Are you having trouble with a defiant and rebellious child or teenager who challenges you and resists you at every possible opportunity? You might be dealing with a case of ODD, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder. ODD in children and teens can be a nightmare for parents to deal with. Thankfully, there are some strategies you can use to overcome the resistance and build a less hostile relationship. This extensive guide to handling Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children was provided by Sean Grover, an expert on defiance and the author of When Kids Call the Shots.
What Exactly is ODD?
Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or ODD, is a common diagnosis for children and teenagers. Children with an ODD diagnosis are basically “defiance-on-turbocharge” kids. You say left, they go right. You say up, they go down. The answer is generally “no”. They’re just not going to cooperate because they want to be an adult before their time. So ODD in children leads to all kinds of reckless choices. Most parents and teachers dread these kids the most because when you have Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children it’s almost like they are driven to defy. They just rebel.
Rebellion and defiance are actually healthy in moderation. We don’t want to just throw defiance out the window. In fact, kids who are a little bit defiant tend to be more outspoken, have a stronger sense of themselves, and have an easier time setting boundaries and deciding what they want to do. So the first thing to keep in mind with Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children is that a little bit of defiance is actually a good thing. If a kid is too compliant and worried about approval, they are likely to develop symptoms of anxiety or depression later in life.
The difference between healthy rebellion versus ODD in children is that, with normal rebellion, it flares up then it goes away. Depending on the child’s mood or the day you’ll see a variety of conditions. Everyone has a bad day sometimes, or a bad morning. These aren’t necessarily signs of Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children. Things like slamming a door because you aren’t allowed to go to a party is all typical stuff.
But Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children is different. ODD is chronic, hostile, and relentless. And it’s everywhere. It’s at school, it’s at home, it’s with friends, it’s at camp, it’s on summer vacation. You don’t get a break from ODD in children. What I’ve noticed with families I’ve worked with is that if a kid is being defiant at home but everywhere else they’re doing well, there might be something going on in the family. Oppositional Defiant Disorder is not something you can “turn on and off”.
Causes of Oppositional Defiant Disorder
There are three main causes of Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children and teens. First, ODD can be strongly influenced by genetics. Second, it can be caused be emotional trauma. Third, it might be the result of an undiagnosed learning disability. Let me explain all of those in a bit more detail.
ODD Can Come “Pre-Installed” In Your Child
Oppositional Defiant Disorder can come wired in at birth, just like attention deficit or hyperactivity. It’s often a characterological trait. I can recall sitting with parents in my office who were telling me that during their pregnancy their son was kicking so hard it was actually causing pain for the mother. That’s going to be a very defiant kid. We see a lot of cases of Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children who were rebellious from Day 1.
This “wired-in” component is something doesn’t get enough credit. We are often quick to blame the school or blame the parents for Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children. But ODD is not necessarily anybody’s “fault”. It just happens. Sometimes those are the factory settings the kid came with and Oppositional Defiant Disorder is unavoidable.
Emotional Trauma Can Cause ODD in Children
Emotional trauma is another big cause of Oppositional Defiance in children and teens. And I’m not necessarily talking about big huge life-changing traumatic events here. Even fairly routine stuff like family conflicts, divorce, social problems at school, or anything that impinges on a kid’s boundaries could all be considered sources of trauma and can contribute to the development of ODD in children.
Undiagnosed Learning Disabilities
The last thing a therapist would consider when diagnosing ODD in children and teens is whether there might be an undiagnosed learning disability. If a child has a low-level learning disability or some sort of an under-the-radar processing issue or sensory issue and they’re failing in school, that can lead to symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Often adults assume these kids are not trying hard enough, they’re lazy, and they’re unmotivated. As a child, if you hear that enough, you’re going to get discouraged and you’re going to push back. So that can often lead to Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children as well.
Treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Children
Treating ODD in children is kind of like trying to find like the combination to a lock. It’s as if the defiant behavior is a padlock and you have to find the code to get into it. This means that, as parents, we often have to be creative. I’ve found the best things to focus on for addressing Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children are the environment, the child’s energy level, and making them feel validated and listened to.
Start With the Environment
The first thing to look at with ODD is the environment. If the Oppositional Defiant Disorder is only showing up at school, sometimes there’s just a really bad teacher. Adults are often quick to fault the child, but sometimes teachers just don’t like certain children. So we really want to examine the environments and conditions under which the ODD symptoms are flaring up. Then we can direct our attention to that area.
For example, if the Oppositional Defiant Disorder is mostly happening at home, we have to look at the nature of the parents’ relationship. What is the culture of communication in the family? Do people engage in criticizing and shaming or blaming? These are breeding grounds for ODD in children because no one likes to be controlled. It’s just human nature. What if I told you for the whole time you are reading this article I don’t want you to blink and I don’t want you to touch your face? You may get through it, but you’re going to rebel eventually. It just doesn’t feel good to be controlled. So if you have a parent who is very controlling, anxious, and overly involved, that can also foster Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children.
