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ODD Kids: How to Manage Violent Behavior in Children and Teens

by Kimberly Abraham, LMSW and Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW
ODD Kids: How to Manage Violent Behavior in Children and Teens

Has your oppositional, defiant child’s behavior escalated to the point where he’s using physical force against you—or do you fear that he might? Kim 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. In this article, they explain how to handle your ODD child’s aggressive, violent behavior effectively.

“[ODD kids] get frustrated more easily than your 'typical' child, and often can’t see a way to resolve conflict without aggression. The only tool they have [in their toolbox]is a hammer!”

“You know, for a minute there I really thought my son was going to hit me. He had his fists clenched, his face was red and he actually took a step toward me. I used to think that was a line he would never cross, but I just don’t know anymore. What can I do to stop it from getting to that point?”

We’ve heard this from many parents of Oppositional Defiant teens and pre–teens, parents who are not only worried about their child’s current behavior, but about what could happen if things continue to escalate. If your child is already engaging in behaviors you never expected (lying, yelling at you, breaking the rules of the house, being destructive), it’s understandable that you would worry about aggression. What’s to keep him or her from crossing that line?

Related: Is your child using threats, intimidation or violence to get his way?

Tools Fix More than Just Appliances

We all have skills we use to cope when things don’t go our way:  a “toolbox,” if you will. You can probably think of a few “tools” that you use when you’re stressed or frustrated. If you’re upset with your spouse, you may call a friend to vent. If your work is stressful, you may exercise or read a book when you get home to try to relax. Over the years, the make–up of your toolbox has probably changed as you’ve learned and matured. You may want to slug your offensive boss, but instead you use a different skill—one that won’t get you fired or land you in jail!

Kids start out with an empty toolbox. They begin to fill that box as they encounter different situations—and parents, teachers and other kids model tools (or coping skills) that your child may try out and decide whether or not to keep. For instance, screwdrivers may not work for your child – he may need a pair of pliers instead. So venting might not help him feel better; listening to music may be more helpful for your 15 year old.

Kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, anxiety and other emotional challenges have a very difficult time finding and keeping tools in their box. They get frustrated more easily than your “typical” child, and often can’t see a way to resolve conflict without aggression. The only tool they often have is a hammer!

Why Does He Use a Hammer to Swat a Fly?

ODD kids have a very difficult time coping with stress or conflicts, even small ones. It may seem like your child is overreacting to something that you view as a pretty minor event.  Kids with emotional challenges often feel powerless; they make up for this with aggressive words and behaviors. The thing is, this behavior typically backfires and your child ends up feeling even worse in the long run. By helping him learn to resolve things calmly, you will actually empower him. It can be hard to look past the words, threats and aggressive body language to what’s underneath. Oftentimes, ODD kids are not trying to be malicious—they simply don’t know what else to do.

Related: Is your child verbally abusive?

“My Hammer Is Bigger than Yours.”

When your child was two, if he threw himself on the floor kicking and screaming, you could just carry (or drag) him out of the store. You were able to exert physical control. But over the years, tantrums can escalate if your child doesn’t learn other skills. By the time he’s a teenager, there’s no way you can pick him up. And now, you may be afraid he’s the one who’s going to take physical control of the situation.

Understand this: Conflict is a natural part of life. It’s going happen. And it happens frequently between parents and children, because kids want what they want, exactly when they want it, and parents often have to set limits or say the dreaded word “no.” Conflict is also born simply from different personalities and outlooks: you see it one way, your child sees it another way, and so an argument is born. There’s a difference between conflict and arguing. Even though it’s difficult for most of us, conflict can also lead to growth: you want something, I want something different, what skills can we both use to resolve this? Arguing, on the other hand, is usually about winning. Your child can become so focused on “winning” the power struggle that the point of the conflict is completely lost. And let’s be honest – sometimes, as parents, we fall into the same trap! It can start to feel like a chess game, where you’re trying to out–maneuver each other. Other times, it may seem like a boxing match. But remember, it’s more like the “Marathon of Life.” You and your child are both on the same team, after all—and it’s more about teaching him appropriate skills than it is about winning.

