Has your oppositional, defiant child’s behavior escalated to the point where he’s using physical force against you—or do you fear that he might? Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner have worked with parents of kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder for 20 years—and Kim is the parent of an adult child with ODD. In this article, they explain how to handle your ODD child’s aggressive, violent behavior effectively.
“[ODD kids] get frustrated more easily than your ‘typical’ child, and often can’t see a way to resolve conflict without aggression. The only tool they have [in their toolbox]is a hammer!”
“You know, for a minute there I really thought my son was going to hit me. He had his fists clenched, his face was red and he actually took a step toward me. I used to think that was a line he would never cross, but I just don’t know anymore. What can I do to stop it from getting to that point?”
We’ve heard this from many parents of Oppositional Defiant teens and pre–teens, parents who are not only worried about their child’s current behavior, but about what could happen if things continue to escalate. If your child is already engaging in behaviors you never expected (lying, yelling at you, breaking the rules of the house, being destructive), it’s understandable that you would worry about aggression. What’s to keep him or her from crossing that line?
We all have skills we use to cope when things don’t go our way: a “toolbox,” if you will. You can probably think of a few “tools” that you use when you’re stressed or frustrated. If you’re upset with your spouse, you may call a friend to vent. If your work is stressful, you may exercise or read a book when you get home to try to relax. Over the years, the make–up of your toolbox has probably changed as you’ve learned and matured. You may want to slug your offensive boss, but instead you use a different skill—one that won’t get you fired or land you in jail!
Kids start out with an empty toolbox. They begin to fill that box as they encounter different situations—and parents, teachers and other kids model tools (or coping skills) that your child may try out and decide whether or not to keep. For instance, screwdrivers may not work for your child – he may need a pair of pliers instead. So venting might not help him feel better; listening to music may be more helpful for your 15 year old.
Kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, anxiety and other emotional challenges have a very difficult time finding and keeping tools in their box. They get frustrated more easily than your “typical” child, and often can’t see a way to resolve conflict without aggression. The only tool they often have is a hammer!
ODD kids have a very difficult time coping with stress or conflicts, even small ones. It may seem like your child is overreacting to something that you view as a pretty minor event. Kids with emotional challenges often feel powerless; they make up for this with aggressive words and behaviors. The thing is, this behavior typically backfires and your child ends up feeling even worse in the long run. By helping him learn to resolve things calmly, you will actually empower him. It can be hard to look past the words, threats and aggressive body language to what’s underneath. Oftentimes, ODD kids are not trying to be malicious—they simply don’t know what else to do.
When your child was two, if he threw himself on the floor kicking and screaming, you could just carry (or drag) him out of the store. You were able to exert physical control. But over the years, tantrums can escalate if your child doesn’t learn other skills. By the time he’s a teenager, there’s no way you can pick him up. And now, you may be afraid he’s the one who’s going to take physical control of the situation.
Understand this: Conflict is a natural part of life. It’s going happen. And it happens frequently between parents and children, because kids want what they want, exactly when they want it, and parents often have to set limits or say the dreaded word “no.” Conflict is also born simply from different personalities and outlooks: you see it one way, your child sees it another way, and so an argument is born. There’s a difference between conflict and arguing. Even though it’s difficult for most of us, conflict can also lead to growth: you want something, I want something different, what skills can we both use to resolve this? Arguing, on the other hand, is usually about winning. Your child can become so focused on “winning” the power struggle that the point of the conflict is completely lost. And let’s be honest – sometimes, as parents, we fall into the same trap! It can start to feel like a chess game, where you’re trying to out–maneuver each other. Other times, it may seem like a boxing match. But remember, it’s more like the “Marathon of Life.” You and your child are both on the same team, after all—and it’s more about teaching him appropriate skills than it is about winning.
As parents, the very best we can hope to do is teach our kids about real life. In real life, there are all sorts of stressors: mean co–workers, disappointing jobs, (or sometimes no job), frustrating conversations, long lines in stores and rude people who cut in front of you. These are situations in which aggression will not only fail to solve the problem, it will make it worse. Your job as a parent is to show your child how a screwdriver can work better than a hammer. You can do this by modeling coping and conflict resolution skills for our child.
One way to help your child get through tough situations is to remember that while he’s upset, there’s a lot of adrenaline pumping through him. Though we take it for granted, it takes a lot of coping skills to manage that physical burst of energy experienced whenever we feel frustrated or angry. If your child doesn’t have those coping skills yet, how is he going to release that energy? Without a positive outlet, he may resort to punching walls, destroying property or even coming at you—or someone else—aggressively.
