What do you do when your teen is intimidating you? Not just throwing a tantrum to get something he wants, but outright trying to scare you? How do you respond to an adolescent who gets up and blocks your way when you’re trying to leave the room, towering over you and looking at you in a way that makes your stomach ache? Is this oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, and how can you deal with this?
These are tough questions with no easy answers. We talk every day with parents who feel their dream of raising a child has turned into a parenting nightmare. This article is intended for parents facing intimidation—perhaps even bullying—by their adolescent or teen in their own home. Our focus is on understanding and responding to this behavior, while supporting a specific group of parents who often feel isolated and as if no one understands their situation. We’re here to say we do understand, and you are not alone.
Is it Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or Conduct Disorder?
Many parents and professionals have difficulty recognizing the differences between ODD and conduct disordered behavior. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is characterized by a child or teenager who fights against authority figures, such as parents and teachers.
Kids with ODD often lose their tempers, argue, resist rules and discipline, refuse to comply with directions and in general have a low frustration tolerance. The defining characteristic is a fight against being controlled. For a child like this, being controlled feels like drowning. Conduct disorder is used to describe an older child or adolescent who has moved into a pattern of violating the rights of others: intimidation or aggression toward people or animals, stealing or the deliberate destruction of property. The DSM-5, a diagnostic handbook used by mental health professionals, describes these individuals as having “a callous and unemotional interpersonal style.” It means a lack of empathy—not understanding or caring about how their behavior may physically or emotionally hurt others.
If a neighbor’s kid was physically intimidating you, what would you do? Avoid escalating the situation.
A key difference between ODD and conduct disorder lies in the role of control. Kids who are oppositional or defiant will fight against being controlled. Kids who have begun to move—or have already moved—into conduct disorder will fight not only against being controlled, but will attempt to control others as well. This may be reflected by “conning” or manipulating others to do what they want, taking things that don’t belong to them simply because “I want it,” or using aggression or physical intimidation to control a situation. Parents of kids who exhibit this type of behavior describe feeling afraid in their own home: “My son actually runs the house. We walk on eggshells.” Living with a child who is oppositional and defiant can leave a parent frustrated, angry, disheartened and sad. It doesn’t typically lead to fear. If you believe your teen is moving into conduct disorder—or if you know he’s already there—here are five things that can help you.
Parenting a Child with Conduct Disorder
Safety is difficult to achieve if you haven’t acknowledged the situation for what it is. Prevention is a primary concern when responding to conduct disordered behavior. If your son is cruel to animals, don’t have pets. If your daughter is aggressive, don’t leave her alone with younger siblings. If your son is aggressive with you if you go in his room, don’t go in there. If your daughter becomes violent when you ask about homework, don’t ask. Here’s the reality: if she doesn’t do her homework, she will fail. That happens. If she’s old enough to intimidate you, she’s old enough to understand that she needs to complete classwork in order to pass to the next grade.
As therapists and parents, we know this was a tough article to read if you’re facing this type of behavior with your child. Certainly, not every teen with ODD will move into conduct disorder. We’re talking about a very specific type of behavior for which parents need help. The information we offer here is truly just a small slice of parenting a teen who is engaging in intimidation, aggression or other serious behavior. We hope that it offers you steps toward clarity, safety and the support you need and deserve as a parent.
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.