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.

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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.

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Parenting a Child with Conduct Disorder

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

About and

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.

Comments (23)
  • Marc r

    Out 15 year old daughter had ODD. She has been through therapy for many years. The move to another Arizona a year ago has contributed to her bad behavior.

    She had done RTC for 5 or so months. She has been in Inpatient few times, 1st for suicide attempt, and the 2nd time for running away for almost a week and getting into drugs with bad friends. WE are in trying to figure out what to do. The Inpatient hospital says they can't keep her anymore because she is stable to move back to RTC. My daughter refuses to go back to RTC and doesn't want to live with us. No family member or friends are willing to take her until she gets better. She is comming home tomorrow and not sure how to handle her anymore. She refuses to follow house rules, she takes our credit cards and money without asking, she becomes violent if she doesn't get what she wants. She says she wants to be independent and get a job to live by herself. She is only 15 and told her she can't do that yet. How can we began to find a common ground with her at home knowing she hates us and blame us for everything she has gone through, We feel we have done everything professionals have told us to do and nothing has worked.

    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles you have been experiencing with your daughter. It can be so frustrating when you have done everything within your power to help your daughter, yet she continues to be violent, defiant and out of control. In situations like this, itMore tends to be more effective to focus on one or two of the top issues, rather than trying to address everything at once. Based on what you have described, I encourage you to focus first on safety and setting very clear limits around violence and abusive behavior. If possible, it’s going to be beneficial to work with your daughter’s treatment program to develop a plan to keep everyone safe once your daughter returns home, including your daughter. If you are not able to work with her treatment team, you might find some helpful information on developing a safety plan in Signs of Parental Abuse: What to Do When Your Child or Teen Hits You. I recognize what a difficult situation this must be for you and your family, and I wish you all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • LBrink
    I'm living this horrible nightmare with my godchild I'm raising. He is 11 yrs old, he has now called two police officers fcking as.holes, and now told a therapist to f..off. I'm beyond stressed out, broken hearted. And fearful we won't be able toMore get him help. Is there a possible light at the end of this dark tunnel :(
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I’m so sorry to hear about the challenges you are facing with your godchild, and I’m glad that you’re reaching out for support, both here on our site, as well as in your community through resources like law enforcement and counseling. Even though he has been verbally abusive whenMore you have tried to use these supports, I encourage you to continue to use them as a way to hold him accountable for his choices. I hear how overwhelmed you are feeling in the face of his poor behavior. Even if your godchild refuses to engage in therapy, it could still be a helpful resource for you to learn some effective coping strategies and stress management techniques, as well as getting some support for yourself. If you are not working with anyone right now, you can contact the 211 Helpline at 1-800-273-6222. 211 is a service which connects people with resources available in their community, such as counselors, support groups and kinship care services. One last thought I encourage you to keep in mind is that change can happen at any time, and sometimes that change needs to start with the parents. You might find our article, “My Kid Will Never Change.” When You’ve Hit a Wall with Your Child’s Behavior, useful as you continue to move forward. I recognize what a tough situation this must be for you, and I wish you all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Fawad Ali
    Everything is explained in such an easy and organized form. Really informative. Thanks..
  • Atwhittsend
    I have a 12.5 year old step daughter. She has an older sister and two younger siblings (her dad and mine) . She has been through a lot with her mom, cos was involved and she is now with us full time. Has been diagnosed with adhd since she wasMore 5. She refuses to follow any rules and doesnt respect anyone, me, her dad, siblings ect. She is sweet with others but a nightmare here. Steals her siblings stuff, sneaks around and lies to my face daily, the scariest part is you almost cant tell she is lying. No punishment works as usual, grounded? Keeps comming out, take her things away? She steals her siblings things or manipulates them jnto giving her stuff. I am at my whitts end. Is it ok to just stop? To just not get her things unless its stuff she truley needs? Keep her away from my children? I feel like the isolation might be bad? Calling the police the next time she takes one of her siblings things? I just dont know what to do. We have been consistent but that doesnt work. She doesnt yell or scream or call us names but shows no emotion. The next day she acts like nothing even happened and everything in the world is fine.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Atwhittsend 

