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
- Acknowledge the situation. No parent expects to be faced one day with their own child’s intimidation and possibly illegal behavior. It can be tempting to rationalize or excuse the behavior, but that will only make things worse. Accepting the reality of the situation doesn’t mean you are accepting your teen’s behavior. It means you are acknowledging, “This is what it is, right now, at this moment.” It gives you a starting point for how to respond to the behavior.
- Make safety your number one priority: yours, your child’s and other family members. If you’re parenting a “typical” adolescent, you can focus on things like a clean room, good grades and chores. If you’re parenting a teen who’s engaging in intimidation, aggression or other conduct disordered behavior, those life areas become luxuries. When you are afraid or intimidated by your teen, safety becomes the number one parenting priority. If your daughter physically “gets in your face” when you question her about homework, let it go for now. Does it mean you don’t care about her homework? No. It means you are choosing not to escalate a potentially volatile situation. If your son blocks you from leaving his bedroom when you go in to see if it’s been cleaned up as you asked, don’t go in his room. If you’re afraid of your teen, avoid putting yourself in situations where he can physically intimidate you as much as possible.
Your response to this may be, “Doesn’t that mean I’m allowing my kid to control my home?” Remember, we are acknowledging the situation for what it is, not what we would like it to be. If a neighbor’s kid was physically intimidating you, what would you do? Avoid escalating the situation. Physical intimidation is tough to address. Sometimes it’s not serious enough for police involvement, but it is serious behavior. The point of physically intimidating someone is the unspoken threat behind the behavior: if you don’t do what I want, I may physically hurt you. The point is to control you through fear. If your child recognizes that you’re afraid of him, the power in the home shifts. If you’re not able to face intimidating behavior without showing fear, avoid the situation as much as possible. Again, this isn’t accepting the behavior, it’s accepting the reality.
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.
- Avoid blame. Placing blame for your child’s behavior is a waste of time. Don’t blame yourself, your child’s other parent, friends/peers, or even your child. Certainly hold him accountable, but blame will leave you feeling resentful and angry. Your child is making choices that will have consequences – possibly long term consequences. He is responsible for those choices. Remember, a strong characteristic of conduct disorder is manipulating others. Getting you to take responsibility for negative behavior is a form of manipulation. Blaming yourself will leave you feeling guilty and keep you from responding effectively to these behaviors as a parent.
- Control what you can. Though you may choose to avoid certain situations in order to diminish the potential for escalation, that doesn’t mean you need to hand over control of your own behavior and choices to your child. You still control the “extras” you do for him. If your daughter is cutting class and intimidating you when you talk about it, don’t buy her all the clothes she wants from the best stores in the mall. A student who doesn’t go to school to learn doesn’t need the latest fashion trends.. If your son blocks your exit from his room when you go in to see if it’s clean, don’t buy him a television or pay for cable in his room. Don’t reward behavior that violates the rights of others. If your teen is violent toward you, call the police. Even if they don’t charge your teen or take him to juvenile detention, leave a paper trail documenting the abuse. In the Real World, when you violate the rights of others, you don’t get the “extras” that parents tend to give. You get jail time. This may sound harsh, but this is serious behavior, and, while you don’t want to escalate it, you also don’t want to reinforce it.
- Get help. Find a therapist who understands conduct disorder. If your child refuses to attend therapy, go yourself. Dealing with conduct disorder is one of the most difficult challenges a parent can face. Don’t try to do it alone. You need support.
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, 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.