Related: You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.

A Trip to the Hardware Store

As parents, the very best we can hope to do is teach our kids about real life. In real life, there are all sorts of stressors: mean co–workers, disappointing jobs, (or sometimes no job), frustrating conversations, long lines in stores and rude people who cut in front of you. These are situations in which aggression will not only fail to solve the problem, it will make it worse. Your job as a parent is to show your child how a screwdriver can work better than a hammer. You can do this by modeling coping and conflict resolution skills for our child.

One way to help your child get through tough situations is to remember that while he’s upset, there’s a lot of adrenaline pumping through him. Though we take it for granted, it takes a lot of coping skills to manage that physical burst of energy experienced whenever we feel frustrated or angry. If your child doesn’t have those coping skills yet, how is he going to release that energy? Without a positive outlet, he may resort to punching walls, destroying property or even coming at you—or someone else—aggressively.  

Related: There’s no excuse for abuse, not even from your child.

Talk with your child during a moment of calm. You know your child best. If your instincts tell you he was “right on the edge” and about to become physical, explain to him later that you’re concerned about what the consequences of that behavior will be. You can actually say, “You seemed really, really angry the other day. I want to help you handle that in a way that’s going to turn out well for you. Do you know what happens if you hit someone, whether it’s a family member or someone else? That’s called assault. People call the police when that happens. And if you hit me, I’m going to do the same thing. One of my personal rules is that I will never allow anyone to physically abuse me – not even you.”

In saying this, you’re teaching your child:

1) What happens in real life

2) What your boundaries are

3) What the consequences for his behavior will be

Even though the thought of calling the police on your child can be very, very difficult and is probably the last thing you ever thought you might have to do as a parent, if your child becomes aggressive toward you, it is very important to follow through and call the police. If you don’t, your child won’t learn that domestic violence is not only unacceptable, it’s against the law. And he may have to learn that lesson in a much more difficult way down the road—with a spouse or someone else who won’t hesitate to call the police on him. Remember, as James Lehman says in The Total Transformation, “There’s no excuse for abuse,” –not even from your child.

During a calm moment, offer to work with your child to come up with a plan that you can put into effect if things start to escalate. Explain to your child how anger and adrenaline work, and develop a list of things he can do that are positive or acceptable to everyone when he’s feeling that way. Some ideas are exercise (sit ups and push–ups to get rid of adrenaline), going for a walk, going to his room and listening to music, or giving him a journal he can draw or write in. Think about his strengths – things he’s good at or enjoys. Ask your child what ideas he has, or he may even want to get suggestions from friends. This helps get him thinking, rather than reacting. Remember, you’re modeling for him how to recognize his own emotions and find ways to deal with them non–violently.  Follow through and let him use those skills when you’re in a conflict with him. A power struggle is often a trigger to physical aggression, and if you can de–escalate the situation before it hits that point, it’s well worth it.

An Ounce of Prevention…Keeps You From Getting A Hammer Through Your Wall.

Sometimes it’s so exhausting to raise an Oppositional Defiant child to adulthood. As parents we reach into our toolboxes and pull out coping skills that aren’t always effective. Ever find yourself arguing, yelling or blaming your child during a time of conflict? If so, it’s a good clue that you need to take a personal time out. In doing so, you’re showing your child it’s okay for him to do that, as well. Remember, you want to model an approach of “we can resolve this, calmly,” rather than trying to “win” or get the upper hand.  You can actually tell your child, “When you get upset, it’s okay to turn around and walk away. I’ll know that means you need a break because you’re getting too upset. We can come back to the discussion later, when things are calmer. And I’ll respect that. If I get upset, I’m going to do the same thing.”  This is a technique your child can carry over into other real-life situations as well.

Related: So tired you’ve given up trying to make your child behave?