      Lying and stealing are

      difficult behaviors which many parents struggle to address; you are not

      alone.  Something I often talk about with parents is that consequences by

      themselves do not change behavior if your stepdaughter is not also https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-surprising-reason-for-bad-child-behavior-i-cant-solve-problems/.  In other words, taking away her

      privileges or grounding her is not teaching her what to do differently the next

      time she is in a similar situation.  Janet Lehman outlines how to address

      this type of behavior effectively in her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/i-caught-my-child-lying-how-to-manage-sneaky-behavior-in-kids/.  Please

      be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for your family. 

      Take care.

  • Bereall42

    My 15 yr old diagnosed odd recently is in the manipulative conning phase. Everything is a confrontation. I developed clear house rules and consequences. One rule is not to yell at me. If he does I will stop the conversation, he has to calm down then come back and I will talk.

    He says I won't talk to my own son, goes on rants over it. But I set that boundary because he was/is very verbally abusive with me.he also pushes limits on the rules every way he can and the consequences. Therapist says stay the course, this is extremely hard.

    If I walk away to be non confrontational, he follows.what do I do??

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Bereall42 

      We hear this

      question from many parents, so you are not alone.  It’s actually quite

      common for kids to continue to follow their parents in an effort to keep the

      argument going.  I encourage parents to do their best to remain disengaged

      from the argument until things calm down, whether that is simply doing your

      best to ignore your son’s outbursts until he is calm, or even leaving the house

      if it is safe to do so.  Sara Bean discusses this further in her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-walk-away-from-a-fight-with-your-child-why-its-harder-than-you-think/. 

      Please let us know if you have any additional questions.  Take care.

      • Bereall42
        After an on going battle I disengaged. Said I was doing so and went to my room he followed I asked him to leave my ROOM, said I was not going to escalate things I loved him but it was time to settle. He said I told him to leaveMore so he left the house. I went after, reminding leaving for a walk to cool off is OK, leaving to leave is a police matter. After several tense moments. He did come home. How can I stop this constant manipulation even when I try to avoid revelation, if I walk away he leaves the house!
        • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

          Bereall42 

          Thank you for following up with additional examples. 

          The truth is, you cannot control what your son chooses to do; you can only

          control how you choose to respond to it.  At this point, it could be

          useful to let your son know during a calm time what is OK for him to do to cool

          down during arguments.  For example, if it is OK for him to take a walk to

          cool down, you can talk about that, as well as when you might involve the

          police (for example, if you do not know where he is, or if he is gone for more

          than a set amount of time).  Take care.

  • DeniseR_ParentalSupport
    @MoJo DeniseR_ParentalSupport 4bigboys Thank you for bringing that to my attention. The link should work now.
  • 4bigboys

    My oldest son has ADHD & Conduct Disorder. As the years go by- he is 15 now he has become manipulative & intimidating to my younger sons. He takes their stuff as well as mine.

    We are considering sending him to boarding school, specifically Military to teach him respect & character as well as not have him in the home disrupting my other kids.

    My question is will this type of school be helpful to him or worsen his condition?

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      4bigboys

      You ask a great question. It would be tough for me to say

      what effect a military boarding school would have on your son’s behavior. I

      would recommend researching any school you are considering, as Jane Lehman

      suggests in the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/is-boot-camp-the-only-option-for-your-child-read-this-first/. You could also

      contact the http://www.natsap.org/ at 1-928-443-9505 for tips on how to

      decide whether or not a military boarding school is right for your son and

      family. We appreciate you writing in and wish you the best of luck moving

      forward. Take care.

