Is Your Child’s Oppositional Behavior ‘Normal’?

Oppositional behavior is often a normal part of childhood, especially around the ages of two to three years of age and early adolescence. Often oppositional behavior occurs when the child is hungry, tired, stressed or irritated. During these periods they may defy their parents, teachers, other caregivers, argue, talk back and be disobedient. These behaviors may be upsetting to parents, but they usually aren’t too upsetting because they fall into the “normal” realm of oppositional behavior expected in childhood. But when does openly defiant, uncooperative and hostile behavior become abnormal and a need for serious concern? When it stands out when compared to other children of the same age and developmental level and when it is so consistent, frequent and disruptive that it affects the child’s personal, school and family life. That’s when normal oppositional behavior becomes Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) present with an ongoing pattern of defiant, hostile and uncooperative behavior towards authority figures that seriously interferes with the child’s daily life in the form of getting in trouble at school frequently or having to be disciplined regularly. Some symptoms of ODD are:

  • Spiteful attitude and revenge seeking
  • Often being touchy or easily annoyed by others
  • Excessive arguing with adults
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Often questioning rules
  • Deliberate attempts to annoy or upset people
  • Active defiance and refusal to comply with adult requests and rules
  • Mean and hateful talking when upset

Usually these symptoms are exhibited in multiple settings such as at school or at home, although they may be more present in one or the other. While the causes of ODD are unknown, one to sixteen percent of school-aged children/adolescents have it. Parents with children who have ODD often say that their child was more rigid and demanding from an early age compared to their other children who didn’t have ODD. It is widely expected that a combination of psychological, biological and social factors contribute to the development of ODD.

What To Do If You Think Your Child Has ODD

If you think your child has ODD, they will need a comprehensive evaluation that will include checking for other disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder), learning disabilities and anxiety disorders. If these disorders are also present in your child, they will have to be treated as well because it is nearly impossible to treat ODD without also treating any other coexisting disorders. Some children with ODD can go on to develop conduct disorder, which is a much more pathological and destructive disorder.

Treatments for ODD

They are many treatments for ODD that include Parent Management Training Programs which help parents manage the child’s behavior. Individual therapy where the child can learn anger management skills. Family therapy to help the overall family communicate and work more effectively together. Cognitive Problem-Solving Skills Training and Therapies to assist with problem solving and negativity. Social Skills Training to increase flexibility and improve social skills, increase tolerance and decrease frustration with peers. 

Medication in some cases is helpful when ODD symptoms are extreme or very distressing or if they coexist with other disorders such as ADHD.

Since ODD children can be very difficult, parents of children with ODD need help, support and understanding. They need self care in the forms of:

  • Take a time out if you are being extremely stressed by your child and support your child if they decide to take a time out to prevent from getting more upset
  • Maintain interest in other things besides your child
  • Pick your battles with your child
  • Build on the positives, reinforce desired behaviors
  • Manage your own stress
  • Set up age appropriate rules and consequences for your child
  • Don’t be afraid/embarrassed to ask for help

Most children at different stages in their development will exhibit oppositional behavior, that is normal, but when it becomes abnormal, it’s important to know when and who to turn to for help. The Oppositional Defiant Disorder Resource Center (www.aacap.org) is a great resource and a great place to start if  you want to know more about ODD.

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