Your child may continue to follow you around the house, trying to carry on the argument, when you’re trying to disengage. If you have to (and he’s old enough), leave the house completely. Go for a drive or a walk. This will also help de–escalate the situation.

Just because you choose to walk away to de-escalate a situation or allow your child to calm down, does not mean you won’t hold him accountable for his behavior, provide consequences if he doesn’t follow your house rules, or that you are “giving in.” Remember, it’s not about winning: it’s about teaching skills. So if you’re in a conflict with your child about him going to a friend’s house and you see that his face is turning red, you know the signs that he’s about to blow. You can end the power struggle by walking away. He knows the answer; it’s “no.” If he chooses to leave without permission because you’ve walked away from the argument, he probably would have left anyway. You can still hold him accountable when he comes home by providing a consequence—and you will have avoided a physical confrontation.

No One Wants to Enter Adulthood with an Empty Toolbox

It can help to think of the situations you’re encountering with your child now, and for the next few years, as opportunities rather than problems. It’s human nature to experience anger and adrenaline when in conflict. The important thing is how you handle it. When your child is in this mode, especially between the ages of 12 and 18, it’s a chance to prepare him to deal with the real world and real life for many years to come. No one wants to enter adulthood with an empty toolbox, not even your Oppositional Defiant child—and at the end of the day, he really needs you to teach him those skills he’ll need as he matures into an adult.


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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

This all makes sense, except that my 14-year-old aggressive son doesn't care about consequences. There is no consequence that he will abide by. I can't physically stop him from leaving when I've grounded him. I can't physically make him get out of bed. I can't physically make him do anything. He knows this and he simply does whatever he wants to do. I have called the police when he hits me, every time. The police give him a lecture and then leave, every time. He has no respect for me or his father. He steals money from us and we call the police. The police again lecture and leave. He knows the police aren't going to do anything, so he has no incentive to straighten up. My child has fetal alcohol spectrum because his birth mother used drugs and alcohol during pregnancy. I adopted him when he was a baby.

Comment By : worn out

We have had the same issue with the lack of support with police/sheriff. Our son was kicking furnature to different points of the family room & the sheriff was called. My wife lost it & told him to leave (he was 17). The sheriff brougt him back & gave him a lecture. No follow up with his probation officer. This was also an issue- probation officers not following up/doing random testing, etc...same with "theripists". We now have done what YOU have said in combination with what our sheriff has said. We posted rules on his bedroom wall. The first time he left them up. This time, when he moved back in (in transition) he tore them off his wall. He will get the same consequences.......

Comment By : mightyhorn

very heplful

Comment By : looking for tools

I sure hear you about the police too. They are too young and they will not do anything. My husband is all for calling the police but I am not. It costs $5000. in lawyer fees and I had child protection in the house for months so we would all be safe. It was all crazy. I have no wonderful words of wisdom that will make things right I just count the months till he is 18 yrs. He knows I will ship him out since his brother was shipped out and is not welcomed back until he has his own home, money etc. Good Luck

Comment By : hadit

The problem is it happens so fast. The physical outbursts occur before you have a chance to calm the situation. We have an ODD son almost 12. He had an outburt the other night when he was told to do something he didn't want to. Police were called, and nothing happened (surprise). Bottom line, it can not be tolerated. The consequences for this behavior must increase each time. Once an adult, a judge will not excuse assault because "he has issues". It is hard but necessary to show them that this behavior can not and will not be tolerated. We are Christians and always try a God based approach in all we do, but bottom line, if talking/coaching isn't working, then appropriate action must be taken. No one should have to feel threatened by another, especially in their own home.

