Young Kids with ODD: Is It Oppositional Defiance Disorder or Just Bratty Behavior?

by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW
Young Kids with ODD: Is It Oppositional Defiance Disorder or Just Bratty Behavior?

“That’s just the Terrible Two’s.”
“He's just being a brat. All he needs is a good attitude adjustment.”
“She needs to know that you’re in control. Be consistent.”

If your young child is behaving in a way that is oppositional or defiant, you’ve probably heard one or more of these phrases from family, friends, teachers or the lady in line behind you at the grocery store. People are often well-intentioned (or sometimes just plain nosy) and quick to dispense advice on how to handle behavior problems with your child. But what about when your child is behaving in a way that is clearly beyond what most of us would call “typical?” How do you know if his behavior has moved into Oppositional Defiant Disorder? How young is too young to diagnose ODD?

“No matter what’s going on that’s leading to your child’s behavior, your job is the same: to help teach him or her what the limits are in your home and how to follow them.”

Related: Is your young child often defiant?

Even Beaver Cleaver Had Bad Days

Tantrums, low frustration tolerance, and the “gimme’s” are all typical in children, especially 2-7 year olds. Kids want what they want, when they want it. When faced with the word “no”—or any type of frustration—they will often have a hard time expressing that frustration in what we would call a “positive” manner. That’s part of being a kid. But over the years, many parents have told us things like, “I knew my son was different from the time he was two. He just reacted more strongly to everything than most kids. He would get really upset and angry, and it seemed like it happened all the time.” The difference between your “typical” young child and one who is acting in a pattern of oppositional-defiance lies in the intensity and frequency of the behavior. ODD behavior can be a pattern of screaming and throwing things, or it may be outright refusal to follow your rules or directions. You ask your child to brush his teeth and he is just not going to do it—no matter what you say or do. If it seems more severe than typical behavior, it probably is. It's always a good idea to speak to your child's pediatrician when you have concerns like this. They will be able to tell you if the behavior is typical and age-appropriate.

If your young child is acting in a way that is oppositional or defiant, here are some things to keep in mind when responding to that behavior:

1.Try not to be afraid.
It can be very frightening when your child begins behaving in a way that is oppositional and defiant. You ask yourself, “Why is this happening? Am I doing something wrong as a parent? What if I don’t fix this before she gets older—adolescence will be horrible!” Before you know it, you’re picturing your child at age 16, breaking all the rules, completely out of control and hating you. If your child is showing signs of ODD, even at the age of two, she’s showing you that she has the type of personality that will push limits. As hard as it may be, try not to predict the future, or blame yourself or your child. When you do this, emotion can take over and parents end up reacting to their child’s behavior out of fear, desperation or determination to “get it under control now before it gets even more out of hand.” Instead, stay in the moment and focus on the behavior you’re seeing right now.

Related: Are you afraid of your child? How to turn that around and take back control.

2. Don’t get too hung up on a diagnosis.
Is it helpful to know that your child has ODD? It can be. It can help you understand why “typical” parenting approaches usually aren’t successful with your child. It can help you understand your child’s personality and how it relates to his behavior. ODD can go hand-in-hand with another diagnosis, such as ADHD or Asperger’s Disorder. It’s helpful to know if your child is experiencing these things as well, so you can understand if there’s something else going on that’s contributing to the ODD behavior. You may find out that your child has trouble focusing and sitting still, so when he’s asked to do so he fights against it. You may choose to schedule your child with a psychiatrist or child therapist for an evaluation to see if there are any other underlying clinical issues that he is struggling with. But remember: a diagnosis is just a framework for looking at a set of behaviors. No matter what’s going on that’s leading to the behavior, your job is the same: to help teach your child what the limits are in your home and how to follow them.