  • Concerned mother
    My son is 14 and has Conduct Disorder , along with Depression and ADD. Up until 2 years ago he was like any other child . He has charged so much it is scary at times . He lacks emotion . Has no care no feelings for anyone. We can'tMore have normal relationships with him . My family is very family oriented, but he is not . Visiting relatives or family get togethers he will sit alone in another room away from everyone . Once he hid behind a tree at a family bbq . Even when his grandma says hello , ignores her . I tell him that is rude say hi at least acknowledge someone . It's like he has no idea how to have a relationship . It breaks my heart often. He's burnt down a building , attacked me once , attacked my boyfriend twice . One of those time trying to stab him with a chunk of glass . I Had to call police all 3 times . The last time ( with the glass chunk) he smashed the house up as well kicking anything in his way , punched a glass table shattering it across the room . He gets distuctive . Punches holes in the wall, takes things like laptop , lamps , etc. apart that they are unfixable . He steals from us and others . The school often calls about things he's doing there . We were scared for our safety and I reached out for help , but was told by child services they only help kids that are abused or neglected . There is no help for parents that fear being attacked . Why isn't there ? We get to live with a touch of fear . I take my son to whoever any authority figure tells me too . I read any article I can find . Sadly I get more help and knowledge from articles . How can you disipline a teen with Conduct Disorder with out worrying about being attacked ? We use to ground him, but no longer can because of the depression he enjoys being home . We take electronics / disconnect Internet or yard work for disipline , this generally works , but sometimes causes him to start power struggles and escalates to him getting aggressive .
  • Double Trouble
    We have 17 year old twin boys with various personality disorders and putting us through "hell."  The problems became unmanageable with the onset chronic abuse of marijuana. Verbal abuse, stealing from our home, lying, blaming others, lack of empathy, disregard for rules, irresponsibility, etc., have escalated exponentially with the ever-increasing drug use. Consequences seem toMore have no positive impact, nor has tough love. They have gone from honor-role performance levels to missing so much school that graduation is highly unlikely. They seem to "feed" off one another in this downward spiral. No one, not the school, not the police, not social services, and certainly not us can get through to these boys. Any communication becomes an irrational waste of time and their preferred method of communication is texting. The happy-go-lucky Cheech and Chong image is in no way applicable in this case. Very frustrating and heart wrenching to say the least.
    • DarseyFamily
      How are they doing now?
  • Going one day at a time

    Hello,

    We have a 9 year old son who has been diagnosed at four years old with ODD and ADHD after fighting and destroying property constantly at his preschool. There is not much support or knowledge in our community regarding ODD. Our son is already displaying aggression towards us, and is at times, oblivious to how his actions affects those around him. He will in a split second, go into a rage, hitting and throwing things sometimes. Yes, we worry about conduct disorder. He is on medication that he takes twice a day that keeps him focused and helps him to pause before reacting. I am glad to say, he doesn't walk around like a zombie, but he used to and his medication was changed and that helped.

    I have two brothers that were ADHD as children, both on medication. One was a zombie the other refused to take it when he got into his early teens. Although, one brother felt like a zombie, he agreed that the medication helped. Unfortunately, my other brother was in and out of jail, doing drugs and it cost him his life. 

    I have learned later after having my own child, and being bipolar myself, is that his medication, constant monitoring by his psychiatrist to ensure he has the right medication, along with family counseling and a ton of research on my part, helps. Growing up and learning and watching the behavioral triggers in my brothers helps too. One thing is, no matter how much you may be afraid, don't show fear during a conflict, it makes it worse. Inform your child that you will call the cops, and do it if you have to. We ask our son when he is calm and easy to talk to (yes rare but...), "what happens if you destroy property, or hurt someone?" He knows that even a 9 year old can be arrested. And this helps too. We tell him to educate him, not to scare him. Unfortunately, he also knows jail and death happens too from seeing his uncle's behavior and death.

    Is it easy? A big no. But we go at it one day at a time. 

    Hopefully this will help some parents know they are not alone.

    Signed, 

    "Your son has what? ODD?"

  • sevenblessings

    I had this same kind of situation with our 16 year old son.  He is not mean to animals; but he has been aggressive towards me: when I went down the basement, he blocked me from coming up. He blames me for things real and imaginary, "Why are you treating me this way?" when I'm out in the garden, doing the wash, etc.  Irrational.  This article is correct about being non-confrontational.  Step back, and as hard as it is - be calm.  He will do whatever he can to draw me into an argument.   I say over and over, "I'm not arguing with you, it's wrong to argue."  

