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ODD Kids and Behavior: 5 Things You Need to Know as a Parent

by Kimberly Abraham, LMSW and Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW
ODD Kids and Behavior: 5 Things You Need to Know as a Parent

Do you often feel overwhelmed as the parent of an ODD child? Kimberly Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner have worked with parents of kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder for 20 years—and Kim is the parent of an adult child with ODD. Read on to find out the 5 things you need to know to be a more effective parent.

Raising an ODD child is like belonging to a special kind of club: it’s the “Special Forces Unit” of parenting. When you have an ODD kid, you encounter situations parents of “typical kids” would never dream of. What’s worse, you didn’t volunteer for this duty—it’s much more akin to being drafted. And while you’re trying your best to parent a very difficult child, you’re often misunderstood by professionals and other parents who are raising typical kids.

It helps to remember what’s driving your child’s behavior: the need to be in control.

Related: More effective parenting tools for ODD kids.

The bottom line is that a child with ODD is not your typical kid. The primary difference? Typical kids will allow others to exert some degree of control over them. They may argue, but they’ll eventually give in. They may break rules, but they allow themselves to be grounded. Ultimately, they will give over to parental (or adult) authority. What’s the biggest fear an ODD kid has? Loss of control to a parent, or any adult authority figure. In an argument, your ODD child will dig his heels in rather than yield. As soon as he feels threatened, it’s on! Grounded? Please! Parents often feel more miserable during grounding than their ODD child. In the words of 15-year-old Jack, “I know how to get ungrounded. I’ll just turn my stereo up so loud all my mom’s knick knacks fall off the shelves. She’ll beg me to get out of the house!”

Here are some tips if you’re living with a “Jack” in your home:

Nobody Wins the Blame Game. When your home is in turmoil because of constant arguing with your child, it can be easy to fall into the trap of blame. Kim is the parent of an ODD child, and as she was raising him, she often found herself saying things like, “My son is ruining my life. I spend all my time dealing with him. I don’t even have any time for myself anymore.” And she didn’t just blame him for how she was feeling and the constant chaos in their home, she often blamed herself. “I’d beat myself up by saying, ‘If I was a better parent, he wouldn’t be this way,’” she explains. “After I realized what I was doing, whenever I found myself caught up in the Blame Game, I tried to take a step back and identify what I was feeling. Usually it was hurt or disappointment in my son or myself: I was taking my child’s behavior or choices personally. I had to realize that my son was not responsible for my emotional well-being—I was.”

Related: Having trouble getting through to your oppositional, defiant child?

Blaming yourself or your child won’t help the situation and can leave you feeling angry and resentful toward him. To make matters worse, you’ll come away feeling guilty on top of it. It’s good to hold your child accountable for his actions, but when it turns to blame, it will only worsen feelings of resentment. Besides, kids are quick to blame others for their own behavior. Instead, you want to be a role model for them by taking responsibility for your own feelings and actions.

Keeping A Tab Just Leaves You with a Huge Bill. With Kim’s son, she says that it was never that he’d done “just one thing—it was that he’d done twenty things over the course of a day (or sometimes an hour).” So it wasn’t just that he’d refused to take care of his dishes, it was that an hour before that he’d kicked a hole in the wall, and an hour before that, he’d gotten in a fight with his brother. She kept a running tab in her mind of everything he’d done wrong. It left her feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. By the time he refused to take care of the dishes, she’d had enough. She could give you a tab of offenses he’d committed back to the time he was six and threw mashed potatoes on the wall just because he was bored! But there’s another side to that coin: her son would also give her a running tab of the mistakes she’d made as a parent, back to the time he believed she sold his toys at a garage sale. It was a recipe for arguments and power struggles.

Just as parents want the chance to learn from our mistakes and start each day fresh, our children deserve the same. Though sometimes it’s difficult to separate these actions out, try to make your responses fit the specific behavior, instead of the running list you have going in your head. In other words, don’t let your child’s bad behavior compound until there’s no punishment or consequence big enough for them.

