What is Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

what is oppositional defiant disorder

Takeaway: With Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), children rebel and become hostile in a way that goes beyond mild temper tantrums. It’s tough on their loved ones and a qualified therapist can help through talk therapy, family therapy, and social skills training with the children and their families.

‘How much misbehaving is too much?’ That’s a question most parents grapple with.

All children rebel against parents and authority figures. But how much rebellion is too much? We’re all familiar with the ‘terrible twos’ when you’re faced with a stubborn toddler who loves the word ‘no!’ But sometimes this defiance can get out of control. For example, 6-year-old ‘David’ worries his parents because he’s showing signs of having a temper. When he’s playing with his toys in the evening, he refuses to tidy and come to the table for dinner. When his parents are firm, he starts breaking his toys in frustration and throws his dinner at the wall. David is rebellious about having a bath, going to bed, getting dressed in the morning, and so on.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) describes a pattern of defiant and hostile behaviour that goes beyond mild temper tantrums.

A child with ODD is much more than just ‘a little difficult’. She’s openly hostile and uncooperative to such an extent that she stands out compared to other children her age. And this sort of behaviour slowly begins to eat away at her social life, family wellbeing, and success at school. They’re not doing this guilt-free (which would be a sign of a more serious ‘conduct disorder’). Rather, they’re emotionally troubled and need support. The irony is that if left unaddressed, this kind of behaviour will destroy the very social connections that could give them the support they need. This makes ODD potentially more harmful than mental health challenges and anxiety disorders.

Children with ODD are usually more irritable, angry and argumentative than other children their age.

You’ll notice that they get easily annoyed and are generally more irritable and angry than their friends. Their reflex is to do the opposite of what they’re asked, and they never listen to anyone. It’s much more than just questioning things, though. They seem to behave badly for the sake of behaving badly — although they’re not necessarily doing it on purpose. They’re really just striking out because they don’t know how to feel better inside. The added challenge is that they usually don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. Instead, they blame all the people around them.

So, what causes ODD? We don’t know for sure, but there are two broad hypotheses.

There are two main theories about the causes of ODD. One theory suggests that ODD is normal defiant behaviour that simply gets out of control. So, where most children learn to adapt to their parents and other authority figures, children with ODD don’t. So, their personalities get ‘stuck’ at a particular point in their brain’s development. The other theory about ODD sees it as being learned behaviour. The idea here is that a child with ODD wants attention from her parents and learns to use oppositional behaviour to get it.

What it comes down to is that a child with ODD hasn’t yet learned crucial mental and emotional skills. Skills that will help her get along with others.

For example, if she learns to control her emotions, it’ll free up the analytical part of her mind which usually drowns in those emotions. And this analytical part might find ways of getting what it wants without being so disruptive. Also, there are a lot of factors that affect the analytical mind. For example, poor working memory makes it harder for a child to reason. And this, in turn, makes problem-solving next to impossible. Then, children with ADHD have impulsive and restless minds, which makes it harder for them to stay in control. And this fuels ODD. The point is that ODD isn’t random behaviour. It’s triggered by certain situations and thought patterns — and once we’ve figured out these patterns, we can help the child.

What complicates things is that children with ODD usually blame the people around them for everything that happens.

So, it’s other people who are being unreasonable and causing problems. This mindset can take a toll on your family. As your child pushes your limits, you’re tempted to push back harder than you want, or you start giving in early. Either way, this becomes a vicious cycle, because your response then trains her to push a little more. And she’ll likely push more with you than with, say, her teachers because she knows she can get away with it.

Here’s the most important piece of the puzzle, though: a troubled child isn’t going to admit and see that she has a problem. That’s where you come in. And thankfully, you have options.

Just as there’s a downward spiral if you don’t address the ODD, there’s an upward spiral when you do. With the right help, your child will begin to feel confident and get along better with everyone. A therapist will have the tool-set to help, using:

  • ‘Talk’ therapy for older children — cognitive-behavioural therapy, for example
  • Family therapy to explore the changes everyone can make
  • Social skills training (e.g., play therapy or, music therapy for younger children) to teach anger management and communication skills.

There are also things you can do at home to create a learning environment.

A therapist will work with your child, helping her slowly change her behaviour. Meanwhile, you can learn to adapt your parenting style. The trick is to steer clear of the extremes of being too harsh or too laidback. You’ll explore the basics of this through family therapy and/or parent-training programs, but the essence is to: (1) Set clear boundaries, (2) Be firm but gentle with your child about not crossing them, and (3) Focus on the positives and regularly praise your child for good behaviour. The idea is to form an alliance where both of you help her cope with her inner struggles.

Are you concerned that your child might have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)? Consider consulting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

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