    I find it best to walk away/go away, so I'm not there to be shouted at.  Then, the next day, I'll write something ( trying to talk it out, doesn't work, he starts arguing again) for him to read.  I don't say anything, but I see he is looking at the paper. For example: he was calling me names.  I wrote on the paper: "There is no excuse for abuse."

    Our son is in, what is considered the best therapy in our city; but we found that we, his parents are the ones who need to carry this load and figure this out - with the help of professionals, and articles like this one.

    It's been a long road, and it's mostly when he doesn't get what he wants, and lashes out.  It's miserable feeling like your child wants to control the household, and takes away the peace. 

    I certainly do not want to be an enabler, so it's good to read this, and not reward this behavior accidentally.  I agree that trying to get them to do schoolwork doesn't work, and as hard as it is, he needs to learn that if he doesn't do it....he doesn't pass the class.  Very hard to watch this happen, but I'm learning to step back, otherwise it's just a big power struggle, and no one wins.

    Hopefully there is an understanding spouse, or find a sympathetic friend, you will need one.  These kids are exhausting!

    My husband encourages me to look for the good - yes, it's there - and that we all want to be accepted for who we are, and valued, and I find that very helpful to keep in mind.

    • Resa
      Thank you for the idea of writing something down. My son is nosey enough that he'll probably look, too. He's 13, ODD DX at 6, among other DX all under a fetal alcohol umbrella. I think he's moving g from ODD to conduct disorder.
  • relatingparent
    The article mentioned the progression to manipulation, possibly if you allow him to read the characteristics you may be opening the door to more behavioral ideas that he can blame on his disorder. You have talked to him & he doesn't see it. Reading it won't change his stance itMore may only educate him. No matter what, in his mind we will ultimately be the blame for their issues. Although at times they MAY show remorse they still revert back...their frontal lobe is not fully developed and that is compounded by a disorder. Signed, relating parent.
  • sja3i

    My son is 18 and graduating this Spring.  He resides with my new husband, me and my two younger daughters who are his sisters.  He has been diagnosed with ODD and ADHD.  We live in a state where he has control over his own mental health decisions at age 16 and while he continued therapy just until January of 2015, we had to stop his meds in December of 2014 due to his weight issues (he was grossly underweight with no appetite) and he refuses to resume them on the basis that he has been convinced by his father and step-mother that I used the Vyvanse to "control" him and "keep him zombied up".  (he was never in such a state and it certainly was not a form of control as he still did as he pleased....the great thing about the medication was that it enabled him to focus and be able to sit in class and learn.  His grades went from all failing (including P.E.) to nearly all A's and B's within one grading period's time.)  

    We have had to call the police on him a few times and while they never took him to jail, he has this "paper trail" your article speaks about.  I don't feel badly.  He has convinced himself that I want him in jail and that I think he's a criminal regardless of our talking in detail about his behaviors and how they bring these consequences and what he can do to control himself and his anger through the various things he learned to do for himself during therapy.  

    All this said, my question is:  would it be appropriate to let him read the definition of ODD so he can see the characteristics he has ( he has all of them) that correlate to the ODD?  While he has not hurt any animals his behavior has in the last year become somewhat leaning to that of the Conduct Disorder.  It still mostly looks like ODD, but I can see the other developing over the past few years and escalating this past year.  

    I'm afraid for him when he graduates in May.  He has a long, hard road ahead of him.  

    Thank You.

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @sja3i

      You bring up a question similar to one we hear often on the

      Parental Support Line, whether or not it would be beneficial to share

      information about a child’s diagnosis. Ultimately, that’s a question only you,

      the parent, can answer. It may be helpful to think about what the possible pros

      and cons would be, as well as what are you hoping to accomplish by sharing this

      information. Something to keep in mind through all of this is your son isn’t

      seeing the situation from the same perspective as you are. And, there is a

      relatively good chance he may not recognize himself in the information you

      share. I hope this answers your query. Be sure to check back if you should have

      any further questions. Good luck to you and your family moving forward.

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