What's the Difference Between Worry and Obsession in Children?

When children worry excessively about things, they may become obsessed, and you should do something to help them.
What's the Difference Between Worry and Obsession in Children?
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

We tend to think that children are always calm and carefree, without any concerns. However, inside their small world, they face challenges that may disturb them. If children suffer from anxiety, these concerns may become quite alarming. This is why, in this article, we’ll tell you the difference between worry and obsession in children.

Children find it hard to express what they feel and how it affects them. Therefore, parents should pay attention to possible warning signs that can help them identify if their children need help.

So, if your children are going through a complicated situation, or if they’re concerned about something in particular, watch their behavior. It may give you a clue of a possible obsessive thinking pattern you’ll have to work on.

The purpose of worry

Even though it sounds unpleasant, worry has a particular function. It’s the emotional state that alerts us of certain situations that require us to take action. Worrying about taking an exam makes children study. If kids worry about having a fight with a friend, they’ll try to fix things.

What's the Difference Between Worry and Obsession in Children?

If children have a particular and balanced concern, it may be good for them, because it leads them to solve a possible problem. However, if their worry loses its purpose and becomes excessive, it turns into a problem itself. As a result, children get stuck inside a negative thought loop that they can’t get out of.

What’s the difference between worry and obsession?

To identify if your children’s worrying is normal or pathological, you can pay attention to the following aspects:

  • Realism: this is one of the most important aspects to take into account. If the reason of their concern is unlikely to happen, it may be a dysfunctional worry. It’s not the same to be concerned about not entering the soccer team than thinking that their house might set on fire and their family will get hurt.
  • Excessive worry: sometimes, the reason of the worry is normal, but the anxiety is excessive and out of proportion. An example of this could be a child who worries about contracting a disease just by standing next to an ill person.
  • Frequency: their negative thoughts appear so often that they interfere with their daily activities (educational and social). A functional worry doesn’t occupy one’s mind throughout the day.
  • Inability to stop worrying: obsessions are unwanted intrusive thoughts that appear at any time. Even if children want to get rid of them, they can’t manage to do it.
  • Guilt and embarrassment: another thing to take into account is how children try to conceal their emotions. They may think that their thoughts are inadequate or unspeakable. In addition, they may start adopting compulsive rituals, such as checking many times if an appliance is off and washing their hands a specific number of times, etc.
What's the Difference Between Worry and Obsession in Children?

Talk to your children and do something about it

As we’ve mentioned before, the best thing you can do to identify the difference between worry and obsession is to watch their behavior. If they’ve adopted a compulsive ritual, it’ll be easier for you to detect a pathology. However, these kinds of actions might be carried out inside their minds, so you won’t be able to notice them.

Therefore, it’s important that you talk to them about their concerns. Maybe they worried about sleeping at a friend’s house, because they’re actually afraid of the dark. If they worry about being exposed at school, they may suffer from a social phobia. An obsession isn’t the only answer to an excessive worry, but it’s an option you should take into account. 

Finally, asking your children about their thoughts and what they do to control them will give you a lot of important information. Plus, you’ll make them feel they’re not alone. They’ll understand they can count on you, and in case they need it, you’ll look for the necessary help to make them feel good again.

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.

  • Pons, T. C. (2014). El espectro obsesivo-compulsivo en el DSM 5. Cuadernos de medicina psicosomática y psiquiatria de enlace, (112), 22-27.
  • Vargas Álvarez, L. A., Palacios Cruz, L., González Thompson, G., & De la Peña Olvera, F. (2008). Trastorno obsesivo compulsivo en niños y adolescentes: una actualización. Primera parte. Salud mental31(3), 173-179.

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