Obsessive Behavior in Mothers

Becoming a mother is often a joyous experience for a woman. However, for some women, the experience can be overwhelming and fraught with unrealistic expectations, which can lead to anxiety, worry and depression. With some mothers, this can develop into postpartum obsessive behavior that can have a devastating impact on the mother to cope and parent her child. Concerned family members can help a mother suffering from obsessive behavior by understanding the symptoms, causes, the effects of the disease on children and treatment options.


According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 2.2 million adults in the U.S. suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it's not unusual to see the behavior in new moms 2. A new mother may experience hormonal changes, anxiety, depression, mood swings and have trouble adjusting to her role as parent. Obsessive compulsive disorder in a mother is marked by obsessive, intrusive, persistent thoughts such as a concern that she may harm her child 2. Ritualistic and compulsive behavior is also common, such as cleaning a child frequently or constantly checking household appliances. Mothers suffering from this illness usually practice obsessive behavior to reduce their anxiety level; however, the constant compulsions and obsessive thoughts usually aggravate the condition and make it difficult for a mother to form secure bonds with her children and parent appropriately.


Mothers with postpartum obsessive behavior often have a history of obsessive-compulsive behavior disorder 2. Additionally, the mother may have unrealistic expectations of motherhood. According to an article on Psychotherapy.com,“Postpartum Mood Disorders,” mothers sometimes adopt the “myths” of motherhood 1. These myths include the belief in the perfect mother or that all women should feel elation after childbirth. The stress of having to live up to societal pressures can create a tremendous amount of stress and worry for a mother and be a causal factor in developing obsessive behavior, which is an exaggerated form of anxiety.

Effects on Children

The effects of a mother's obsessive behavior can have a damaging effect on children. Children who have a parent with obsessive compulsive disorder have a greater likelihood of developing emotional disorders and social problems 2. To reduce the mother's anxiety, a child may self-monitor his own behavior to avoid triggering an episode in the mother. For example, a child may self-discipline himself or find solutions to a problem that a mother would ordinarily solve. Additionally, a child may engage in the obsessive behavior with the mother, thus legitimizing the ritual.


Obsessive behavior in mothers can be treated with medication and therapy. Postpartum obsessive behavior often goes untreated and under-reported because some mothers fear losing their children due to irrational, obsessive thoughts. However, the condition is highly treatable, and mothers who are experiencing obsessive behavior should be encouraged to seek help. Popular treatment options for obsessive behavior include antidepressants such as Prozac, Paxil, Effexor and Zoloft. Mental health professionals also prescribe anti-anxiety medications like Ativan and Klonopin to help patients. Individual psychotherapy and couples counseling are other effective forms of treatment, and psychosurgery is sometimes used to correct behavior in difficult cases. Usually, a mix of therapies and medication can help a mother reduce her obsessive behavior.