Oppositional Defiant Disorder seems to be one of the most challenging behavioral health problems for parents today. Why? Because so many of our youths today are not only more mature than generations before them, but are also quite capable of evading adults using social media. While working in a residential treatment facility – RTF (a campus-like environment in which youngsters ages 6-19 would receive counseling 24/7 for behavioral and mental health problems) I recognized that many of the safeguards put into place were removed or completely disregarded by the admitted youngsters. Many of the kids admitted to the facility were highly mature, difficult to maintain within their communities, and stubborn. Sadly, I learned very quickly during family sessions just how responsible parents and older siblings were for the behaviors of the admitted youth. I had worked in RTF and hospital settings for about 3yrs before leaving this level of care. A common theme in the lives of youths in the RTF and hospital settings were the following:
- Broken homes (the loss of a parent in some form, domestic violence, abuse, trauma, etc)
- Permissive parenting styles (i.e., parents wanting to be the child’s friend and not the child’s parent)
- Authoritarian parenting that led to physical and psychological abuse
- Low income (i.e., relying on subsidy programs for livelihood, low socio-economic status, loss of employment, etc)
- Dismissive parenting (i.e., parents who refuse to correct their children due to a desire to ignore the responsibility of parenting)
- Untreated mental illness (severe, moderate, or mild)
- Untreated or poorly treated medical conditions (primarily medical conditions that limit mobility or functionality in some form)
- Substance abuse or other addictive behaviors such as gambling
Because of these things many of the youths I had been counseling informed me that they needed to survive in some fashion and found oppositional behaviors to be the “tools” they needed to get ahead, have what they wanted, or feel some sort of power. Sadly, the parents of these youths helped maintain the oppositional behaviors with their responses or lack thereof. Believe it or not, some of the kids within the RTF setting were youngsters who came from very structured and educated families. My 13 year old client, we can call her Amy, had two hard working parents who worked for the government and a very supportive extended family. There was nothing she could not have as her family showered her with love, acceptance, and happiness. Her mother and father, however, failed to realize that by giving her everything when she wanted it and allowing her to feel empowered by talking back to other adults such as teachers or Principal’s, they were enabling bad behavior that later fit the criteria for ODD (oppositional defiant disorder).
Because some parents struggle to identify what they are doing to help maintain the ODD behavior, I have listed a few thoughts below:
- We should be mindful of allowing kids to feel overly mature and overly intelligent: I think it is a wonderful thing when a child or teen exhibits mature behavior with limits. Kids who are mature are really cute and really smart. But there are some overly mature kids who will challenge the rules and behaviors of adults, making them not so cute. I had an experience with this while working in the RTF setting. After I spent about 1.5hrs talking to my 10 year old female client admitted for ODD she admitted that she had stolen a phone from a sleeping staff member and refused to hand it to the manager on her unit because “I like this control I have.” She smiled innocently and sheepishly looked up at me and stated “I’m in control now.” She wanted to retain some kind of power and felt motivated to maintain her ODD-like behaviors. For her, ODD was a “right of passage” into adulthood. She felt that she could finally fit in with her peers, hang out with the “popular kids” (who were the ones to bully and push everyone around), and develop a “rough exterior.” Little did I know, her uncle was a culprit in helping maintain her ODD-behaviors because he would bring electronic devices to the RTF and permit her to play on them, allowing her to connect with negative peers she could not interact with while at the RTF. He also indirectly (and perhaps unknowingly) sent messages of acceptance and how cute he thought she was through his behaviors and lack of boundaries.
- Adults cannot avoid correcting small “offenses” and letting them slide: Some parents feel that in order to have a peaceful day or a peaceful home-life they have to ignore certain things and chastise others. They may also feel that they need to choose their battles wisely with the growing child. As a result, kids indirectly learn that their negative behaviors will either go unpunished or ignored. One of my professional experiences helped me see this up close and personal.For example, my 12 year old female client was known for being “addicted” to the Internet, primarily Instagram and SnapChat. Once admitted to the RTF, she was ordered, by a Judge working on her case, to hand over the cell phone she kept very close to her person 24/7. She handed over the phone with no problem (after months of searching for it and demanding she give it up or charges would be pressed) but later, was found using another cell phone device she stole from a peer to post nude pictures of herself, at the RTF, on SnapChapt and Facebook. Not only did she evade and manipulate the staff working in the RTF and providing around the clock supervision, but she also got through the metal detectors and “checks” performed by staff. After about 2months of getting nowhere, the staff gave up and let her keep the cell phone. Because everyone was so tired of looking for that phone, they let it go until they could figure out what to do to get it. It eventually became a “small offense ” in comparison to weapons or some other unsafe device.
- Adults must be mindful about praising negative behavior as “strong-willed,” “standing up,” or “fearless:” We have to be careful how we label our children’s behaviors. It is very impressive to see a young person coming up in the world being fearless, strong, and capable. But it is not impressive to see a young, fearless and capable person talking back to authority in such a way that it results in legal repercussions, detentions, suspensions, or even juvenile delinquency. We have to be mindful of how we praise our children and encourage the development of their personality.
It is important, while living with an oppositional child (or working with one) that you remain consistent, firm, fair, and open. ODD kids need a small degree of “control” but need to also understand who truly has the control. A way to do this is to give kids options as opposed to assigning them a “job” to do or making a request. ODD kids also need praise and positive reinforcement when they do the right things. They need consequences and fair punishments when they do the wrong things.
If you are a parent struggling with an oppositional child, I encourage you to educate yourself to how to parent a child with ODD. You want to set limits while ensuring they are fair. Kids with ODD will call you out on your mistakes and highlight your unfair behaviors. Consistency is your best weapon.
I wish you all the best