Parenting Oppositional Defiant Children and Teens: How to Pick Your Battles

What's often tricky in parenting a defiant youngster is figuring out the "is this worth fighting for?" part – especially if you have to think fast. Defiant kids and teens often make a “game” out of getting into battles with their moms and dads, and if the parent gets tricked into playing this game, she finds herself in an endless stream of warfare.

So, how can you avoid fighting every battle and save your time and energy for the ones worth fighting for? Here are some important tips for knowing which battles to fight – and which ones to let go of:

1. Ask yourself, “Will this battle fight itself?” There are some things that will get addressed by default – and you can stay totally out of it (which saves you from being the “bad guy”). For example, you may be tempted to continue to battle with your defiant child over his poor teeth-brushing habits, even when the two of you have had many past battles over this issue to no avail. Instead, give a final warning: “If you continue to neglect your teeth, you will get a cavity, which will result in a painful toothache and a trip to the dentist.” Then, let go of it. You tried. He will have to learn the hard way.

2. Ask yourself, “Can I live with it?” If something your teenager wants to do isn't going to hurt anyone and won't make you terribly unhappy, then let her do it. Say, for example, "Getting your hair dyed pink is not something I would have done as a teenager, but if it makes a statement, then go for it.”

3. Ask yourself, “Is this battle worth fighting?” Maybe the crumbs on the floor and the toothpaste all over the sink aren't worth fighting over, but the toy throwing and TV obsession need to be addressed. If it helps, you can make a list of what you can tolerate and what you can't.

4. Ask yourself, “When my child leaves the nest, what values do I want her to take away?” Those values are your “non-negotiable” items. Those issues are the ones to talk about most. Those are also ones she is most likely to adopt if you explain why you deem them essential. Remember, moms and dads who raise moral children don’t do so by accident. Be intentional! Explain your beliefs. Don’t deviate from what matters most.

5. Adolescents need their privacy. Just as you’re not going to share everything about your life, they won’t either. So let your adolescent know that you will honor her privacy. No reading her diary or going through her drawers. But those rules are immediately broken if you have any founded concern (i.e., a probable cause) that your adolescent’s safety is in jeopardy (e.g., drugs, illegal activities, suicidal thoughts, etc.). Be concerned if your adolescent becomes suddenly secretive or withdrawn or shows unusual amounts of anger or aggression. Then pick those locks and strip-search that room.

6. Choose rules that work for you. Rules can be arbitrary but they are essential to sanity and safety. In some households, kids only eat in the kitchen. In others, kids go to sleep at 7:00. There will never be universal rules for all kids in all homes. But every home needs a few time-honored rules.

7. Engage in diplomacy. Your 5th grader wants to walk to school alone. You may not feel it is safe, but rather than argue, see if you can come up with a compromise that lets him save face, such as driving him to a point a couple blocks away from school and letting him walk from there.

8. It's important to note that there are certain developmental stages at which children naturally assert their need for independence and individuality (e.g., by dressing like a circus freak). It helps to view the push-back as less about defying you and more about saying "I gotta be me!"

9. Keep your family-values list to a reasonable handful. If it's way long, you're going to be fighting a lot. It might feel like your defiant teenager is carrying a sign that says “I reject every decent thing my mom and dad tried to teach me” when she leaves the house wearing jeans with holes in the knees, a lip piercing, and gothic make-up that is caked-on so thick she looks like Alice Copper. But when it comes down to it, chances are “I want my daughter to dress in the clothing I think looks nice” wouldn't make your list of core values.

10. Refer back to the house-rules. Whatever house-rules you have already established should be reinforced. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Minor infractions that can be part of a larger house-rule should be a battle worth picking. So if one of your house-rules is "No Cussing," then you have a point of reference by telling your youngster, "I said no cussing. That's against house-rules."

11. Say “yes” more than “no”. Too many “no’s” are just as ineffective as too few. Your youngster tunes you out or gives up because he keeps running into roadblocks.

12. Teach your youngster the skills needed to follow the rules. A rule is meaningless if your youngster isn’t getting it. It’s important not to lose credibility. If an “inside voice” is challenging to your youngster, practice with toilet paper rolls to make it fun. If running through stores has become a game, make a few trips to the mall when you have nothing else to do but teach appropriate behavior. And leave as soon as your defiant youngster starts to test your commitment.