Tug of War Will Give You Rope Burn. It helps to remember what’s driving your child’s behavior: the need to be in control. When faced with loss of control, ODD kids will often go to extremes to fight against authority. Suddenly, you’re no longer focused on the behavior or issue at hand; you’re in a power struggle. Rather than your child learning from consequences, things quickly get way off topic. You might start out trying to address your son’s grades in school, and end up arguing about whether or not you threw away his Matchbox cars when he was four years old. But engaging in power struggles will leave you exhausted, frustrated and often confused as to what the heck just happened! Our advice is this: When you find yourself in a tug-of-war over control, try letting go of the rope. And ask yourself, “What is my intention in this discussion?” If you’re simply arguing with no clear direction or purpose, it’s probably not a discussion that needs to occur. The best thing to do is walk away. Remember, it takes two to tug on that rope. If you keep pulling on your end, you’re likely to end up in the mud.

Related: Stop the parent-child tug of war.

Sometimes an Answer Isn’t Required. Sometimes kids just need to vent. Ever find yourself needing to get something off your chest, but you’re not really looking for an answer? As parents, we tend to jump in and try to solve what we view as our kids’ problems. Sometimes when they’re complaining or upset it doesn’t really require a response from us beyond, “I hear what you’re saying.” Kim used to go into “fix-it” mode with her son, offering solutions to problems despite the fact that he hadn’t even asked for guidance. Not surprisingly, he would shoot down every one of her suggestions and then get angry at her. Why? Because he didn’t really want her to solve anything.

If your child is looking for an answer or response, they’ll ask you. Otherwise, try just listening without jumping in to help. Allow your child to have his feelings, and know he’s been heard.

Change Your Thoughts. The way you think about things determines how you feel and act toward your child. If your thoughts are negative, it will affect the way you interact and respond to his behavior—and to him as a person. See if you can catch hold of things that are popping into your mind and replace them with more positive thoughts. For example, when “Jack” digs his heels in on something, instead of thinking, “He’s so stubborn; everything’s an argument,” try to change that thought to, “He’s certainly determined.” Changing your thoughts can help you change how you’re feeling toward your child.

When someone pushes against you, the natural instinct is to push back. When Kim’s son pushed against her in defiance, she said she “often found herself pushing back in reaction, without even thinking about it.” Your child may have the type of personality that will continue to push against others and fight against being controlled in any way. Make no mistake, raising an ODD child is an emotional and challenging experience. It’s a process of trying to be creative, because you have to constantly look for “things that work” with a child whose very essence is to fight against being controlled.

The truth is, your child’s personality isn’t likely to change, but if you use these tips we offer, you’ll find yourself engaging in that conflict less frequently and less intensely. As Kim says, “I found that it was hard for my child to argue without a partner in the process. By changing how I responded to him, over time our relationship changed.” If you’re able to alter the way you respond to your child, the result will be less conflict and more peace in your home. And by modeling the techniques we’ve given you, you’ll be teaching your child conflict-resolution skills, de-escalating techniques, healthy relationship skills and coping skills. The best part? You’ll be able to end the day feeling good about yourself and knowing that you gave it your best.


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Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues.

READER'S COMMENTS

I am raising my 6 year old grandson and your article described him exactly. He has never been diagnosed as being 'ODD', but I now know that #1, I probably should get him (and maybe me as well), into some kind of counseling. But you have also given me something to think about the next time he becomes oppositional or defiant, which will probably be as soon as we pick him up from daycare today!

Comment By : DLawhorne

this is good for some, but not for all. My daughter refuses to listen to anyone! Will do whatever it takes to get her way. Have tried everything with her(counseling, inpatient and out, residential treatments) She doesnt get what she wants she runs away. She has been in Juvenile detention for the last 1.5 years and is still with this behavior. Any suggestions?????

Comment By : mom kim

Mom Kim, I am no expert but I wonder if you and your daughter can sit down and ask her what she wants in life and from life. You will just be there to listen and to help her write it. Then ask her by doing this is this helping you to get here. Ask her what one thing she can do to help her work towards her goal. Even if it is just to have her own place one day. Just a thought.

Comment By : Hopeful

Dear Mom Kim I had your daughter in my son ( nothing mattered, no consequence could contain him, he had been in therapy, under court supervision and had absolutely no respect for authority - even the courts!) I sent him to a Wilderness Therapeutic Camp and have seen nothing short of miraculous results in just one month. He is taking responsibility for his actions and has sincerely apologized for his behavior. Before going to this treatment, he had run away for 19 days from a shelter home and then was staying with a short term foster family and NEVER wanted to come home. He has learned new ways to deal with the stress and trauma in his life and is excited to teach me these new skills that he has learned. And he wants to come home, but ONLY after he has learned all that they can teach him. He actually asked to be kept there until he was finished learning and wants to go back for a refresher in the future.