Talk with your child during a moment of calm. You know your child best. If your instincts tell you he was “right on the edge” and about to become physical, explain to him later that you’re concerned about what the consequences of that behavior will be. You can actually say, “You seemed really, really angry the other day. I want to help you handle that in a way that’s going to turn out well for you. Do you know what happens if you hit someone, whether it’s a family member or someone else? That’s called assault. People call the police when that happens. And if you hit me, I’m going to do the same thing. One of my personal rules is that I will never allow anyone to physically abuse me – not even you.”
In saying this, you’re teaching your child:
1) What happens in real life
2) What your boundaries are
3) What the consequences for his behavior will be
Even though the thought of calling the police on your child can be very, very difficult and is probably the last thing you ever thought you might have to do as a parent, if your child becomes aggressive toward you, it is very important to follow through and call the police. If you don’t, your child won’t learn that domestic violence is not only unacceptable, it’s against the law. And he may have to learn that lesson in a much more difficult way down the road—with a spouse or someone else who won’t hesitate to call the police on him. Remember, as James Lehman says in The Total Transformation, “There’s no excuse for abuse,” –not even from your child.
During a calm moment, offer to work with your child to come up with a plan that you can put into effect if things start to escalate. Explain to your child how anger and adrenaline work, and develop a list of things he can do that are positive or acceptable to everyone when he’s feeling that way. Some ideas are exercise (sit ups and push–ups to get rid of adrenaline), going for a walk, going to his room and listening to music, or giving him a journal he can draw or write in. Think about his strengths – things he’s good at or enjoys. Ask your child what ideas he has, or he may even want to get suggestions from friends. This helps get him thinking, rather than reacting. Remember, you’re modeling for him how to recognize his own emotions and find ways to deal with them non–violently. Follow through and let him use those skills when you’re in a conflict with him. A power struggle is often a trigger to physical aggression, and if you can de–escalate the situation before it hits that point, it’s well worth it.
Sometimes it’s so exhausting to raise an Oppositional Defiant child to adulthood. As parents we reach into our toolboxes and pull out coping skills that aren’t always effective. Ever find yourself arguing, yelling or blaming your child during a time of conflict? If so, it’s a good clue that you need to take a personal time out. In doing so, you’re showing your child it’s okay for him to do that, as well. Remember, you want to model an approach of “we can resolve this, calmly,” rather than trying to “win” or get the upper hand. You can actually tell your child, “When you get upset, it’s okay to turn around and walk away. I’ll know that means you need a break because you’re getting too upset. We can come back to the discussion later, when things are calmer. And I’ll respect that. If I get upset, I’m going to do the same thing.” This is a technique your child can carry over into other real-life situations as well.
Your child may continue to follow you around the house, trying to carry on the argument, when you’re trying to disengage. If you have to (and he’s old enough), leave the house completely. Go for a drive or a walk. This will also help de–escalate the situation.
Just because you choose to walk away to de-escalate a situation or allow your child to calm down, does not mean you won’t hold him accountable for his behavior, provide consequences if he doesn’t follow your house rules, or that you are “giving in.” Remember, it’s not about winning: it’s about teaching skills. So if you’re in a conflict with your child about him going to a friend’s house and you see that his face is turning red, you know the signs that he’s about to blow. You can end the power struggle by walking away. He knows the answer; it’s “no.” If he chooses to leave without permission because you’ve walked away from the argument, he probably would have left anyway. You can still hold him accountable when he comes home by providing a consequence—and you will have avoided a physical confrontation.
It can help to think of the situations you’re encountering with your child now, and for the next few years, as opportunities rather than problems. It’s human nature to experience anger and adrenaline when in conflict. The important thing is how you handle it. When your child is in this mode, especially between the ages of 12 and 18, it’s a chance to prepare him to deal with the real world and real life for many years to come. No one wants to enter adulthood with an empty toolbox, not even your Oppositional Defiant child—and at the end of the day, he really needs you to teach him those skills he’ll need as he matures into an adult.
Parenting ODD Children and Teens: How to Make Consequences Work
When They Don’t Leave at 18: Parenting an Adult Child with ODD
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.
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I realize these comments are a year old so I hope it’s not to late
I have a 16 year old stepson that lives with us. He was diagnosed with ODD when he was around 12 years old. He only did a year of counseling before the counselor told us that at this point, he was going to do better or continue down a bad road.
