Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is a psychological diagnosis usually reserved for teens and children. It is given when the child has a pervasive pattern of disobedience or disrespectful behavior and attitude. Most often this is seen across the board towards adult authority figures.
Here’s a hypothetical example. Let’s say Michael is 12 years old. For the last year he has been very sassy with his parents. He ignores them when they ask him to do something around the house. He argues with them just because. If they say go left, Michael goes right. There often isn’t even logic to his choices other than they are the opposite of what he was asked to do. He behaves this way in school too. He talks back to his teachers. He is in trouble a lot of the time and receives detentions for disruptive behavior. He comments frequently that something is “stupid” when they assign a project or homework.
Adolescents and children with ODD do not cross the line into violent or law-breaking behavior. They do not harm animals, get into physical fights, steal things, or find themselves in situations where they could be arrested. Children who go that far are usually diagnosed with Conduct Disorder. Oppositional Defiance is more like a very extreme bad attitude in a wide array of situations.
For a therapist ODD is a huge challenge to work with. The reason this is the case is that teens and children with ODD want to argue with adult authority figures. It takes a lot of work on the part of the counselor to help the child see them as something other than an authority figure while still maintaining a certain number of limits or boundaries.
From my work with teens who have ODD, I have found there are a few really important things to keep in mind. The first is that these kids don’t respond to discipline in the same way others might. Oftentimes disciplining a child with ODD is taken more as a challenge than as a chance to rethink bad behavior. Children with this diagnosis need to be caught doing good instead of only caught doing bad. For whatever reason they’ve decided the only way to get what they need in life is to fight against people until they’ve worn them down enough to get their needs met. When you catch them being good, and praise them for it, they have a chance to see their needs get met while they were behaving.
The second thing is to be unmoving. Plant your feet in one place and no matter how hard the teenager pushes you, just stay right where you are (figuratively of course). You love your child deeply, and nothing can change that. Don’t stop loving them, don’t react to their attitude, and generally just remain completely consistent in the message you send that no matter how hard they try, they won’t succeed in pushing you away.
The third thing that is of utmost importance when dealing with someone who is diagnosed as having ODD is that anger is useless. Yelling, showing very intense irritation, arguing and trying to be louder than the child will not work. Keeping the emotional level very low tends to work a lot better at engaging a conversation. Once you cross the threshold into trying to win the battle, you’ve already lost.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder is extremely difficult to work with, and a hugely frustrating thing for parents to contend with. Be very patient, remain firmly planted, catch them being good, and don’t match their desire to argue. The other good news is that ODD often resolves in a few years- getting help can speed this along.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT