Why the Word "No" Sets off an Oppositional, Defiant Child


Why the Word No Sets off an Oppositional, Defiant Child

Many parents of children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder feel hopeless and alone. They live in homes that become like little prisons as they deal with kids who are absolutely out of control and unmanageable. They don’t like their child any more, even though they still love him or her. And they’re confused about why nothing works. They tell me they feel isolated and lonely because they can’t socialize with other families due to their child’s behavior. Certainly things like sleepovers, days at the beach, parties—all those activities become affected by this kind of child. It’s not surprising that these families have a harder time in general, and often wind up emotionally, spiritually, and functionally bankrupt. The other siblings grow up in an atmosphere of intimidation and frustration. Attempts to just get the oppositionality to stop, however well-intentioned, are often met with frustration and failure. As a parent of a child with ODD, your strategy has to be to learn how to manage the oppositionality in a way that slowly leads to its extinction. In the thirty years I worked with kids with ODD, I found that the following strategies helped improve their behavior and taught them how to cope when someone told them “no.”

As a parent of an oppositional, defiant child, every day brings a new fight as you try to exercise your authority.

Why “No” Triggers an Explosion
Nobody likes the word no, especially children and adolescents. “No” means disappointment, “no” means not getting what you want, and that’s frustrating and disappointing for everyone. Most children learn to deal with this somewhere around the age of two and three, when their personality actually forms. Over time, they develop the ability to balance their inner wants and needs with outside expectations and responsibility. But for kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, the message they internalize is, “If I’m not in control, bad things happen. When bad things are happening around me, the only way I can survive is by being in control.” They react to the word “no” with yelling, threats, punching the wall or hurting one of their siblings. And the more chaos and inconsistency they perceive in their lives, the more they feel the need to stay in control.

For many of these kids, oppositionality and defiance become a way of reacting to authority. Every day brings a new fight as you try to exercise your authority. Whereas many children learn to accept that they can’t be in control all the time, children with ODD often experience a sense of panic when they see they’re not getting control. Their parents learn to walk around on tiptoes, and too many of them blame themselves or try to find some person, place or thing to point the finger at instead of focusing on the task at hand, which is, “How can I teach my child how to manage things today?”

Three Ways to De-escalate Oppositional, Defiant Behavior
“No” is a powerful word. All children have to learn how to deal with it, and children with ODD are no different. But there are things parents can do to avoid or escape from explosive behavior, or to redirect their child’s behavior.

I want you to remember those words: “Avoid", "Escape" and “Redirect.” Because we want to try to avoid conflicts with ODD kids, or escape those conflicts as soon as we can, and redirect them toward something positive.

  • Avoid the Conflict

One of the ways we avoid conflict is by having a written structure posted some place where everyone can see it, like on your refrigerator, for example. This is really a schedule that would look like the following:

Daily Schedule
Snack and relax: 3:30-4:00 p.m.
Chores and homework: 4:00-to 5:00 p.m..
Free time: 5:00-6:00 p.m.
Dinner: 6:00 p.m.
Free time after dinner: 7:00 to 7:30 p.m.
Homework: 7:30 to 8:00 p.m.
Bedtime: 8:30 p.m.

I think these kids do better if they come home from school or daycamp, have a little snack, do some chores or homework, have brief play time, and then have dinner. After that they can do a few more chores, have some free time, then go to bed. Evenings need to be as subdued as possible. When you have such a schedule and your child says, “I want to play now,” you can say, “You know the schedule, Tommy. Playtime isn’t till after dinner.” Now in this case, although you’re saying no, you’re really re-focusing that child on the schedule. Understanding the schedule and internalizing the structure are important coping skills that kids with ODD need to develop. So you’re accomplishing two things here: You’re avoiding a direct fight with “no,” and you’re focusing on structure and scheduling, which are coping skills these kids need to learn.

And as a parent, remember that the idea is to not to think about yourself as giving in, but rather, you’re avoiding situations where there's a higher risk of your child acting out. So if you find yourself having to avoid too many situations when you’re at the mall because of the fear of outbursts, my recommendation is that you avoid going to the mall with that child until he’s at the skill level where he can handle it.

  • Escape from Fights

The other strategy we want to look at is “Escape.” Once the fight with your child is starting or has begun escalating, you need to find a way to get out of it. First of all, you can state your position, turn around and walk away and not respond to the child’s backtalk. So, for example, you can say, “It’s not time for you to play video games now. It’s time for you to clean your room,” and then turn around and remove yourself from the argument. There are cases where you will find that a kid with ODD is backtalking to parents as they're on their way to do the chore you asked them to do in the first place. Sometimes it seems that their mouth and body are moving in two different directions! Don’t let yourself be pulled into the backtalk, either. Just simply go about your business and do something else.

  • Redirect your child’s behavior

The third important step in the plan to de-escalate the oppositional behavior is to “Redirect” the child. Redirecting is a strategy you can use when the child’s behavior starts to escalate. You can say, “Remember, you want to watch that show at 6:30, so stay focused,” and then turn around and walk away. This redirects their attention to something else and teaches them to focus on something other than the argument. Redirecting is also helpful in situations where there have been conflicts in the past, and where you know an explosion is likely. You can distract your child by getting him to do something differently early in the escalation period. So when you see that he is starting to get agitated, that’s the time to send him to do some alternate task that can be helpful for the family. For instance, “Please go get the lettuce out of the refrigerator and wash it for the salad. That would be a big help.”

Stop Throwing Fuel on the Fire
I think it’s important for parents to understand that once a kid with ODD starts arguing about being told “no,” he gets very invested in the process of arguing as much as the outcome. So in effect, the argument fuels itself. The first thing parents have to do is stop throwing fuel on the fire: Don’t argue or talk back to the child. State the rule, state the expectation or the task at hand, and walk away. When times are calm, sit down with your child and have a discussion and say, briefly and concisely, “I don't think arguing helps us solve our problems. So I’m not going to argue with you anymore. And the time you spend talking back and arguing with me when I’m not responding will be taken off your computer time tonight. 2 minutes for every 1 minute you argue.” Don’t overly explain or justify by giving examples. Tell him the rule, but don’t sit there and get into an argument about it. Get up and move on to something else. Expect him to argue right then and there. But understand that the best way you can deal with children with this particular disorder is to lay out a structure and stick with it.

I think it’s important for parents to remember that many of these kids do develop coping skills, it’s just that, as the poet Theodore Roethke said, “a slow growth is a hard thing to endure.” Time helps with these guys. Age helps. And they can learn problem-solving and negotiation skills, it just takes a little longer, and will take more patience on your part. Stick to a plan that on one end is flexible enough to deal with their impulses, but on the other is firm enough to hold them strictly accountable, and I believe you will see real change.

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

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