the care they need.

OCD Intrusive Thoughts

Kids with OCD have both obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. The obsessive thoughts feel urgent and cause distress. In order to reduce this distress, people with OCD engage in compulsive behaviors, such as repeatedly asking for reassurance or forming a ritual around a specific activity.

A teen with OCD usually finds themself in an endless cycle of intrusive and obsessive thoughts. They feel an urgent need to stop those thoughts with some sort of repeated behavior. The problem is that these behaviors don’t actually stop the obsessions, and actually can reinforce them.

Common obsessive thoughts for children with OCD can include:

  • Worries about causing themselves or others harm
  • Doubting their own intentions or actions
  • Preoccupation with precision, order, or exactness
  • Need to get things just “right”
  • Fear of getting sick or having germs
  • Unwanted thoughts about taboo topics, like sexuality or sex
  • Fixation on small, unimportant details

ADHD Intrusive Thoughts

Kids with ADHD can have intrusive thoughts, but these look a bit different from those associated with OCD. Teens and children with ADHD tend to have difficulty with attention, memory, and impulsivity. They’re also more likely to experience anxiety and have negative or critical thoughts about themselves.

Common intrusive thoughts for kids with ADHD can look like:

  • Hyperfixating on a new or interesting topic
  • Inability to slow a racing mind
  • A stream of uncontrollable thoughts
  • Impulsive thoughts or urges
  • Ruminating on past mistakes
  • A wandering mind, or being easily distractible
  • Self-deprecating thoughts

If you’re questioning whether your child might have ADHD or OCD, the first step is to have them evaluated by a mental health expert.

At What Age Do Kids Get Intrusive Thoughts?

Almost everyone will experience some version of intrusive thoughts at some point throughout their life. Intrusive thoughts can arise at any age, but most often appear from ages 8 and 12. They can also form during the teen years and into the 20s and beyond.

However, OCD can emerge in children as young as 4 or 5. Intrusive thoughts can also arise in young children who do not have OCD. Be aware of whether prepubescent kids or teens are having intrusive thoughts so you can access support right away if needed.

How to Help a Child with Intrusive Thoughts

Here are some ways to help your son, daughter, or nonbinary child with intrusive thoughts.

Help them learn to accept their intrusive thoughts

Have you ever noticed that the more you tell yourself not to think about something, the more you obsess over it? This same logic applies to intrusive thoughts and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many kids feel intense guilt, shame, and/or fear around their intrusive thoughts, and they naturally try to push hard thoughts away. But that’s likely to make the thoughts stronger, more persistent, and even scarier. Helping your child understand, name, and accept their thoughts can take some of their power away.

Accepting a thought doesn’t mean giving into the urges or impulses of that thought. It just means acknowledging the thought’s existence and being okay with it being there. This process can take a lot of practice and patience. It often requires recognizing and accepting uncomfortable emotions or sensations that occur in conjunction with intrusive thoughts.

Help them understand the difference between a thought and an action

Kids often assume that their thoughts have much more power than they really do. They often think that any thought they have will translate into reality—and this can be terrifying.

A thought is just a thought. It often doesn’t have any inherent meaning, and it certainly doesn’t make the thinker a bad person. Help your child recognize that their thoughts aren’t who they are and don’t need to be acted on. These reassurances can greatly reduce the amount of anxiety a child or teen feels around intrusive thoughts.

Teen outdoors focusing on coping with intrusive thoughts

Normalize intrusive thoughts

Children often experience deep guilt, anxiety, and fear around their intrusive thoughts. Having difficult emotions like these is tough enough as an adult. Kids can’t yet regulate or properly understand their emotions without help.

Shining light on your child’s intrusive thoughts can help educate them and dispel feelings of guilt and fear. Explain to them that almost everyone gets intrusive thoughts, and that they aren’t alone or bad.

Help your child reframe negative thoughts

Negative and intrusive thoughts are typically distorted and don’t fully reflect reality. Gently teaching your child to reframe their negative thoughts can help them feel more in control of their circumstances and improve their mental health.

Helping a child reframe their negative thoughts can be as simple as shifting “I’m going to fail this test and get held back” to “I can work with my teacher to make sure I understand the material ahead of time.” Older teens can learn to interrogate their intrusive thoughts. Ask teens questions like, “What are some other ways you could look at this situation?” and “What facts or evidence do you have to support this thought?” 

Seek professional support for intrusive thoughts

It’s not unusual for young people to have some amount of intrusive thoughts. But if the distressing thoughts are interfering with a child’s or teen’s ability to enjoy life and do daily tasks, it’s essential to seek professional treatment.

The first step is a mental health assessment with a doctor or therapist, or at a local outpatient treatment center. At Newport Academy, we offer teen mental health assessments at no charge, in person at one of our nationwide treatment centers or by phone. We’ll also recommend an appropriate level of care and a treatment center that might be a good fit, whether it’s one of our programs or another program that we have personally vetted.

Time with friends helps teens heal from intrusive thoughts

How Newport Academy Addresses the Root Causes of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can be devastating and disrupting for the whole family. Newport Academy offers residential and outpatient treatment to address the underlying mental health issues that catalyze debilitating intrusive thoughts. Whether a teen is struggling with anxiety, OCD, depression, trauma, or another condition, we can help.

Newport provides individualized, evidence-based for adolescents and their families. Each client has a team made up of expert care providers, including medical doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, and other behavioral health professionals. Teens and their families learn how to successfully cope with negative and intrusive thoughts. They also learn emotional regulation techniques to address ongoing life stressors and boost their resilience.

Our approach includes:

  • Individual therapy to uncover and process trauma
  • Family therapy to rebuild trust and connection
  • Counseling to learn skills and tools for dealing with intrusive thoughts
  • Group therapy so teens learn they are not alone and build a strong support network of peers
  • Experiential modalities like art, music, movement, and Adventure Therapy.

Through our whole-person philosophy of care, teens and families find long-term, sustainable healing.

Start the healing journey today: Contact us for a free teen mental health assessment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I help my child with intrusive thoughts?
  • Are intrusive thoughts a symptom of anxiety?
  • Do kids outgrow intrusive thoughts?
  • Are intrusive thoughts warning signs?
  • Do ADHD or OCD cause obsessive thoughts?
  • What triggers intrusive thoughts?
  • What do ADHD intrusive thoughts look like?
  • What do OCD intrusive thoughts look like?