Comment By : patientparents

I can relate to a lot of what is being said here...however I often see the flip side to the coin. the "what happens when the toolbox isn't developed" earlier versus later... what i have found is that often children (mine included) are angry because they feel their feelings are not validated; and often we have waited too long into their lives to being listening to what they are saying instead of how they are saying something (again, my children included). How easy was/is it to make a young child do what you want? Then try that years down the road with a tweenager and see what that gets ya... It begins EARLIER folks! I see young children all the time being brought into the local hospital via the police for misbehavior! Young, as in 5-6 years old! For real! and why? The foundation being built at home is shoddy; the expectations are unrealistic and the consequences are non-existant if any are there at all... personal accountibility begins not only WITH the children but within ourselves. May you all find what you are looking for and remember -- a Label only sets clear expectations for one to successfully thrive within; don't pigeonhole your children!

Comment By : noneavailable

My son is 7, and I've been adamant about not spanking him (though I really feel like spanking him). I feel that when I model nonviolence, it has positive long-term consequences. Hang in there "worn out," and just know that you're doing right by your son.

Comment By : mom who tries

Very good article, might not help the most extreme cases, but may prevent escalation if begun early enough. I shared on FB.

Comment By : Gangy

I recently met a mom of a son with ODD who is now adult. She had tried all of the strategies this program discusses - but some children have more difficult times and coping issues. She finally had the child live away in a program. Broke her heart at first, but it helped her son. He got a job through the program and almost walked out of the store on his first night of work - but his mom met him there... It worked out finally for him. The toughest thing is that brain wiring. If it's behavior that's been reinforced and learned because they got away with it... That can be re-learned also. Be sure you get the support you need as a parent... It can be very isolating. Prayers are with you.

Comment By : Hangin in

My odd son is almost 24. He's currently in prison for selling pills in a school district. As much as I hate to see him locked up, I welcome the break from all the drama. He has a little more than a year to go before his release, right after he turns 25. I love him dearly, but I don't want him back in our home. I'm getting older, and I fear his presence will destroy my peaceful household. You folks with younger children need to get help now, because ODD kids turn into ODD adults.

Comment By : ODDmom

* I understand your frustration with some police officers. I had the same thing happen to me, with my son. A police officer actually stood on my porch and lectured me about my parenting skills, in front of my 15-year-old son. Another time, when he was 16, an officer asked me, “What do you want me to do? Parent your son for you? The best I can do is stand here, while you slam his head into a tree and I’ll say he slipped and fell.” That was the best response I got at that time. Out of desperation, when my son was almost 17 and he had cut the phone lines in my home so I couldn’t call the police again, I drove to the police station, literally in a fit of rage. Those cut phone lines turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Once at the station, I explained my frustration and fear that someone was going to get seriously hurt in my home because I couldn’t take this anymore: the threats, property destruction and blatant disrespect by my son for my personal rights as a citizen. I sat down with several officers and we talked for several hours. I got to hear their frustration: they got hundreds of calls from parents on these same issues. The police explained they really didn’t know what to do in these situations, because they felt it was a parenting issue. Here’s what we did and here are the steps I suggest parents take, and it can be very effective: Call and make an appointment to speak with the chief or head of the police department and any local officers who would be patrolling your area. You can just go down to the station, but it’s better to make an appt. and go while things are calm. Print this article and take it with you. Explain to them you understand their frustration, however you need their help. Your hope is that together, during this meeting, you can come up with a plan you can count on as to how things will be handled the next time they come to your home. Understand the police are there for legal issues and let them know you will only call them when your legal rights have been violated. Make a list of what legal rights your child has been violating (eg, property destruction, assault, possession of drugs in your home). Let them know you are not looking for them to parent your child, you’re looking for them to hold your child accountable for violating the law; that you believe you and the police have the same goal: to produce an upstanding, law-abiding citizen. In doing this, at this point, you need their help. Also let them know you are hoping your child will learn there are consequences for these actions now, before the consequences become more severe, when he reaches adulthood. Your child does not have the right to violate your rights, just because he’s family, or a minor. Let them know you’re open to any ideas they have, and understand they cannot arrest your child and take him to jail if he’s underage. You also understand some of your child’s behavior may not be severe enough to be taken directly to the juvenile detention center. However, you still want him held accountable and here are some of your ideas: When you call, you would like the police to file a written complaint and let your child know it will be on record and follow him into adulthood. Knowing this may have an impact on your child. Also, by having these complaints on record, you are leaving a paper-trail, so if your child does end up in the court system you have documentation of the extent and history. If the officers agree, ask for names/business cards, and if you can specifically request any of the officers you’ve met with to be the ones to come to your home if the need arises. You can use these same steps if your child’s probation officer is not holding him accountable. Ask the p.o. to be truthful with you. In my state, I’ve been told there isn’t funding to put a kid in the detention center for breaking probation (which should be the consequence for those actions). If that’s the case, ask if you can develop a plan with alternatives to hold your child accountable. For the reader whose child has FAS, sometimes police look at your child’s condition as a deficit or impairment, but they won’t do so when he’s twenty-five. Ask the police if he would be treated differently as an adult, and the message he is getting now is that he will not be held accountable. Please know that Marney and I do understand your frustrations; I’ve lived it. These steps have helped other families and hopefully will help police in your area understand.

