The start of every school year brings all sorts of images to mind: shopping for clothes and school supplies, getting back into a routine of dinner and bedtimes that may have become relaxed during summer, and relief from arguing siblings who have been stuck together 24/7 for the past three months. Many parents are relieved when school starts up again, but for parents of Oppositional Defiant (ODD) kids, this is often a time of anxiety and even dread.
As the mother of an ODD child, Kim Abraham remembers a “typical school day” in her family’s life:
We’d start the day fighting to get our son up. Even when he was only seven, he’d make himself a dead weight in the bed. Once we got him up, the next challenge was getting him dressed. He literally struggled, argued and fought against every effort we made to get him ready. Long after the school bus passed, he was still in his pajamas, kicking and yelling. In the end, we had to pretty much drag him into the car and my husband would dress him as I drove. If there hadn’t been two of us, he never would have gotten into the car. We’d squeal into the parking lot as the warning bell was ringing and hand him off to the school staff, peeling out before he could scramble back into the car. Then my husband and I would try to pull ourselves together as we faced work and the calls we’d be getting later in the day about our son’s poor behavior. Mornings with our other child were completely different: there was breakfast, getting the backpack together, brushing teeth. There was a routine.
Was school particularly more traumatic for my ODD child than any other kid? No. He went to the same school as my other child – a school that was free from gangs or serious violence. He was a bright child — gifted in fact — so the work itself wasn’t a struggle. If anything, he was bored. So why did he refuse to go? He just didn’t want to. That’s it. There were other things he’d rather be doing than sitting in class and because he was ODD, he didn’t have the personality that cared about the expectations of his parents, the school or society. He didn’t care that the law said he must attend. He didn’t care about consequences for us — or himself.
If you would have asked Kim when her son was born what she expected his school experience to be like, this was not the picture she would have described. Parents of ODD kids are usually in for a rude awakening when their child begins attending school. Transitions are typically difficult, especially between summer break and the new fall year. There’s usually conflict with peers, teachers, the principal and anyone who tries to enforce rules with an ODD child. ODD children fight against rules and being controlled – it’s just their nature. The school setting is not a place where a child who fights authority will be welcomed. One parent we met remembers getting a phone call from cafeteria staff – her daughter had made a mess and was refusing to throw away her napkins. “What do you want me to do,” thought the mom. “Come up there and force her to throw the napkins away?!”
The adults in an ODD child’s life have expectations for that child’s behavior and performance. We expect our children to attend school, be on time, respect the rights of others, follow the rules, do their classwork and homework. The problem is, the expectations of society and parents aren’t usually a priority for ODD kids – their own wants and needs are. Adults continue to hold onto those expectations long after it’s evident a child is refusing to comply. The result for many parents of ODD kids? Daily power struggles.
Many parents we’ve known have shared experiences working with their child’s school that have left them feeling ashamed, humiliated, frustrated and at times downright furious. It’s a powerful system to encounter and when your child is the one who insists on doing things his or her way, it can turn into an “us vs. them” situation. If your child’s school is open to working with you as a team, that’s wonderful. Many teachers and administrators understand that parenting an ODD child is extremely difficult and offer support when it comes to that child’s education. But often the stress parents and educators feel when dealing with a challenging child comes together in the perfect storm. Everyone starts looking to each other on how to control that child and whose fault his behavior is. Somehow – even though you’re miles away—your daughter’s refusal to participate in an activity or your son’s refusal to do his classwork becomes a reflection on you. The focus can get way, way off track and instead of holding the child accountable, it turns into a blame game.
If you’re dreading “back to school” time, here are a few tips to keep in mind about your child’s education:
In today’s world, parents and educators sometimes put more effort into a child’s education than into the child himself. Education is about more than “book learning.” It should be the time when our children begin to learn about the real world and how they will navigate through that world successfully.
It’s our job as parents, educators and as members of society to offer every child the opportunity to have a formal education. It’s our job to provide a safe environment and ensure that our children have the tools to support them in their learning. If a child is struggling, we need to look at what may be going on. (Is there a learning disability, is he being bullied, is there something interfering with his ability to do well in school?) As long as you’re doing your job, it’s your child’s responsibility (and ultimate choice) on whether or not to take you up on those opportunities—and to deal with the natural consequences and find a new path if he doesn’t.
Kimberly Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner 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 (both programs are included in The Total Transformation® Online Package). 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 also the co-creators of their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, which teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.