Oppositional Defiance Disorder: Tips for Parents and Teachers


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John woke up early to make his mom pancakes for her birthday. However, by the time she came to breakfast, he had grown impatient and upset with her for taking too long. He grabbed the plate of pancakes from her and quickly threw them in the trash. When his father reprimanded him, John yelled, “I hate you all!” and ran outside.

Touchy? Negative? Argumentative? Is this a “normal” tantrum or something more?

Many parents and teachers hear the acronym “ODD,” which stands for oppositional defiant disorder, and wonder, “Could that be my child?” or “Is that why she is so tough to control in my class?” How do we distinguish between “normal” tantrums and outbursts that occur with all children versus the disorder known as ODD?

Signs of ODD

The hallmark criterion of ODD is expressing an angry or irritable mood, argumentative or defiant behavior, and/or vindictiveness that lasts at least six months. This vindictiveness may be associated with distress within the child or related to others in his life (usually parents or teachers). Typical kids know there’s a line you just don’t cross and — except for testing limits sometimes — they generally follow your rules and respond to consequences. ODD kids break the rules on a daily basis and enjoy stomping right on the line.

Causes of ODD

Like with many childhood disorders, ODD is believed to be caused by a mix of genetic and environmental influences. Specialists have observed that harsh, inconsistent or neglectful parenting is common in families of children and teens who express ODD, and these parenting practices play an important role in many causal theories of the disorder. Temperamental factors related to problems in emotional regulation (e.g., poor frustration tolerance) have also been predictive of the disorder.

Treatment of ODD

If a child has ODD, parents and teachers are usually chronically frustrated with their interactions with the child, and often feel entirely ineffective in their attempts to apply discipline to or manage the child’s behavior. Living with a child who has ODD, or having a child with this disorder in class, can make day-to-day interactions unpleasant and exhausting for caregivers.

If you have a child in your home or classroom who fits the ODD mold, here are some effective strategies that can greatly improve the situation.

Tips for Parents:

- Avoid threats unless you are willing to carry them out.

- Clearly define the behaviors you expect. Students with ODD search for a “gray area” to justify their actions.

- Don’t argue back or give lengthy explanations. Say it once and move on.

- Clearly define the consequences of compliant and noncompliant behavior. This provides a direct relationship between the desired or undesired behavior and the respective consequence. It also prevents “fueling” an argument.

- Always be firm and consistent. Students with ODD are constantly looking for an opportunity to challenge your directives or justify their position.

- During confrontations, keep your emotions in check. To children who have ODD, your anger demonstrates that they are in control. Aim to be calm, cool and collected.

Tips for Teachers:

- Provide the student with simple directives and choices.

- State predetermined consequences clearly before problems arise.

- Listen to the student before reacting.

- Give brief and direct instructions in a calm tone.

- Discuss the problem privately with the student.

- Walk away before the situation gets too “hot.”

If you suspect your child may have ODD, visit a child psychologist for a play therapy session or assessment. Once a mental health professional has identified ODD, you will be presented with effective therapies and resources.

Dr. Kristen Wynns is a child psychologist who owns a private practice in Cary and North Raleigh called Wynns Family Psychology. She is also the founder of No Wimpy Parenting, offering coaching and workshop services designed to help parents “take their power back.” Visit wynnsfamilypsychology.com to learn more.

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