Comment By : Kim Abraham, LMSW

Sure, all of what they said is true, but trying to enforce consequences with someone who is out of control and threatening to murder you in your sleep is not exactly easy... When your son is so out of control that not even a psychologist can help him, there's not much that can be done by the poor parent. The only thing that helped my son was medication, but he refused to take it - and by refused, I mean very violently refused. In the end, I couldn't help him by myself. He got himself arrested and finally got his wish of foster care, then threatened that guy. He caused so many problems the foster dad who had been dealing with troubled teens for 30 years quit doing foster care. My son eventually ran away and has been living on his own ever since. A very sad tale...

Comment By : noone

This was very helpful, Thank you!!

Comment By : Looking for resouces

Yes I really do hear all that,As another way of dealing with out of control teenagers,we brought our 14 now 15 year old son some old wipper snippers from the second hand shop and some old lawn mowers to tinker with and learn how to fix up get started and sell for pocket money,maybe even buy an older car to tinker and learn with,another interest instead of same old, same old,a few teens working on an old motor can re direct whats bugging them and give them an interest outside of the home and dads can maybe give some advise instead of just laying down the law all the time,mentoring as they should,it works on our son.

Comment By : Another mother 2

im soo glad i found this page,i have a16 year old son n when he gets mad he hits us n threatens us n hits the walls so im glad im not the only one,i do notice that when hes doing things hes ok but if he gets bored he wants to pick n have the last hit n run n he also does weird things,hes exspermenting n i find weird things he does,n he wants to tare up the tile on the bathroom floors at times,but we have called the law too n they just talk to him n thats it,n he says i knew i wasnt going anywhere,so i go to church n pray all the time that god will help him get out of this situation n make it better,i know all things are possible with god,n i try to keep him around good inviroment,no drinking or anything but church,family n clean friends,so god bless each n everyone of us,

Comment By : young mom2

i have a 2 and half year old boy he has,ODD,LD, ADHA,violent behavior how can i help him now,before he gets older. I want to help him now.

Comment By : irma

To young mom2: My 5 children, now grown, were ODD-ish. They & I, had years of therapy. Our therapists helped them to name their feelings, for 1, & take a break, like going to their rooms, for 2, when they needed one. That really helped. It helped me, too. My goal was to tell them the problem with respect, & respectful words, as short as possible. Then walk away, go to my room, leave the house, whatever. If I felt out-of-control while talking very short, it was my job to go to my room. If my child felt out-of-control while I was talking, very short, it was his/er job to go to his/er room. If my child couldn't do his/er job, being the parent, it was my job to walk away & leave, because I wasn't being treated with respect. I didn't deserve that. Never stay where you're not respected. Walking away prevents threats & hitting. You're gone, or your child is gone, before that happens. It never gets that far. I could always come back another day, & try again. I also asked my child when would be a good time for them to talk about this. Which respects them. Very short. Maybe 3-5 minutes. To work out an agreement. Whether the agreement was kept or not, is another issue. But that's how I talked to them. I had to learn that from therapists. It wasn't done when I was a child. I worked very hard at practicing it. Sometimes in my room alone. It's alot of work! Exhausting - parenting these kids! God bless you & all of us!

