Help for Anxious Children with OCD: Ten Turtles on Tuesday

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ten turtles bookObsessive-compulsive disorder is not limited to adults alone, as evidenced by the book Ten Turtles on Tuesday (Magination Press). Fresh on the market this year, the book is written by school psychologist Ellen Flanagan Burns, illustrated by Sue Cornelison and contains a handy kid-friendly afterward by Michael Tompkins, PhD.

About the Book

If your child is worrying about where to sit at lunch or whether or not he or she will make the volleyball team, those may be common childhood worries afflicting most any child. But if your child is worried about the same issue again and again, and may even devise rituals or habits in the hopes that a particular fear will never come true, that may be a sign of OCD.

OCD, officially known as obsessive-compulsive disorder, is marked by obsessive fears or thoughts that can lead someone into a series of compulsive actions, and both children and adults can suffer from it. Lady MacBeth couldn’t stop washing her hands. And Sarah couldn’t stop counting.

Sarah is the main character in the illustrated children’s book Ten Turtles on Tuesday, a story about obsessive-compulsive disorder geared toward the 8 to 13 age group. Written by school psychologist Ellen Flanagan Burns, the tale takes the reader through the struggles of Sarah, a girl obsessed with one of the biggest fears any child could have: that her mother is going to die.

“So I count secretly to myself…because I know it’s weird.”

Sarah finds solace in counting things. She opens and shuts her closet door 10 times, eats her cereal in 12 bites, takes eight steps from the stairs to the door. She’s too ashamed to tell anyone about her obsessive counting, but is sadly finding it’s ruling her life.

She’s often late, misses the bus or otherwise messes up the normal routine of her life due to her need to count, count, count and then count some more.

“I’m so tired of counting everything I could scream!”

While all this counting is wearing Sarah down, she still can’t stop. She fears something horrible will happen if she stops counting. So she continues, ad infinitum, as OCD is wont to make us do.

Sarah finally takes a giant step and tells her parents about her counting. The relief is immediate. The relief continues to grow with a trip to the therapist, whom Sarah views as a “new friend.”

Written in a mixture of diary entries and narrative, the reader gets the insights into OCD through the eyes of a child their age suffering through it. Tips that help. Strategies that work. Analogies that amuse.

While OCD doesn’t go away in a day, for Sarah or for anyone, the story shows how it can be alleviated with help, practice and proper tools. One key is to remind yourself that you control your thoughts, not the other way around. And it doesn’t hurt to do one more thing done by Sarah and by the author herself as a girl. Stand up to your OCD and tell it once and for all:

“Enough is enough!” 

About the Author

School psychologist Ellen Flanagan Burns has a knack for writing stories, and she dedicates her storytelling efforts to helping children cope with anxiety. In addition to Ten Turtles on Tuesday, she also authored Nobody’s Perfect: A Story for Children about Perfectionism. We sent a few questions her way on the topic of OCD and here’s what she had to say:

We asked: You mention in the introduction you struggled with OCD as a young girl, then made the decision to stop giving into your urges. Did any particular person/thing, etc. help lead you to that decision?

Ellen said: I’m one of five children and my siblings and I witnessed our older brother dealing with OCD symptoms from a young age. It was disruptive – not only for him, but for the entire family.  His compulsions took up a lot of time and we were often waiting for him, feeling frustrated and annoyed. It was also confusing, because nobody really talked about it or could explain it.

Then I started feeling urges to fix my shoes in a certain way or touch something as I walked by. I knew it didn’t make any sense but I did it anyway because it temporarily relieved the anxiety I felt when I thought about something bad happening.

One day my friend and I were riding together on the same bike; I was sitting on the seat and she was peddling. We were about 12 years old. Suddenly I had an urge to touch a leaf on the side of the road and I asked my friend to pull over. After she saw why I asked her to stop, she wanted to know why I needed to do that. I couldn’t explain it, and although I felt embarrassed, her reaction helped me see just how ridiculous and meaningless the need to touch the leaf really was.

I knew that if she didn’t need to do it, then I didn’t need to do it either. From then on I practiced resisting the urges. Although it was uncomfortable to do so, it got easier over time. Sometimes it’s those everyday natural interactions with others that make the biggest impressions on us. 

How tough/easy was that decision? How tough/easy was keeping it? Did OCD completely disappear over time? 

Breaking the OCD cycle is usually more of a process than a single moment. In the “Note to Readers” section of the book, Dr. Michael Tompkins explains this nicely. I noticed that my obsessions and compulsions ebbed and flowed based on my level of anxiety.

Even now, I may get an occasional urge connected to a fearful thought, but I just notice it and let it go, like a balloon floating away. The level of difficulty with this varies among people; some have a harder time resisting the urges than others; some have more intrusive, persistent obsessions than others.

With everyone though, the more willing a person is to feel the uncomfortable feelings that go along with not performing the compulsion, the more likely he will be to break free of OCD. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken and everyone can do this at his own pace.

Is OCD a common problem with children today? Do you think it’s more widespread than it was in the past? 

According to current studies, millions of Americans are diagnosed with OCD, with the first symptoms often beginning in childhood or adolescence. That seems like a lot of people with OCD!

I don’t think OCD is more common than it used to be, people are more educated about it. In the past OCD wasn’t discussed and it was often misdiagnosed. It didn’t even have a name people were familiar with. Today, many people can relate to having “OCD-like” symptoms, on a smaller scale. It is getting easier to talk about it and to get help.

What is the worst thing a child with OCD could do?

I don’t know that there is a “worst” thing a child with OCD can do. Children with OCD must learn to separate OCD thoughts (obsessions) from normal thoughts, worries or feelings. In Ten Turtles on Tuesday, Sarah learns the difference between them.

Sarah sees that just because she has the thought that her mother is hurt, it doesn’t mean she really is. Sometimes a thought is just a thought, she discovers.  It’s also important to learn how to resist urges. In Ten Turtles on Tuesday, Sarah, with the help of a therapist, learns to do this in steps. By resisting an urge (compulsion) and accepting the uncomfortable feelings that go along with it, Sarah discovers that nothing bad happens – that there is really no danger after all.

In the book I use the analogy of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, looking behind the curtain and discovering that the Wizard doesn’t really have magical powers. OCD is like the wizard. When a child resists an urge, it’s like Dorothy looking behind the curtain (of OCD) and discovering that there’s really no danger after all.

Ten Turtles on Tuesday encourages children to look behind the curtain (not give in to an urge, even if done in baby steps), to feel the uncomfortable feelings that go along with that, and to ultimately discover that there’s nothing to fear after all.

What are some signs of OCD parents could look out for if their children are perhaps too scared or ashamed to speak up about it?

 Signs to look for:

  • Excessive double-checking of things, such as turning the light on and off before bedtime or asking for reassurance from a parent that everything is okay
  • Repeatedly checking in on someone to make sure they’re safe
  • Counting, tapping, repeating certain words, or actions like spinning, or redoing something
  • Spending a lot of time washing or cleaning
  • Ordering or arranging things “just so”
  • Praying excessively or engaging in rituals triggered by religious fear
  • Accumulating “junk” 

What starts out as a clever way to relieve anxiety often escalates into a bigger problem: OCD. When this happens, it’s important to get help and take back control of your life!

Thank you, Ellen, for your terrific responses and your equally terrific book!

Ten Turtles on Tuesday is available from the publisher on the Magination Press website or at Amazon.com.

Photo Credit: Ryn Gargulinski of Ryndustries, LLC.

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