Comment By : Deb

Parenting an ODD child can be a tough and lonely road. This article has great advice. I especially like the idea of wiping the slate clean every day. Thanks!

Comment By : Hopeful mom

I was really into this article until I read the last bit about letting them win. I get that it isn't worth fighting about a lot of the small stuff, but are you really doing your child a favor by letting them think they can treat people this way. What about when they go into the real world--a job, a marriage--a life! To me this is the responsibility of a parent. I have an ODD child. I have had 3 of my own and now we are adopting another. I just don't see this as the best for the child. Pick your battles—YES— but teach them to cope and learn to compromise or you'll live with seeing them struggle through their whole life.

Comment By : philosophial_sue

where is this theraputic camp. I need to send my son there.

Comment By : Blasi

I would love it if there would be more articles about ODD young adults. My ODD son, who has numerous other challenges as well, is now 22, the parent of a 5 year old and while he doesn't live with me any more, still a source of sadness and pain. It would help to have ideas from someone who has been there and knows how to deal with these young adults. Like a lot of ODD kids, he's not able to hang onto a job, dropped out of post-secondary school twice and is not a very good parent. I try to be supportive and not offer advice, but it's hard in relation to him not supporting his son and fighting with his girlfriend, which affects us all.

Comment By : Diane

My granddaughter has been diagnosed with ODD and I realize that my daughter, her mother, who is 39 definitely has ODD. How do you deal with an adult with this problem. Our relationship is up and down daily.

Comment By : nana1950

Great post, you have pointed out some superb details, I tell my friends this is a very fantastic website thanks.

Comment By : OD

My son is now almost 20..finally for the first time in his life he is having success. After struggling through a tough childhood with ADHD and ODD he barely graduated from high school that included a few years hanging out with other drug addicts. After stealing from me for the last time I had him leave my home. It was devastating but it was the only thing left to try. He enrolled himself in the Job Corp. As he was 'homeless' they took him right away. He is now clean and learning new job skills. He has pride in himself, direction in his life and comes home for weekends and our relationship is good and improving every day. Always loving him..asking him to leave was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do but it has given us both hope. I am just so proud of him as he builds his future. Hang in there...there is truly light at the end of a long, long tunnel.

Comment By : Thamesgirl

Sorry, but it seems that your techniques are relevent to the little vinettes and anecdotes you present. I don't find any bit of iniversl application at all. It can't be that each ODD child has unque circumstances in everything he does. Rather, instead of writing tiny stories and what worked in those cases you might try a more didactic method of imparting some helpful insights and guidelines. The anecdotal approach makes for good reading but it ain't helping me one bit. Your stories don't fit so your answers don't apply, simply put. I have a 10-year old son who is also a savant, so on top of his refusing to accecpt any responsability for anything, he thinks that he knows it all and actually, in fact, he does. It's his judgment that fells him, not his ability to comprehend. This essay doesn't speak to me at all.

Comment By : DanShaf

Deb-can you give some more information on the school? Mom Kim, I am in a similar situation with my daughter.

Comment By : Believe

I found the article very helpful, ODD is a hard road for both parent and child. I don't think the author was encouraging us to let the child win, I believe she meant not to engage in the argument. And for the savant child, even more so - don't get into justifying and explaining. I went to therapy myself for 3 years, it helped me to learn a different parenting style and I think cognitive behavior therapy might have helped even more. I am not implying that having an ODD kid means your parenting skills are not good - just that you need support and to role-play new techniques, etc. I did not use the Total Transformation but I think it would have helped, I did use another Empowering Parents DVD on appropriate consequences - it was enormously helpful as the examples were very relevant, specific and clear. BTW I did send my daughter to wilderness camp in Utah for 2 months, both of us thought it was a great experience although she would not have wanted to go in a million years. It's a good start - awareness of the need to change - that then needs to be followed up with more support (e.g. weekly therapy at least) back in the real world. My daughter went to Wingate in Utah which I cannot say enough good things about, I have also heard that RedCliff is good and I'm sure there are any others. Best Wishes to us all!