Comment By : gloriousgrace

I feel for each of you, having struggled with my own ADHD/ODD son (now 16).. The comments concerning law enforcement.. been there face to face he tells me its my fault he is the way he is, then the upstanding officer looks from me to my then 8yr old son while saying.. I would leave my daughter whos 2 with him (my 8 yr old)before I would leave her with someone like you. I was treated horribly nearly every time i asked for help.

Comment By : Missmissy

* Dear Irma, Keep in mind that two year olds have very limited coping skills and to be successful you’re going to want to pick your battles carefully, so you can stay consistent with whichever behaviors you target. So, if you target the violent behavior, make that your primary focus. Any time he kicks, hits, bites or engages in any kind of violent behavior, you want to respond consistently keeping two things in mind: provide a consequence for the undesired behavior (such as time-out, which can be tedious with an ODD/ADHD child – don’t give up – keeping putting him back in until he’s served his time) and look for a tool to give him, i.e. other ways to express his frustration, anger, disappointment, etc. Some examples for young children would be going outside, running around the backyard to get rid of some frustration (instead of breaking toys), and using words to express themselves while you sit calmly and actively listen. Because of his age, it may be that you accept that he throws himself on the floor and screams to get rid of that energy-- whatever is an acceptable release. Talk to your child and let him know that when he feels this way, instead of hitting, these are some alternatives. Parents can get very creative with this. Some parents use clay or Play-doh. Because your child is so young, it’s going to be very difficult for him to stop himself when he’s so emotional, to let you know he needs to go outside, etc. rather than hitting. But you are providing alternatives that he can learn and begin using as he’s growing. If you consistently use time-outs, and let him know at the end of such times that these are the other ways he can express himself, he will be more likely to learn such coping skills as he grows. He will likely release all the negative emotions he is experiencing while fighting the time-out, and eventually calm down, having worn himself out. Remember, one minute of time out per year of age, so only a two-minute time out for your child. If he’s behaving violently, he may hit, bite, etc while you’re enforcing the time out. Don’t let him out of the consequence because of this behavior. This is another reason to pick your battles carefully. It may take an hour for him to fully serve the time out, but follow through, and at the end of the time out remind him why he served it (i.e., “you were in time out because you hit your sister”). Also watch for triggers as a way of potentially preventing these episodes. Does the aggression happen when he’s hungry, tired, frustrated? You may also want to rule out any food allergies, which can have an impact on your child’s behavior. Hang in there; you asked a very good question about how to get a handle on this behavior at a very young age. It sounds like you’re targeting the most severe behavior, which is exactly what we would suggest. Make sure to nurture yourself, so you can keep your energy up!

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

I have a 15 year old I have been having issues with. he has been having problems being caught between an older brother with emotional problems and a younger sister that is mildly retarded and has learning disabilities so naturally he has been angry. We have come a long way and now when he balls his fists up I just take his hand and rub it telling him to relax and open his hands. I am learning what his triggers are and working to not do what upsets him. He is also talking to me more and letting me know when I do something...which is usually a change in my voice. That is my cue to keep myself calm as well. We still have issues with him not doing things I ask such as chores but otherwise he is a very mature and responsible child. I have no problem trusting that when he is gone from the house he is doing the right thing and with the right people. he chooses his friends wisely and lets no one cross his boundaries.

Comment By : Proud Mom

As future physicians, it is true that we have critical roles as listeners. We must pick up on silent cues and delicate body language, understanding that issues of violence and abuse can sometimes be uncovered in a healthcare setting. We must ask questions that often go unasked, and serve as patient listeners.

Comment By : Bhamorthodontics

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