He’s behavior has only gotten worse and his aggression towards my child is awful. He punishes, pushes, and grabs at our 7 year old. She is now scared of her brother. He’s been to juvy, we have taken counselors advice on discipline and done everything this article has said. Nothing has worked. My husband willl not put him back into counseling because he doesn’t want to force his son to do something he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t discipline him or stuck to anything either. My step son is allowed to do whatever he wants. My step son is abusing my daughter and I’m ready to throw in the towel and leave. I don’t want to end my marriage, but I also have to protect my other children as well if he refuses to get his son help. I don’t know what to do anymore or where to turn. I feel completely helpless
My grandson is 12 years old, has ODD and ADHD. This morning he went after his 13 yr old sister and begin hitting her before she licked herself in her bedroom. This is the 4 th time he’s gone after her. He is on meds, including psychotropic meds, has been since he’s been 5 years
old. His Father left work, has them both at home and the question is, what should be his consequence? He is starting another bout of counseling with a psychologist.
I’m sorry to hear about the issues you are facing with your 9 year old, and
I understand your concern for his siblings’ safety.I’m glad that you have scheduled an
appointment with his doctor to address his behavior.The choice of whether to send your son to
stay with your parents is really up to you, and your best judgment.In the meantime, I encourage you to https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-lost-children-when-behavior-problems-traumatize-siblings/ with your younger children about what they can do if their
brother becomes violent.You might also
find some helpful information in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/stop-aggressive-behavior-in-kids-and-tweens-is-your-child-screaming-pushing-and-hitting/Please be sure to write
back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.Take care.
I hear you. It
can be so challenging when your child is behaving aggressively and violently
toward others, and I’m glad that you are reaching out for support. At
this point, I encourage you to work with your daughter at home to help her
develop more appropriate coping skills than hitting. James Lehman
outlines some tips you can try in his article series, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/aggressive-child-behavior-part-i-fighting-in-school-and-at-home/ and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/aggressive-child-behavior-part-ii-7-tools-to-stop-fighting-in-school-and-at-home/.
I’m so sorry to hear about the abusive behavior you are
experiencing from your son, as well as your husband, and I’m glad that you are
reaching out for support. I understand your fear that your son could
potentially hurt his younger sister, or someone else in the community. I
see that your son is in therapy, and I encourage you to use his therapist as a
resource to help you https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-lost-children-when-behavior-problems-traumatize-siblings/ to keep you, his sister, and others in the house safe when
your son has an outburst. I also hope that you have some support for
yourself right now. If you are not currently working with anyone, try
contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222.
211 is a service which connects people with resources available in their
community. I recognize how difficult this must be for you, and I wish you
and your family all the best moving forward. Take care.
I’m so sorry to
hear about the violence you have experienced from your daughter, and I’m glad
that you are reaching out for support. There is no excuse for abuse, and
you have the right to be safe in your home. At this point, since your
daughter has been arrested for her violence against you, we encourage you to
allow her to experience the natural legal consequences of her actions. In
addition, as Kim and Marney point out in their article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/signs-of-parental-abuse-what-to-do-when-your-child-or-teen-hits-you/, you might
also consider working with local resources (such as law enforcement and/or
local domestic violence services) to help you develop a plan to stay
safe. For assistance locating these services in your community, try
contacting the http://www.211.org/ at
1-800-273-6222. I wish you all the best moving forward; take care.
I could really use a bit of guidance. I have four children: 12, 10 and 9 year old boys and a 4 year old daughter. Biologically, my oldest two are my nephews...I adopted them 15 months ago. From the bottom of my heart, I can say that all four are absolutely great human beings with kind gentle souls. My challenge lies in the fact that my 12 year old is going through puberty (he actually started about a year ago), my 10 and 9 year olds have both been formally tested and diagnosed with ADHD and adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct, and I HIGHLY suspect my 10 year old of having ODD, and my four year old is working her way from toddler to little girl with three big brothers experience a lot of change and emotional issues.
As our family grew, we started counseling for the obvious reasons, hoping to avoid some of the common challenges associated with 'merging' families. It at least gave us some tools to use as situations came up, but I can't help but feel at a loss everyday. Not only do we have the age/developmentally appropriate stuff to deal with, but the way my 10 yo (and sometimes my 9 yo) lash out at each other, me, innocent bystanders, is becoming more and more difficult to manage.
Today my 10yo hit my 9 yo in the privates with a sword (an accident according to him). My response was to tell him to be more careful, that it was unacceptable to him someone period, let alone in the privates and to make better choices. His response was to start throwing things around his room. I explained that that was not an appropriate way to display his emotions, that of he continued he would be grounded. I asked if he wanted to talk it out with me at which point he threw something at the wall beside me. I told him he was grounded for the day and the situation escalated to him running around the house, hitting things, kicking the walls and punching his door. I told him to go to his room and I sat with him talking to him in a very calm tone, explaining that acting out was not going to help him, it would only cause more consequences, whether it be grounding, hurt feet from kicking things, toys broken, etc. I explained that I was very upset too, but yelling wouldn't make anything better, so I was chosing to be calm to try and resolve the situation. During this whole episode, he was hurling hurtful words and such, which I didn't respond to.
