I am a single mom and I understood that there were some behaviors I wasn’t going to manage on my own when I adopted my 2 sons. Oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) was on the list of behaviors I knew I didn’t want to bring into my home.
Six years after adopting my boys, I’m dealing with an oppositional defiant teenager and a 7 year old who’s more than likely to be diagnosed too, even as he copes with severe ADHD. How did it happen? Well, let’s take a step back and get an understanding of what ODD is.
What is oppositional defiant disorder?
ODD is more than just a tantrum and precisely what the term says. The child is not just argumentative; he is oppositional. He is defiant. Everything is more than an argument. It is a battle that is part of an ongoing war. Just a simple request to put a dish into the dishwasher can trigger a violent reaction.
So far, doctors and researchers have not figured out the causes of ODD, but it’s been linked to are linked to biological, social, and psychological factors. Many agree that a child with ODD will automatically respond with a fight or flight reaction to an adult’s request. This is because the pathways that allow them to have self-control have been interfered with by either environmental factors or brain chemicals not working correctly.
What are the symptoms of ODD?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the criteria for diagnosing ODD include emotional and behavioral symptoms that last at least 6 months. The signs of ODD generally start from preschool years.
Here are common ODD symptoms that are a part of the child being consistently angry, defiant, and vindictive:
- Often and easily loses temper
- Is frequently touchy and easily annoyed by others
- Is often angry and resentful
- Often argues with adults or people in authority
- Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules
- Often deliberately annoys or upsets people
- Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
- Is often spiteful or vindictive
- Has shown spiteful or vindictive behavior at least twice in the past 6 months
A child who only displays these issues at home (or in one setting) may have mild ODD. If it happens at home and school (or in 2 settings), that is considered moderate. If it happens in 3 or more settings, it is severe.
One thing to keep in mind is that there are common misdiagnoses when it comes to doctors diagnosing children’s antisocial behaviors. A child with ADHD may have some characteristics of ODD, but not all. ODD can also be confused with conduct disorder which is “repetitive and persistent patterns of aggression, destruction, and deceitfulness.”
If the diagnosis is correct, ODD doesn’t really go away, but it improves over time. Researchers say that more than 67% of children diagnosed with ODD will have symptoms lessen as they grow older. At the same time, children who truly have ODD are more likely to have challenges socially and emotionally as adults. Studies show that approximately 30% will develop conduct disorder, with 10% having the more lasting antisocial personality disorder.
What is it like living with a child suffering from ODD?
Before the boys came home, I read the psychiatric reports about my oldest son. One doctor labeled him with ODD when he was 10 years old. The other doctors did not. I pondered the possibilities quite a bit and decided that I would bring him home along with his younger brother, who was born addicted to meth. The fighting with my oldest started immediately.
His fight or flight response was ready the minute he walked in the door and I had to quickly memorize the middle school principal’s phone number. Probably one of the hardest parts of living with a teen who has ODD is that he is often incapable of seeing reality. He has his own perception of what happens on a day-to-day basis to avoid responsibility.
For example, at 13, he missed a crucial shot during a basketball game and lost the game. When asked about it, he was boiling with anger and expressed that he made the shot. Then he corrected himself and blamed it on his coach and the referee.
As he has grown older, he has been able to revise his perception and sometimes see reality. However, the most common argument we have is that he believes I purposely try to make him angry on an ongoing basis. That it’s my fault, he loses his temper.
The other morning my youngest son had a temper tantrum that lasted three hours. It consisted of fighting over his clothes, breakfast, combing his hair, brushing his teeth, getting in the car, or not getting in the car. “Don’t kick the dog, don’t throw the stool.” You name it.
Does he have ODD? I honestly don’t know. I know the challenges in the classroom continue to escalate and we’ve tried occupational therapy, medication, and counseling. Our next step is a different kind of behavioral therapist/psychologist who may be able to help. But like most doctors these days, the appointment is months away, even as he continues to disagree with everything.
My oldest son is unable to acknowledge that he has an anger problem or that he is blatantly defiant. His teachers at school frequently explain that their rules are not up for debate and they won’t argue with him. He has been kicked off his basketball team and thrown off the football field. He has lost 3 jobs. He is unable to accept responsibility for any of these things. That is the hard part.
How to handle a defiant child
Recently during storytime, the character in the book we were reading said he liked apples. In his grumpy voice, my little guy said, “I hate apples,” which is completely not true. He loves apples so much he will eat three or four in a day. I reminded him about negative and positive words and that saying he hated something was a negative word.
We talked about all the other words he could use instead of “hate.” I also pointed out that he actually loved apples. This was very hard for him to admit. He said only on some days did he just like them a little bit. He had to turn his head to the wall and whisper that he only sometimes liked apples.
Even though my background is in education, I am learning tools like this through parent training programs. I also need to keep telling myself that it is not a personal thing; it is the pathways in his brain that just don’t know where to go.
Here are the things that work for my kids, but they might not work for you. My youngest loves his trampoline. It is his go-to when he is having anger and needs a brain break. We also have a sensory swing in his room to help him quiet down at night and feel secure or if he needs a different brain break from his anger. I have to get him before things escalate out of control, though.
It needs to be his decision to use his tools. We just need to keep finding more tools for him to learn how to manage his behavior in situations when he can’t get to his swing or trampoline. It is helpful to utilize the lessons learned from the experts and try various options to see what works.
While talking to my mom the other day, I commented that now my 18 year old only has 4 of the 8 common characteristics of ODD. She got pretty excited and said, “Wow!” I hadn’t really realized it until she pointed out how far he had come. It’s true; his heart has softened. He is no longer vindictive and has learned to quiet his anger sometimes and not have tantrums as often. He is learning to apologize for some of his behaviors.
Is there a silver lining with ODD? Absolutely. These are the victories I have to hang on to. I also have to learn to quiet myself and take care of myself so that I can take care of them.