The Oppositional, Defiant Teen: How James Lehman tackles the toughest behavior disorder (Excerpted from Transform Your Problem Child)
This week, read about an oppositional, defiant teen in James Lehman’s compelling book, Transform Your Problem Child. Meet the parents and family of Caleb, who have been dealing with their son’s behavior since he was a young child, and “raising their tolerance for deviance” with each instance of acting out. When Caleb gets physically abusive, his parents go to see James—and are finally given real solutions to his behavior– even if those solutions are not what they expected.
“Nobody understood what it was like to parent a child like Caleb, so she just stopped bringing it up to anyone.” –From “Transform Your Problem Child”
For parents of children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, every day is like living in a war zone. Seemingly simple requests set off “land mines” with these children because they have a marked inability to hear the word “no” and a determination to gain power in the home through constant arguing. The story of Caleb offers insight for parents of any child who is oppositional, whether diagnosed with a disorder or not. In this story, you will learn how to address bullying and physical violence against siblings, refusal to follow rules and take responsibility, stealing, cursing and manipulative and threatening behavior.
When Caleb was an infant, his mom, Monique, would stare at him for hours. She’d go to his crib in the middle of the night and watch his chest rise and fall, making sure he was still breathing. She and her husband, Ben, would talk about their son’s future: Would he like baseball or football better? What would he want to be on his first real Halloween? Would he learn magic tricks or maybe ask for a science kit for his birthday? As he grew, it became painfully obvious that Caleb was going to be a challenge. More than a challenge, in fact. He was downright impossible. From the moment Caleb started preschool, so did the notes and phone calls complaining about his behavior:
“Caleb is disruptive.”
“Caleb refuses to share with other children and is often aggressive.”
“Caleb has angry outbursts when he is with other children in a group.”
Monique thought he needed more socialization practice, so she tried to arrange playdates, but pretty soon the mothers stopped accepting. Once Caleb was big enough to sleep in his own bed, Monique no longer checked on him as he slept. She used the time to collapse on the sofa, exhausted from another unbearable day with him. He argued constantly:
“No! I don’t want to go to bed!”
“No! I don’t want to leave!”
“No! I don’t want to get up!”
“No! I don’t want to! You’re so mean to me!”
Every day was a struggle to get him to school. From the start, Caleb hated the bus, and in the first years of elementary school he’d protest and complain so much that Monique often ended up driving him to school. But on the days she opened the women’s clothing store she owned, she didn’t have the time to do this. Neither did Ben, whose work kept him on the road or in an airport much of the time. So she would beg and plead as they waited at the stop, Caleb declaring that he wouldn’t get on the bus and Monique feeling the stares of the other mothers. When the bus arrived, he wouldn’t budge. Monique’s pleas would turn to demands, still to no avail, and the driver would tap his foot impatiently as she grew more and more flustered. Finally, fighting back tears, she would drag Caleb onto the bus, kicking and screaming. She knew the entire neighborhood was talking behind her back: What is wrong with that kid? What’s wrong with that mother?
By the time Caleb hit third grade, the bus was a moot point—he’d made so much trouble that he got kicked off it indefinitely. Monique adjusted her work schedule so she could drive him to school and back. Dropping him off or picking him up, she avoided meeting anyone’s gaze in the playground. She knew what everyone was thinking. She has to drive her son because he’s so out of control. It was all so humiliating. And lonely. She couldn’t talk to her friends or even her family about it. Every time she brought up his latest behavioral incidents they’d tell her she needed to put her foot down. Nobody understood what it was like to parent a child like Caleb, so she just stopped bringing it up to anyone.
Caleb took great pleasure in embarrassing his sisters. The sibling rivalry increased as he got older. Caleb never knew when to stop. “Why is he so mean to me?” Stephanie asked. Monique wished she knew the answer, but she was just as mystified. The sacrifices they all had to make were enormous. Caleb’s behavior made playdates for the girls impossible. The family was always turning down invitations to the zoo, family outings to the beach, block parties. It wasn’t fair that her two daughters had to miss out on so much, but she didn’t know the solution. She hoped that one day they would forgive her for being such a horrible mother. She hoped one day she’d forgive herself.