3. Look at this as a prime parenting opportunity.
Life is full of limits, boundaries and consequences—for children and adults. When your child is young, even if he’s engaging in some pretty tough behaviors, it’s an excellent opportunity for him to begin learning those lessons on boundaries and limits. These life lessons begin in your home. As a parent, you are your child’s first “authority figure.” When you respond to his behavior, you are essentially saying, “This is the line, right here, and when you cross it, this is what will happen. Every time.” You’re preparing your child, from a young age, for what it means to have boundaries. You’re also preparing him for what to expect from you—his parent and authority figure—every time he crosses those boundaries. Down the road, he will have other authority figures (teachers, coaches, bosses, etc.). He may or may not change his tendency to fight against limits as he gets older. But he will always know what to expect because you’ve laid the groundwork.

Related: How to draw the line and create firm boundaries with a defiant, oppositional child.

4. Make consequences immediate and fair.
ODD kids have trouble problem-solving and tend to react negatively to strong emotions. Staying calm when delivering consequences to your child can help prevent emotions from escalating even further—yours and his! We know that’s much easier said than done. Knowing ahead of time what consequence you’ll be giving your child can lessen the emotion. Some steps that can help:

  • Make a list of your child’s behaviors that you want to target. Review the list and determine if any of those behaviors have natural or social consequences. For example, if your child is arguing and refusing to go to bed and you know she’ll be tired the next day, that’s a natural consequence. It’s also an example of a life lesson: many adults choose to stay up late even though they know they’ll be tired the next day. Only you can decide which behaviors you are able to let go of—for now—in order to focus on the most serious concerns.
  • Identify one behavior from your list that you consider a priority to address. Pick just one problem behavior to start with. This will be your child’s target behavior. When you are successfully managing the behavior, you can pick another thing to work on from your list.
  • Make a list of potential consequences to use with your child. Consequences should be time-specific (Decide how long it will last—a few minutes, hours or days. For younger children, shorter consequences tend to work better.) and immediate. It helps to tie the consequence to the behavior if you can. ("If you throw your toy, you lose it for an hour.") Choose which consequence you will give for each target behavior—one you can remain consistent and follow through with.
  • Talk ahead of time. Even though your child is young, talk with him clearly and briefly ahead of time, when he’s calm, about what will happen as a consequence for the behaviors you’ve chosen. This will help him know what to expect. Then stick with it to the best of your ability.

Related: How to give “fail-proof” consequences.

5. Hang in there.
Parenting is the hardest job out there. Sometimes it’s difficult to “see the forest for the trees” and some days may seem like a battle more than a relationship with your child. If a child doesn’t change his behavior in response to the consequences a parent gives, it can seem like what you’re doing isn’t working. That’s not necessarily the case. In fact, what you’re doing is working. You’re teaching your child that when he behaves in a way that is unacceptable or inappropriate, an uncomfortable consequence will follow. That’s a life lesson. ODD kids tend to learn and do everything the hard way. That strong will can serve them well in the long run. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. By following these steps, you are showing your child how he can effectively navigate his way in this world.

Related: Do you suspect that your young child has Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

In today’s world, with so much information out there on parenting, we’re taking our job very seriously as parents. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in trying to figure out why our child is acting in a particular way, we get sidetracked from addressing the behavior itself. Kids act up. That’s their job. Our job is to show our child ways to effectively handle frustration and emotions, and provide discipline until he gains self-discipline. These are the life lessons that your child will take with him into the world, regardless of how he is behaving today.

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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. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.


I am starting to realize that I was focusing far to much on the reasons why my twelve year old son was being verbally abusive mean and angry all the time. By doing that I was essentially allowing the behavior to continue because there was never a good enough reason for his behavior. I am not perfect but I am a very good mom and I love my child very much. In the end he is going to haveto be responsible for his own choices and deal with the consequences and rewards of his choices. I am learning through total transformation how to give him the tools necessary to do that. That is my job. I cannot micromanage a twelve year olds emotions. That is his job. Thankyou to all who helped to create this program. I have only just begun the process but now I have direction and more understanding. Sincerely , em

