What can parents do to help their oppositional defiant children?

Since kids pass through many developmental stages as they mature, it is important to understand the differences between normal childhood attempts to defy authority and symptoms of full-blown Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

Oppositional defiant kids share many of the following characteristics:
  • are driven to defeat authority figures
  • are relentless in their pursuit of proving authority figures to be wrong or stupid
  • are socially exploitive and very quick to notice how others respond; they then use these responses to their advantage in family or social environments
  • are vigorously intent on “getting their way”
  • deny responsibility for their misbehavior and have little insight into how they impact others.
  • have thoughts that revolve around defeating anyone’s attempt to exercise authority over them
  • possess a strong need for control, and will do just about anything to gain power
  • tolerate a great deal of negativity – in fact they seem to thrive on large amounts of conflict, anger and negativity from others, and are frequently the winners in escalating battles of negativity
  • turn most interactions with authority figures into win-lose situations

Besides Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ODD kids may also have another psychiatric disorder. Oppositional Defiant Disorder is frequently a co-morbid condition with ADHD. It can also be diagnosed along with Tourette’s, OCD, anxiety and mood disorders, Aspergers, language-processing impairments, sensory integration deficits, or nonverbal learning disabilities.

What causes this troubling behavior? Some researchers believe that many of the symptoms of these disorders may share common neurobiological mechanisms. If your youngster is affected by one of these disorders, it is critical to keep in mind that Oppositional Defiant Disorder can create additional problems for you and your youngster.

Many authorities on parenting have indicated that ODD is more prevalent when structure in the home is out of balance (i.e., when there is either too much structure or not enough). In an overly structured environment, the parenting is rigid and inflexible. These moms and dads “micromanage” and come down hard on their kids, controlling every aspect of their lives. This particular style of parenting only serves to create more ODD behavior. On the other hand, structure that is too loose can also cause difficulties. Kids can exhibit ODD behavior when moms and dads do not provide enough structure by setting appropriate boundaries, or establishing and following through with consequences for misbehavior. These moms and dads usually give in to all of their youngster’s demands, either out of fear of the youngster, or in an effort to keep themselves in the youngster’s good graces.

In order to prevent or reduce ODD behavior, moms and dads should aim towards a firm and loving parenting style in which the structure is balanced. They must take charge, and place themselves at the top of the family hierarchy. They must use their authority as parents and, at the same time, make the youngster feel protected, loved and soothed.

How well the moms and dads get along, whether married or divorced, is another factor to consider in preventing ODD. When couples are unhappy or defiant in themselves, they frequently disagree on parenting issues, significantly limiting their success in changing the behavior of their youngster. ODD kids are experts at dividing their parent’s authority, and will most certainly take advantage of exploiting rifts between their mom and dad. Couples counseling may be in order to decrease the hostility and conflict between the mother and father and set the stage for united, successful parenting.

Another factor to consider is how the family is affected by this disorder. This can be one of the most stressful conditions a family faces and, when it is secondary to another neuropsychiatric disorder, that stress is compounded. Family counseling may be helpful to resolve family difficulties. The family therapist can provide a controlled environment which offers support and skills training to weary moms and dads.

Once marital and family issues are addressed, moms and dads can begin to train both themselves and their youngster. If parents continue to respond to quarrelsome behavior as they always have, the ODD child will continue to tune parents out, escalate the arguments, and push parent’s buttons. Most authority figures engage in an argument with concern for the outcome. The parent’s/teacher’s goal in an argument is to come to a resolution. In other words, what transpires as a result of the conflict is most important. As a mother or father, from your perspective, if you have determined the outcome of the argument, you are the one in control. For the ODD youngster, the process of creating an argument is more meaningful to him than the outcome of the conflict. These arguments over insignificant issues may seem pointless however, with such a strong need for control, it is your defiant youngster’s goal is to escalate the conflict until you are no longer the one in control. What is important to him is not the issue being argued over, as much as what is going to happen during the argument.

In order to control the process of the argument, the ODD youngster attempts to determine the topic and direction of the conflict, and seems to instinctively know when parents are feeling most vulnerable and when their energy is low. The ODD child will bring up conflict-laden issues during these times, aiming towards pushing the parent’s buttons and diverting them from issues in which they are likely to be attempting to exert authority over the ODD child.

When the Oppositional Defiant Disorder youngster finally pushes the parent’s buttons, in his mind, he has gained control of the parent and her emotions. At this point, he has now successfully taken over the position of authority. Furthermore, when the parent loses control of her emotions, the youngster’s anxiety level rises along with his defensiveness. When his defenses increase, he becomes more defiant, which is his main defense mechanism. As he becomes more defiant, the situation escalates and the parent is caught in an endless cycle of conflict.

What can parents do?

1. It is critical not to take what your youngster says personally. As soon as you defend yourself, your youngster, by the rules governing arguments, has the right to defend himself against your attack. In turn, you get to defend yourself, and he has now pushed your buttons and gained power. You do not have to defend yourself or try to convince him you are right. Do not lower yourself to the level of your oppositional youngster.

2. Once you have successfully avoided having your buttons pushed and have gained some control over your youngster’s behavior, it is time to go on the offensive to soothe him and help him get back to a calm state of mind.

3. One of the driving forces behind Oppositional Defiant Disorder is that the youngster is trying to grow up too quickly and considers himself to be equal to his mom and dad. The Oppositional Defiant Disorder youngster may feel less loved due to the amount of conflict going on, and it is difficult to simultaneously feel loved as a youngster and try to operate on an adult level. Your youngster may know intellectually that he is loved, but not feel loved. Moms and dads must be able to show love, and soothe and nurture their youngster. This is not always easy to accomplish, especially when previous negative behavior patterns have become ingrained.

4. Rules and consequences must be clear and in writing to provide clarity for both youngster and parent before the conflict occurs. Begin by removing reinforcers (e.g., television, stereos, CD’s, DVD’s, computers, video games, telephones, bicycles, skateboards, visiting friends, access to favorite clothing, favorite foods, etc.) and allowing your youngster to earn the items back as a reward for acceptable behavior.

5. Strategies for avoiding conflict are essential to de-escalate the situation. It is wise to change the subject if your energy is low, or you suspect that the topic of discussion will result in an argument.

6. Tell the ODD child, in an calm rational manner, that he has two choices: (1) If he wants to stay around, he can change the subject and stop complaining, or (2) he can go somewhere else in the house to complain if he chooses. Should your youngster choose to escalate, it is time to use two powerful words which can cut through any argument. These words are “regardless” and “nevertheless” (e.g., “Nevertheless, this is how it is going to be…”). Using these words repetitively (like a broken record), in a relaxed manner will serve to de-escalate the situation without allowing your youngster to draw you into the power struggle.

7. Utilizing effective consequences for the defiant youngster can be difficult since this presents one more opportunity for conflict in which you are likely to lose power. Discussing consequences while you are in the middle of conflict will most likely result in more frustration for you. Thus, it is important to focus on consequences that do not require cooperation of the youngster.

8. Walking away from the conflict is another strategy to consider. If you can’t change the subject or walk away, it is important to keep in mind that the Oppositional Defiant Disorder youngster’s goal is to push your buttons. Think about your endurance. How long can you endure intense button pushing? When you get to the end of your rope, what are your options?

==> Help for Parents with Oppositional Defiant Children and Teens

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