At the end of fifth grade, Monique and Ben took Caleb to a social worker, who diagnosed Caleb with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). When they read about the diagnosis, Monique and Ben were overwhelmed. The social worker recommended weekly therapy, but Caleb refused to go. They gave up trying to get him to go, and hoped that eventually, he would grow out of this stage. Or, at the very least, they figured they could manage the
explosions if they gave him what he wanted most of the time.
Now 17, Caleb is more of a terror than ever. He treats everyone in the house as though they are his servants. He often reduces his sisters to tears. And when Monique or Ben scolds him for it, he becomes hostile. “Why are you getting so upset?” he asks. “I was only teasing her. Why doesn’t she grow up and stop being such a baby?” He thinks nothing of going into his sisters’ rooms to take their iPods or their wallets. He still reads Stephanie’s diary (though she’s learned to hide it pretty well), and he often tries to
blackmail her, saying that if she lies for him he’ll grant her “immunity” for a week or so at a time.
Caleb has broken the door to his own room so many times Ben took it off its hinges. He has punched holes in his bedroom walls and threatened to key the family car if he wasn’t allowed to drive it. Monique feels she’s on an endless loop of scuffles with him. And he’s got a foul mouth. She tried to reason with him once about why he shouldn’t keep his music on full blast.
“You’re bothering everyone in the house,” she said calmly.
“Yeah, well they bother me,” he replied.
“Caleb, I don’t know why you say that. No one wants to bother you. Everyone
here loves you.”
“That’s bull****—just leave me alone.”
“Don’t speak to me like that! I’m your mother!”
“Screw you, get out of my room. I can say what I want.”
“No you can’t! I deserve at least a little respect around here, don’t I?”
“Get out of my f**king room!”
She had just about given up, deciding that she couldn’t do anything about him, when he went too far with the girls. Monique hated to leave the kids alone in the house, but one day after running late at the store, she came home to find Stephanie and Lauren screaming and crying.
“What happened?” Monique said as she threw her keys on the hallway table.
“Caleb hit me with a sneaker!” Stephanie said, her face beet red from crying.
“He what? Come here, let me see your face,” Monique said. She pulled out a tissue and gently smeared away the dirt mark from the sneaker on Stephanie’s face. “Let’s get you some ice.”
The three of them walked to the kitchen, the girls still crying. “Back up and start from the beginning,” Monique said.
“Caleb’s been hogging the computer for three and a half hours,” Lauren
said. “And Stephanie and I wanted to play something—”
“We’d been asking nicely for an hour if we could have a turn,” interrupted
Stephanie. “But he wouldn’t give it up—”
“He never lets us use it,” said Lauren fiercely.
“So I started yelling at him and he threw his sneaker at my head!”
Leaving Lauren holding the ice to Stephanie’s face, Monique marched into the den.
“Is that true, Caleb? Did you throw a sneaker at your sister?”
Caleb kept his eyes on the computer.
“Caleb, I’m talking to you,” said Monique as she stood in front of the computer
“Be quiet, I can’t concentrate,” said Caleb.
“I asked you a question. Answer me, Caleb.”
“I wasn’t doing anything. I was just using the computer, minding my own business, when they came in and started bothering me. I couldn’t help it. It didn’t hurt her. She’s just acting like a baby so you’ll take her side.”
“That’s it! I’ve had it with you. Go to your room!” Monique yelled.
“And what are you going to do to me if I don’t?” Caleb smirked.
Monique stood frozen. She looked her at her son and burst into tears. “Get to your room!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. “I said get to your room!”
She had no idea what her next move would be if he didn’t obey her, and she prayed that he would.
Caleb stood up and yelled “B****!” as he went off to his room. Monique collapsed onto the couch, shaken from the standoff with her son. Mortified at the thought that her daughters had witnessed her so overtaken. Tired and empty from years of arguing with a kid—now a young man—who lived to defy her every word.
“Don’t cry, Mom,” Stephanie said as she and Lauren crept into the room.
“Everything will be okay,” Lauren added. Monique realized the family roles had somehow been reversed. Her daughters were trying to take care of her, not the other way around. She hugged her girls, not wanting to let them go. I need to protect them, she thought. I can’t let this go on any longer.