Comment By : em

Today my ODD daughter was very obnoxious as we were leaving the psychiatrist and in the car. She even grabbed the steering wheel at one point while I was driving! I stayed calm and "stopped the show." I pulled off the road and got out of the car until she moved to the back seat, put on her seatbelt, and apologized for her behavior. I actually had to do this 2 or 3 times. She was MORTIFIED and eventually did what she needed to. It was so gratifying to be the one in charge for a change! (I was really hoping a state trooper would stop -- that would have made a real impression) Question -- if "ODD kids have trouble problem-solving" are they really not candidates for the alternate method outlined in TT? Where you coach them to try and understand their behavior? Once we got past the ordeal I mention above and she had genuinely calmed down, I discussed it with her. I tried not to lecture, but she wouldn't participate so it ended up as a monologue. Hopefully she heard some of what I said. I tried to get her to figure out what was going through her head before she opened her mouth to alienate yet another family member. She has very little self-awareness so I think she really has no clue.

Comment By : tdr

* Hi ‘tdr’: Wow, what a tough situation you were in this morning! And you handled it beautifully . Pulling the car over is exactly what we recommend in that kind of situation. It’s clear that you are learning a lot from the Total Transformation Program and putting it into practice already. ODD kids are candidates for the methods outlined in TT, particularly those you are referring to in lesson 6. In fact, James states, kids with ODD need these kinds of problem-solving conversations even more than kids without a diagnosis. You’re probably correct that your daughter has no clue and talking about it is the best way to teach her and inform her. These conversations can be more challenging with kids who have ODD, so don’t forget to call the Parental Support Line if you continue to feel like you are simply giving a monologue each time you try to talk to her. Thanks for your question and keep up the great work!

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

My son who is almost 16 is showing some oppositional behavior. I am atributing it to being a independant person as he is a only child and I am a single Mom. However I stand strong and he will come to his senses when he is diciplined appropriately

Comment By : Sonja

I believe I have an ODD son. I was at my wits end with the confrontations and skipping school daily. I was in a three way battle between he and I, his stepdad and me due to different parenting styles and then between my son and his stepdad. It was a nightmare. I had enough one day and shipped him to live with his real dad who is happy to have him. I feel I made the biggest mistake of my life. Now my son will not speak to me at all. I want to think I made a good decision to remove him from the boiling pot, but know that it is mostly his responsibility not to create a new boiling pot. I wish I had invested in the Total Transformation Program before I made such a decision. Sign me a sad, sad mom.

Comment By : sad, sad mom

I have a daughter who is 6 yrs old and has ODD and unresolved grief issues (we lost my husband to a tragic accident 1 year ago) SHe is also adopted (we fostered her since she was 5 months old) and birthmom most likely drank and possible took illegal drugs while pregnant. We attended play therapy for a year, and also had mobile therapy and then outpatient therapy which we just finished. Biggest problem for me is when she wants to be in someone's space, esp her sister, age 9, she will just not stop or move away when we ask her to. Big sis gets angry quickly now, and gives her a shove or a kick or a scratch. Then it is almost impossible to get her to choose to calm down and cease the behavior. GOing to a calming down spot works, but she will not go there willingly. Transitions of any kind are difficult, and when she has something in her mind, she will not let it go. As a now single mother, it is both heartbreaking and frustrating to the point of tears most days. I am open to any and all suggestions. Thank you!

Comment By : Kate

My son has been locked up in the juvenile system and will be returning home soon. I had problems with him in school, at home, on the streets with the law. He was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD at the age of 12 now 16. I am so afraid on how he is going to handle situations and how to stand strong with a 16 year old that is 6 feet tall. I read my empowering parents every week faithfully. Reading the lessons on how to handle my child and other comments on there children. It helps me be optimistic. thank you