Comment By : Love Will Find a Way

I do agree with this article being a way to deal with your child who has ODD, but as one person stated; what about when the child grows into an adult who is married with children? How are you going to teach this ODD persons spouse to not engage in arguement with an argumentive person? There needs to be a cure to this behavior, not just a way for a parent to deal with this type of child. I dont want my son to grow up to be a pain in the butt to his wife or children. He doesnt get too wild with me, but he does at school. It is like he knows who he can throw a temper tantrum with and who not to throw one with. If it is with me (mom), I will give him the business and he will back down. I am not so sure the teachers take the boss technique and I am sure my sons wife wont either. I dont want him to grow up and I be the only person that he respects and backs down from. He is 9 now. I need a cure so that he can be a happy and devoted husband and father when he is an adult. Needing a cure....

Comment By : Needing a cure

I just wanted to encourage all you hopeful parents out there that often allergies to wheat and gluten can make a child oppositional, according to Kelly Dorfman, nutritionist.

Comment By : sympathic mom

Excellent beginning article on this topic. I wish there were more suggestions on how to handle an ODD child...Any reference books??

Comment By : Mr. Bob

* Mr. Bob: We do not currently offer recommendations of reference books on this topic. The Total Transformation Program by James Lehman offers parents helpful tools and techniques that can help with many of the behavior problems Oppositional Defiant Disorder presents. The program consists of 2 DVDs, 8 audio CDs, and a 116-page workbook. We also have a list of all of our O.D.D. articles for further information. You can find it here. Thank you for your question, Mr. Bob. I hope you find this information to be helpful.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* Dear nana1950: This is an area that many of us are dealing with in today’s society. Just because your child reaches adulthood, does not mean their personality changes. If your child was strong-willed, determined to have her way and exhibited defiant behavior when she was growing up, you’re likely to see some of those traits carry over into adulthood. You deal with an adult who is ODD in much the same way you would a child: model positive coping skills and communication techniques; set healthy boundaries and limits (for yourself now that she’s an adult); and use the techniques in the article above. Avoid blaming, disengage from arguments, start each day fresh. When communicating with your adult child, you can only control 50% of the communication. But if you use these techniques, your 50% will be positive.

Comment By : Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW and Kimberly Abraham, LMSW

* Dear ‘mom Kim’: It sounds like the situation with your daughter has been extremely overwhelming. We imagine you’re experiencing so many emotions: fear, anger, frustration, disappointment, hurt…you name it. It also sounds like you have provided every opportunity for your daughter to get the help she needs, and up until now she may not have been ready to use what she’s learned through counseling, inpatient, the legal system, etc. However, understand that she has the tools and has undoubtedly learned skills in these facilities. She’s just not pulling them out right now. But when she’s ready, she has them, and that’s because of you, mom. So you really can feel good about that. You are not alone. We work with many parents in your exact situation who are searching for the right answer. Having raised an ODD child herself, Kim understands how difficult it is to accept that you’ve done everything you can and that the control and decision to make changes rests with your child. Try hard not to predict the future; it can be a little easier to just focus on taking it day to day. Some very famous people were once ODD, and went on to achieve great success, in large part because of that trait of being determined!

Comment By : Kimberly Abraham, LMSW & Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW

* Dear ‘philosophical sue’ and ‘needing a cure’: We absolutely agree that as a parent, teaching how to cope and learn to compromise is an essential part of raising your child. The best we can hope for is to prepare our kids for real life. Walking away from an argument that is going nowhere is actually modeling a coping skill for your child. Some limits can’t be compromised, so there’s no point in debating. Just because a parent chooses not to stand and argue with a child does not mean that child gets what they want. If you ground your child, and they want to argue for an hour, and you choose to walk away – the child is still grounded. You’re teaching your child that you will not waste your time engaging in an argument that’s going nowhere. If it’s a topic that still needs addressing, you can always revisit it at a later time if need be. Your child will have relationships throughout his life, and some people (spouses, etc) may choose to stand and argue with him. Others (bosses, friends) may choose to walk away. Or, he may learn along the way that arguing doesn’t get him what he wants in life. There’s no way to control, or predict, what his adult relationships will look like. The only thing you can do, as a parent, is model tools for him now. It’s up to him whether or not he’s going to continue to argue. There is no one thing that parents can do to cure ODD. Some techniques and tools will work with one child, but not another, and vice versa. We know this isn’t easy. When you find something that works with your child, hang onto it.

Comment By : Kimberly Abraham, LMSW & Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW

I need to find a good counselor in my area for my daughter. I have taken her to several...so far nothing has helped. Can you help find someone who works with ODD children in our area?