Monique and Ben came to see me a few days later. “I am so frustrated,” Monique told me, her back straight as if she were sitting at attention. “I really don’t know what to do about my son. Since before I can remember he’s been impossible to manage. He’s incapable of controlling his temper and I’m really worried that it could get him into real trouble one day. How will he ever get a job? How will he ever live on his own? What is going to happen to him?”
“You’re right, Monique. From what you’ve told me, it seems like Caleb has always been defiant. Kids who grow up like that can have a really tough time as adults. You have a difficult kid on your hands, I can see that.”
Monique’s demeanor began to crumble. “Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe it, James. I love Caleb, really, I do. But….but…I can’t stand being around him. I know that’s a terrible thing to say. What kind of a mother says that she can’t stand being around her child? What is wrong with me?” she sobbed, as Ben put his arm around her.
“Monique, you are the mother of a child with a very difficult personality. It’s tough to feel close to a child whose primary mode of communication is hostility, antagonism, and resistance,” I said.
“So is it hopeless?” Monique asked, reaching for the box of tissues I offered her.
“No, but I won’t lie to you—it’s going to be tough. Caleb’s biggest problem is that he’s facing the difficulties that typical 17-year-olds face, but he doesn’t have the equipment to solve them. So we’re going to have to help teach him the problem-solving techniques he’s avoided learning by being antagonistic and defiant all these years. I can show you how to do that, as well as how to set limits with him, help him develop coping skills, and how to treat people better. The rest will be up to him. After all, he’s 17 and he’s responsible for his behavior. Remember, the things you’ve told me that have been going on are actually choices he’s made. You may feel like he’s out of control, but from where I sit it looks like he’s controlling the whole family and has been for quite awhile. You’re going to have to be strong enough to administer some heavy-duty medicine.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll get to that in a few minutes, but first let’s talk about what you’re doing right now. So far you’ve responded to Caleb’s behavior by negotiating, bargaining, giving in, threatening and screaming. The problem is when you do that, you’re giving power to Caleb’s defiance. I know he was diagnosed with ODD, and that is a tough disorder to live with. Kids with ODD begin to argue the minute they wake up, and they don’t stop until they’re snoring at night. These kids are resistant to anything you propose, and they defy rules and expectations pretty globally. Kids with ODD trust no one, and they think the world is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. They blame everyone else for their problems and are constantly making excuses for their own inability to manage things. They’re easily annoyed and hostile with adults, bossy and pushy with other kids. Their automatic response is to disagree and to argue. Because that’s how they feel calmer. Arguing and yelling gives them a sense of being in control. For some reason, being told what to do sets off a sense of powerlessness in a kid like this, a fear of not being in control, so arguing is the way he tries to wrestle that control back.”
“You’ve pretty much summed up our son,” Ben said, cracking a rueful smile.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of kids with ODD. Believe me, I got their number, Ben. But before we do anything else, we must work on keeping your girls safe, and we must teach them how not to be physical or emotional victims. I don’t think being alone with him is the best thing, but I understand you can’t be there all the time, so you must tell them to stay away from him. Don’t antagonize him. If Caleb wants to use the computer for three hours, let him use the computer for three hours.”
“But that’s not fair,” Ben said. “Why should the girls keep having to suffer because of Caleb? Haven’t they suffered enough?”
“Sure, but right now conflicts with Caleb are putting them in danger, both physically and emotionally, so when you two aren’t home, they have to do things that do not involve conflict with him. So if there’s only one computer in the house, then yes, that’s the way it’s going to have to be for awhile. Because what you’re asking them to do is to deal with this kid that you can’t even deal with. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t respond to common sense, he doesn’t have principles of common decency and sharing. He’s not on that level. So I think it’s a matter of keeping the girls safe, not what’s fair or unfair. They can have the computer for three hours after you get home.”
Ben nodded. “Okay.”
“So from now on, they should wait until you come home to deal with any conflicts. And you need to tell Caleb that getting physical is not allowed in the family. And if he’s going to get physical with his sisters, that’s called domestic violence and you are going to get the police involved.”
“Police?” Monique asked, clearly shocked.
“That’s the kind of heavy-duty medicine I referred to earlier. There’s no fooling around now. You have to develop what’s called a culture of accountability in your home.”