Comment By : Portia

* Hi Kate. It sounds like you and your girls have been going through some really challenging times. We are very sorry to hear about your husband. It’s never easy to lose someone you love and it can take a lot of time to adjust to the life changes that result for you. You’re very resourceful and have taken advantage of several different types of support in your area—that’s very commendable. At this point, what might be most helpful is to focus on continuing to help your daughters develop better problem-solving skills to handle this type of situation—how can your 9 year old communicate her needs better to her younger sister, and how can the younger sister do a better job at respecting her sister’s need for some space? You can use incentives to encourage your girls to use more appropriate coping skills on their own, such as going to the calm-down spot. I’m including an article on problem solving for some more ideas and information. We wish you and your daughters luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.
The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems"

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

I would appreciate any insight or shared experiences for a child who has been labeled ODD and is a teenager. Our son is 16 and is failing school, not because he is not capable, actually he is extremely intelligent. But he says he is failing on purpose because he thinks we are bad parents and control freaks. He is on medicine for depression but our current psychiatrist thinks that he is no longer depressed and is just oppositional. My husband and I are weary of the many therapist,doctors, counselors, etc. who seem unable to truly help us or truly understand our son. One counselor suggested he has Aspergers, but then another says no, he is just ODD. We don't know what to do to motivate our son and we are concerned he will fail out of high school. He does not seem to understand the consequences of his actions.

Comment By : Distraught

* To ‘Distraught’: ODD teens are one of the hardest groups to work with here on EP and on the Parental Support Line. We hear from parents with ODD teens every day and we know it can be completely exhausting and outrageously frustrating. ODD teens are driven by the motivation to control and it can be very easy to get into power struggles with them over school, or anything really! Rather than trying to get your son to understand the consequences, you might find it more helpful to focus on what you can control. You can’t change his perspective on the situation, but you can control how you hold him accountable at home for not doing his homework on a daily basis. We have an entire collection of articles about ODD here, but these two articles might be particularly helpful for you: Parenting ODD Children and Teens: How to Make Consequences Work & ODD Kids and Behavior: 5 Things You Need to Know as a Parent. We know this isn’t easy and we wish you luck as you continue to look for solutions. Take care.

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

Or maybe the child has food allergies (gluten, corn, soy) or low tolerance to sugar, or maybe has trouble with emotional regulation due to a developmental delay (high functioning autism, PPD-NOS), or maybe has sensory integration disorder and is overwhelmed by too much noise or flickering lights in a classroom...So many other things to explore before you put your child on drugs. We've been experiencing success using Social Thinking curriculum + Emotional Regulation program + Occupational Therapy + gluten-free diet, probiotics and fish oil + a cup of coffee in the morning and afternoon for a non-pharmaceutical stimulant for managing his co-morbid ADHD.

Comment By : scm

I have a 7 year old son who seems to be showing signs of ODD. His teacher last year told me that she thought he had ADHD and I took him to his doctor and she didn't think so. She thought he might be bored. I feel that he was choosing not to do his work rather than not being able to focus on it. This year in a different school we have only had one incident of him not doing his work and he told his teacher that he didn't have to do his social studies because he knew it all already. When he was in Jk his teacher picked him up by the neck and even left a scratch mark on him because he would not nap at nap time and he wanted to play. Even though I told the director about it the teacher never did seem to get punished. It has been since this incident that the tantrums and defiance seem to have started. I guess my question is, if there is an instigating factor like this than with a careful parenting plan can the defiant behavior go away?

Comment By : Eringhunt0810

* To “Eringhunt0810”: Thank you for sharing your story. What a great question! Many parents I’ve spoken to wonder whether or not it’s too late to help turn their child’s behavior around. As James Lehman advises in his article It's Never Too Late: 7 Ways to Start Parenting More Effectively, it’s never too late to parent more effectively and help your son learn the tools to solve his problems more appropriately. From our perspective, the “why” of a child’s behavior doesn’t matter as much as the “what” and “how”: what problem is he trying to solve with his behavior and how can he solve it differently. Even though there may have been an instigating factor which seems to have triggered the acting out behavior, the acting out behavior is still a choice your son is making. As a parent, you can help your son develop better behavior through problem solving and holding him accountable for his choices. Here is another article by James you may find helpful: Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill The Three Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through these challenges. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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