It took about 45 minutes for the 'switch' to flip off and my happy sweet boy was back...sad that he was grounded, that one of his favorite toys was broken and feeling down on himself for the way he behaved. Here's the issue, that was mild! None of my other children got involved and we were able to de-escalate rather quickly...but even on a good day it is exhausting and disheartening. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and I feel myself getting more and more ineffective everyday, but I don't know what else to do.
It sounds like you
have quite a bit going on in your household, and it’s understandable that you
might feel overwhelmed at times. Many parents struggle with how to
address power struggles and outbursts, so you are not alone. In general,
it tends to be most effective when you set a limit regarding inappropriate
behavior, and end the conversation there, rather than trying to reason with a
child or giving consequences when he is having an outburst. For most kids
(and some adults), they are not able to access the logical, rational part of
their brain when they are angry or upset, and continuing to interact with them
can cause a situation to escalate further. Carole Banks discusses this
more in her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/angry-child-outbursts-the-10-rules-of-dealing-with-an-angry-child/. I
recognize how challenging this must be for you; please let us know if you have
any additional questions. Take care.
Thank you for writing in
and sharing your experiences. Because your sister is living with you in
your home, it could be useful to talk with her during a calm time to develop a
plan for how you can respond to your niece’s outbursts in a way that keeps
everyone safe. In general, we do not recommend restraining a child
because it tends to escalate a situation and increase the risk that someone
(you, your niece, or another person) might get hurt. You can also hold
your 4 year old accountable for his/her actions as the parent, and communicate
that inappropriate behavior brings consequences, as Kim Abraham and Marney
Studaker-Cordner point out in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/no-such-thing-as-a-bad-apple-fix-the-behavior-not-the-kid/. Even if
your sister refuses to attend therapy, it could still be useful for you to
explore your options for how you and your children can respond to your niece’s
outbursts and stay safe in your home. For assistance locating these
resources, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at
1-800-273-6222. I recognize how difficult this must be for you, and I
wish you and your family all the best moving forward. Take care.
This sounds quite challenging. We have several articles that
address this type of behavior in children. A couple you may find useful are https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/stop-aggressive-behavior-in-kids-and-tweens-is-your-child-screaming-pushing-and-hitting/ & https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-manage-aggressive-child-behavior/. It may also be helpful to talk with
the parent to find out how they would like to see the behavior addressed. Best
of luck moving forward. Take care.
I can hear your distress. It can be tough to watch a child
you love struggle. It sounds like you have spoken to your daughter about your
concerns and she does not seem to share in your worry. Unfortunately, there may
not be much you can do other than continue to talk with her about your concerns
and encourage her to have him seen by his doctor. As his parent, it’s up to her
to decide what interventions to put in place. We do have an article about ways
parents and grandparents can navigate differences that you may find helpful: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/grandparents-and-parents-disagreeing-11-tips-for-both-of-you/. Good luck to you and your
family moving forward. Be sure to check back to let us know how things are
going. Take care.
My three sons
What an upsetting turn of events. It’s understandable you
would be upset. I think that’s a normal response given the circumstances.
Unfortunately, kids sometimes do use aggression as a way to solve their
problems. It’s not OK, but, it’s also not uncommon. I would try not to
personalize the comments your son made when he was confronted about his
behavior. Verbal disrespect, like aggression, is a reflection of poor problem
solving skills. I’m glad to hear you’re letting everyone take some space to
calm down. That’s going to help diffuse the situation and allow you the
opportunity to talk with your son when he’s not in an escalated state. When
everything is calm, we would recommend sitting down with each of your sons
separately and talking with them about ways they could handle the situation
differently in the future. You can find great tips for having this kind of
conversation in Sara Bean’s article The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”.
After having the conversation, you can hold both of your sons accountable for
their behavior with a task oriented consequence. For example, you could limit
video games until they can go for a few hours without being aggressive with
each other. We do suggest holding both children accountable for their part in
the altercation, even if one child seems to have been the instigator.
Carole Banks explains why this is important in her article http://www.empoweringparents.com/Sibling-Rivalry-Good-Kid-vs-Bad-Kid.php. I hope this is useful information. Be sure
to check back if you have any further questions. Take care.
We appreciate you reaching out to Empowering Parents for
help in finding ways of addressing behavior in your classroom. Because we are a
website aimed at helping people who are in a direct parenting role develop more
effective ways of addressing their child’s acting out behavior, we are limited
in the advice we are able to offer you in this situation. It may be helpful to
speak with your school administrators about this situation to see what guidance
they may be able to offer. Another possible support could be your department
head or a senior special education teacher in your school or district. We wish
you the best of luck moving forward. Take care.