Is it possible that marital discord causes Oppositional Defiant Disorder in some cases?

The short answer is ‘no’ – it doesn’t cause Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), but it is definitely a contributing factor. Much of the research to date addresses the influence of parents’ attitudes and actions on the behavior of their kids. Studies have consistently shown a strong correlation between marital dissatisfaction and overt marital conflict and kid’s oppositional defiant behavior. Studies have examined numerous explanations for these findings.

One such explanation was that dysfunctional marital relationships lead to dysfunctional parenting practices. Marital conflict has been positively linked with callous disciplinary practices used by moms and dads, lower levels of parental participation, and more recurrent parent-child conflict. Conflicted moms and dads are also less likely to praise their kids, read to them, engage in recreation with them, or spend time with them in relational or social activities. This detachment fuels negative relationships within families.

Families where both the mom and dad blame the youngster and “scapegoat” him demonstrate high levels of marital discord and “acting-out” behaviors in the youngster is evident. This type of parenting strategy, or lack of one, may be seen as an example of how maladaptive parenting styles and the youngster’s misbehavior become intertwined and reciprocally reinforcing. What is most important is the way these behaviors are substantiated through family interaction styles and how they serve a homeostatic function, in that it helps to maintain balance within the family system.

Other factors involving parents’ actions and attitudes have been shown to affect a kid’s behavior. For example, depression in the mother or father is related to a particular style of conflict-management in the home. Parents with depressive symptoms were shown to use more evading and aggressive conflict resolution strategies in the marriage and family relationship. These maladaptive conflict resolution styles can be positively correlated to the kid’s destructive behaviors. Negative parental conflict-management styles can also impact the kid’s ability to manage conflict properly himself, with either family or peers.

Parental antisocial behavior has a monumental influence on kid’s adjustment difficulties. Such detrimental parental conduct plays a major role in family disturbance and the growth of kid’s “acting-out” behaviors. This conduct also leads to adjustment problems in kids (e.g., anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, destructive behaviors, etc.).

Parental hostility and conflict seem to be the most prevalent negative influences on kids within the family system. Antagonism and lack of involvement within the marital relationship are the most caustic form of marital disagreement and are linked to dysfunction throughout many levels of the family system. When parents participate in both aggressive and distancing behaviors in their interaction with one another, they tend to have kids who exhibit harmful affect and non-cooperation with peers who have higher levels of “acting-out” issues. This subject can even be narrowed to include moms and dads who improperly argue about what is proper parenting. This aspect of moms and dads fighting with each other over parenting issues has also been shown to adversely influence kid’s actions and attitudes.

Parental marital conflict significantly increases kid’s anxiety and depression. Marital conflict and dissolution of the marital relationship are early environmental adversities that negatively impact kid’s physical health. The impact of the parent’s behavior on the youngster’s behavior is, therefore, well documented. If moms and dads are able to successfully and understandingly work through problems together, they evidence more involved and supportive parenting with their kids.

Mom’s special influence:

A mom’s special influence in a youngster’s life can be a powerful force for good or ill. Kids with moms who feel uncertain of their parenting skills and use love conditionally tend to report more anxious kids. Moms who display hostile control and discipline are more likely to have kids with conduct problems.

Moms tend to have much more of a positive influence on their kid’s behavior than dads. This could be attributed to the fact that it is socially accepted that moms should be psychologically available to their kids in spite of their own problems. Females may be able to deliberately disconnect their roles as spouse and as mom, thereby lessening the impact of a poor marital relationship on their responsibility as moms.

Dads, on the other hand, tend to have a more negative impact. This may be due to the fact that disconnected dads produce a family atmosphere in which kids feel more at ease with their moms. This may cause kids and moms to create alliances that segregate dads and may lead to the dad’s retreat from family interactions and an increased expression of negative behaviors within the family.

Marital conflict has also been shown to be associated with negativity in the mom’s relationship with the pre-teen son or daughter. This marital conflict has been linked to a lack of responsiveness on the part of the mom in the mother–child relationship.

Moms and dads who experience unremitting marital conflict are likely to have limited emotional availability for their kids. The lower the levels of conflict are, the less negative the parent–child relationship tends to be. Although moms and dads have a paramount influence on their kid’s lives and behavior, other environmental factors contribute as well.

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