Treat Defiance As a Type of Energy
If your child is ODD, chances are they have a lot of energy. This energy is just very unfocused and it’s coming out as Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If you can get that defiant kid to start playing sports it can sometimes be very healing because in sports there are rules and structures about what you can and can’t do. When you have Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children they don’t have those kinds of internalized boundaries. So sports can be spectacular.
During an athletic match, kids get a lot of tension out and they release a lot of endorphins. Many parents of children with Oppositional Defiant Disorde tell me that during the soccer season their son or daughter is much more pleasant. I’ve found this kind of physical intervention can actually be more effective than talk therapy at treating ODD in children.
For instance, I had this big group of pre-teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder who were all really into video games. And I managed to get them involved in fencing. I think it was a good fit because the fencing was kind of similar to the video game in terms of the goals. Another example is a girl who was ODD who chose to take up hip hop dance, and that became her new passion.
When you’re dealing with Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children and teens, you’re dealing with kids who are storing a lot of tension in their bodies. So if you corner them and try to get them to tell you what they’re feeling or what they’re going through, it’s not going to help. ODD kids need to discharge tension physically.
When tension gets built up in the body, it can come out as hyperactivity, nail biting, picking at their hair, and ODD in children. And at really high levels of anxiety and tension, kids can engage in things like cutting. Rather than trying to “stop” Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children or “crush” it, you just want to find the right “container” for their extra energy. You want to channel it in a more productive direction. Sports are a really great way to do that.
Focus on Validation and Listening
When you’re dealing with Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children, listening is really important. They need to feel heard and validated. But the first thing most parents do is try to punish them. With an ODD kid, punishment, consequences, and lists on the refrigerator usually do not work. In fact, they often drive up the tension levels in the house.
But if you look underneath the symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children, you’ll see that most of the time the ODD kid desperately wants to be heard and validated. They want more attention, and we can carve that out. If you have a few kids, you have to make time for each one independently.
There’s a chapter in my book, When Kid Call the Shots, called ‘The Pancake Solution’ where I talk about one of my kids who was demonstrating some symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. She was giving me a lot of attitude and push-back. So I asked a wise old therapist for advice and he told me to take her to breakfast once or twice a week for pancakes. She loved it. And through that simple little gesture of eating breakfast together once a week–just the two of us for an hour or more–it totally revolutionized our relationship. I listened better. I was more attentive. She got the attention she was craving. The ODD symptoms disappeared.
Often if you try to “attack” a symptom, like ODD in children, you as a parent can end up getting really aggressive and punitive. But you often end up making the Oppositional Defiant Disorder worse because you’re not dealing with the underlying causes.
Find Opportunities to Boost Their Confidence
Picture a kid with Oppositional Defiant Disorder who suddenly becomes very good at baseball. He quickly realizes he can lot of attention for being good at baseball and it feels good to be noticed and validated by his peers. Suddenly other people are listening to him and treating him like he’s important. By getting the ODD kid into baseball you’ve done all three of the things I recommended above. You changed his environment, burned off some energy, and helped him gain validation. Now, suddenly his self esteem surges, the ODD disappears, and he’s in a much better mood. When you’re dealing with Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children, you want to find that type of combo.
Remember, physical activities discharge tension. When you’re dealing with ODD in children and you sit opposite them in a chair at the table and try to talk to them, it actually drives their tension up. They feel like they are being put on the spot. But, instead, if you can get ODD kids engaged in some sort of physical activity like walking, bike riding, fishing, or even doing puzzles, they will suddenly get more focused and start talking. With Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children, you want to give them something to do with their body and hands. It’s a way to distract them from their anxiety so they can talk more freely.
Another example I’ve seen work for ODD in children is mothers who start taking dance classes with their kids. Or fathers who do something as simple as taking long walks after dinner or going hiking. These kinds of things change the environment, get rid of tension, and lead to conversations and listening. It might sound simple, but you’d be amazed at what this small change can do for Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children.
Will ODD Ever Go Away Completely?
With the right intervention and the right attention, yes. ODD in children can be changed significantly. I don’t know if it will be “eliminated”, but the volume will come down tremendously. Also, as I mentioned above, a little bit of defiance is actually a good thing. Defiant people invent things. They think outside the box. They’re creative. A lot of artists are very defiant. And entrepreneurs. So we don’t want to “get rid” of Oppositional Defiant Disorder in children. We want to channel it better.
Also, remember that defiance is going to spike at different developmental periods. For example, adolescence is going to be a high water mark for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Also, the “Terrible Two’s”, as they’ve always been called, are another period of elevated defiance. Then, somewhere around age seven or eight you’ll get another surge.
Any time there’s a push for independence, kids are going to want to defy the parent. That’s natural. Your child learns to walk and the next thing they do, they don’t want to hold hands. They want to run.
You’ve got to let them run.
About Sean Grover
A psychotherapist, author, and public speaker, Sean has more than 20 years experience working with adults and children. A skilled and inspiring speaker, he leads hundreds of therapy groups in his practice, in addition to monthly workshops in clinics, medical centers, youth organizations, and schools. He is the author of When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully and Enjoy Being a Parent Again.