When they got home, Monique and Ben went into Caleb’s room. They sat on his bed and told him they needed to speak with him.
“This is my room, I’ll invite you in when I want you here,” Caleb said.
“No, Caleb, this is our house, and technically it’s our room,” Ben countered.
Caleb looked surprised.
“Whatever,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“No, Caleb, not whatever. We need to have a serious talk. We’re tired of the way you’ve been treating us and your sisters, and we’re not going to sit back and let you walk all over us anymore. We’ve decided to see somebody to help us learn to handle you better, and you need to come with us to our appointment next week.”
“Like hell I’ll go anywhere with you,” Caleb said.
“Well fine, then, you can find somewhere else to live.”
“Yeah right. I’m not going anywhere!”
“Caleb, either you agree to go with us to the therapist next week, or we’re going to call the police and press charges for what you did to your sister.”
“I didn’t do anything to her!”
“Yes you did. You hit her with a sneaker and gave her a black eye. That’s assault.”
“Yeah, right. You wouldn’t call the police. I dare you,” Caleb snickered.
“Don’t test me.”
“Get out of my god**** room!”
“No, Caleb, not until you agree to see the counselor with us.”
“Fine, then. I’ll leave!” Caleb yelled and he walked out of the room. Ben and Monique followed him while Caleb continued to swear. Ben found himself turning up the volume of his own voice to try to drown out the swearing. Caleb screamed, “Leave me alone!” Then he grabbed a bowl off the coffee table and threw it at them.
“That’s it,” Ben said and he went to the phone to call the police. When they arrived a few minutes later, Caleb was screaming at his parents to leave him alone.
“You can’t do anything to me!” he yelled. Ben filled the police in, and the officers took Caleb aside. They told him he had to do what his parents wanted or they could press charges. “Fine, I’ll go to your f**king therapist,” Caleb finally relented. He spent the rest of the night in his room.
Caleb came to see me the next week. When children with ODD are confronted with a problem they can’t solve, they react emotionally and that’s when the trouble starts. So one of my goals was to show Caleb that his solution wasn’t working to solve the problem. We talked about what happened with his sister. “She was being a brat,” he told me.
“Well sure she’s a brat. All little sisters are brats. But hitting her with a sneaker almost got you locked up.”
“So the next time you think your sister’s a brat, instead of hitting her with a sneaker, what are some other ways you can deal with that problem so you don’t get locked up?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to get off the computer.”
“Well you may have to, at least until your parents get home.”
“I could call her names. She usually goes back to her room after I do that,”
“Sure, but that won’t solve your problem. That just keeps it going. So what’s something that you can do that really solves this problem so you don’t get deeper into trouble?”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t even want to be here.”
“Caleb, let’s finish with what you can do differently because if you don’t, you’re going to wind up in the youth detention center. That’s where teens go who aren’t safe at home. Do you want to wind up there because you wouldn’t come up with a better plan?”
“Okay. S***. I could leave the room.”
“Great. And when you leave the room, where would you go?”
“To my bedroom.”
“Great Caleb, or you could take a walk outside. Just get out of that situation that’s upsetting, because it’s only going to lead to you getting into deeper trouble. So let’s try that then. For the next week, when you feel like your sister’s really pissing you off, go to your room and chill for 15 minutes and listen to music. Let’s see if you can do that because you know, Caleb, if you can’t, you’re going to wind up in trouble with the police.”
Monique, Ben, and Caleb continued to see me for six more months and put in six months of hard work. They began a reward system that allowed Caleb to earn extras for making the right choices. Eventually he earned his own computer in his room. Caleb is about to graduate from high school (just barely), and he’s planning to look for a job and get a car. Monique and Ben have told him that if he continues on the right track, he can stay in the house. Monique realizes that Caleb is still a challenge and probably will always be, but these days, she feels like she’s up to it. Although she knows the war is not over, she hopes it is at a cease-fire.
Read how James helps Caleb and his parents in Transform Your Problem Child. In the book, James shares stories based on thirty years of working with parents to manage behaviors ranging from back talk and lying to outbursts caused by ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Known for his no-nonsense, practical approach, James Lehman shows you step-by-step ways to manage seemingly unmanageable child behaviors and bring peace and sanity back to your home.