Comment By : Crystal

* Hi Crystal. Thank you for your question. Unfortunately, we do not keep a database of counselors to recommend. What we suggest is that you look for a family counselor that uses cognitive-behavioral techniques, sometimes referred to as CBT. Family counseling, instead of individual counseling, would be in line with the program’s techniques. You can search for a counselor in your area by contacting one of these national phone numbers for information, support, and referrals: 1) The Boystown National Hotline, 1-800-448-3000, 2) National Mental Health Services Information Center, 1-800-789-2647, or 3) The 211 National Hotline, 1-800-273-6222. We wish you luck in your search. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

My Son was Diagnosed with ODD at 6 years old. A lot of the "bad Behavior' happens at school. He talks to a counseler once a week and for awhile we had a thereipst come to the house. This year he was doing fine but now his behavior is going right back to where it was before. He lies how school is and I feel so left out of "loop' of what is going on. I have tryed repeatedly to get involved, talking to his teacher, talking to his counseler. I don't know how to get him to act right at school. He is so smart they are thinking of testing him for gifted children. I am just not sure what to do next.

Comment By : Athenafrost

Dear Athenafrost, It's very scary when it feels like there's a loss of control with your child. But the reality is, when our children are at school, we have very little control because we're not there. It sounds like you've already made as many attempts as possible to help your son behave at school and have made the only connections you really can: counselors, teachers and even an in-home counselor. Until the school starts calling you about his behavior, let them continue to manage it in the ways they feel are appropriate or effective. Let your son know you have confidence that he will get through this. If the school begins contacting you about concerns, you can then ask, "What are the opportunities for me to be more involved to help with this situation?" Until then, if you're not getting such calls, you may leave it up to the school and your son to work out. Remember, this is an opportunity for your son to grow: he's learning how to solve problems, take responsibility and accountability. Even though it's scary for you as a parent, your son is starting to learn how to maneuver through life.

Comment By : Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW and Kim Abraham, LMSW

We haved a seven year old boy, and he has odd. We are getting lots of outbursts, hitting, kicking, punching. we are trying to inderstand how to deal with the issues we are having with our odd child. also having school issues.

Comment By : eaglewings

Spot on! Great article. Thank you.

Comment By : Alic

This article helped me better understand my husband who, in my opinion, is ODD. One of our three children exhibit ODD behaviors as well. I will strongly note, the ODD tendencies of my husband and child really only become problematic in our lives when they eat certain types of food additives. I STRONGLY, STRONGLY advise parents, spouses and loved ones to avoid food dyes (especially Yellow #5 and Red #40) that are proven and accepted by the FDA as causing behavioral problems in people who consume them. Food additives may not be the root cause of behavioral issues, but some food additives most definitely make behavioral problems more problematic. I believe nutrition (or lack of nutrition) is a major player in behavioral issues that we can easily avoid by making good nutritional choices. Note: it may take two, three or more days for a food related behavioral reaction to wear off. Try a diet free of artificial dyes for a few days - you may be astounded at the improvement. Other food choices also mentioned in this list of responses, may also be causing problems as well. Diet and nutrition therapy should be just as important as medical therapy and mental/spiritual therapy. Keep food in mind.

Comment By : WISMOM

What do you do when your 15-year-old kid is breaking things in the house when he gets angry? If he is sent to his room to calm down, he throws things against his wall or throws his shoulder into the wall to create a hole. He is held accountable by having to repair it and pay for it. He has no privileges until this is done. Everyone says disengage to avoid a power struggle. How can you disengage while your house is being destroyed or worse yet he injuries himself or someone else? We already go to counseling and he is on medication.

Comment By : Setting Limits

* To “Setting Limits”: We appreciate you sharing you story with us. You ask a challenging question. It’s constructive for you to hold your son accountable for any damage he may do when he is acting out. That is exactly what we would advise parents to do on the Parental Support Line. It’s concerning that he may be causing harm to himself or others during these outbursts, though. We would encourage you to continuing working with your counselor to see what he or she would suggest as far as addressing this behavior. You might also consider speaking with your local authorities to find out if there is anything they may be able to do to help you when your son seems to be out of control. In their article How to Talk to Police When Your Child is Physically Abusive, Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner suggest calling the non-emergency number of your local police department and making an appointment to speak with someone to find out how they may be able to support you in this situation. There is also a great Police Intervention Worksheet you can print off and bring with you to help with the conversation. I understand it can be difficult to even consider calling the police on your child. You may find there are ways your local police department can help you that doesn’t necessarily involve the legal system. We wish you and your family the best as you work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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