Intrusive Thoughts in Children: What You Should Know

We all have intrusive thoughts sometimes. However, if we focus on them too much, it can be hard to make them go away.
Intrusive Thoughts in Children: What You Should Know
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

Adults know that, at some point, we all have unpleasant or intrusive thoughts. However, there isn’t a lot of research on these thoughts in children. Will they experience them the same way as adults? If you want to know, keep reading.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted ideas or images that unintentionally appear in our mind. They can be unpleasant, even disturbing, but they’re something that all people experience. Most of the time, we can push them out and carry on with our life.

It becomes a problem when these everyday thoughts occur constantly and repetitively. However, despite trying to redirect our attention, it’s hard to get rid of them. At this point, the obsessions of obsessive-compulsive disorder start forming and it’s time to resort to professional help.

Intrusive thoughts in children

To determine the presence or absence of these types of thoughts, researchers performed a study. In it, they looked at the tendency of children to experience four different types of intrusive thoughts:

Intrusive Thoughts in Children
  1. Aggression-sex-accumulation. Inquiring about thoughts related to hurting yourself and others. Also, inquiring about ideas of sexual content or the need to keep objects even if they are no longer used or needed.
  2. Contamination-doubts. Evaluating irrational thoughts about being dirty or contaminated by touching certain objects. It also explores ideas of guilt and fear of bad things happening to loved ones or objects.
  3. Superstition-repetition. Taking in the fear of misfortunes if I don’t do or stop doing something in particular. Likewise, the uncontrollable tendency to repeat acts a certain number of times.
  4. Order-checking. Exploring obsessive ideas about order, cleanliness and the need to check and reassure yourself that everything is okay.

Study results

After analyzing the results, researchers drew valuable conclusions. First of all, more than 90% of children claimed to have had intrusive thoughts, especially those related to pollution and doubts. However, minors had the least amount of thoughts about agression-sex-accumulation.

Unsurprisingly, with a population of healthy children, the frequency of these unpleasant ideas was low. However, a small part of them had an unusually high frequency of thoughts. This could be a sign of an early-onset obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Some interesting facts that were revealed in the study were that, on the one hand, there was no difference between the most common thoughts of boys and girls. Contrary to what happens among adults, as men have the first type of thoughts more often.

On the other hand, at 13 years old, the number of intrusive thoughts in children grows exponentially. It’s most likely because it’s early in their preadolescence that young people begin to become more self-aware and more concerned about their identity. Therefore, it’s logical that they would have more doubts about their own behaviors and thoughts.

Intrusive Thoughts in Children

How to handle intrusive thoughts in children

We all have unpleasant or intrusive thoughts at times and nothing happens. However, some ideas get stuck in our minds because we attach too much importance to them. It’s important to help children be clear about the difference between thought and action. Having a thought doesn’t make you a bad person or mean that you’re going to do it, it’s just an idea.

To make it easier to understand, we can use a metaphor. Our mind is a television and the thoughts are the programs that they put on the different channels. These thoughts flow like channels when we zap. When a program appears on television that we don’t like, simply change the channel and continue with your life. It’s just one more program.

On the other hand, we have to teach them to tolerate the anguish that these thoughts provoke without trying to avoid it by seeking reassurance from their parents. Going to them confessing the thought so that they constantly say that everything is okay actually makes the problem worse. You have to learn to tolerate anxiety until you see that the thought simply runs its course.


All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Igualada, L., Perplñá, C., & Belloch, A. (2007). ¿ Tienen los niños pensamientos intrusos análogos a obsesiones? Presentación de un instrumento estandarizado y resultados preliminares. Análisis y Modificación de Conducta33(148).
  • Sabater, V. (2018, 30 octubre). Pensamientos intrusivos y ansiedad: ¿Cómo afrontarlos? Recuperado 9 octubre, 2019, de

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.