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Parents are often left wondering if their child’s argumentative, limit-testing, back-talking, rule-breaking behavior is “typical” teen or pre-teen defiance—or if it’s something else.

What is Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)?

Clinically speaking, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is “a pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior or vindictiveness lasting at least six months.” But what does that mean, exactly?

Limit-testing behavior crosses into ODD when it becomes a frequent pattern and continues in the face of consequences or redirection.

If an image of constant chaos and conflict comes to mind, your child may have ODD. Parents of children with ODD say that their child frequently argues—with authority figures such as parents, teachers, or any other adult—and often refuses to follow or “defies” rules, at home, school, or other places where there are behavioral expectations. They often report that their child deliberately annoys others, especially siblings, and blames his or her behavior on others. Their child may exhibit touchiness, irritability, or full-blown anger and resentment on a regular basis, especially if faced with a rule, limit, or stressful situation. If asked to do something that he or she doesn’t want to do, the response is usually outright refusal.

Isn’t “Challenging Authority” Normal for Puberty?

Testing limits, fighting for independence, and separating identity from parents is all very typical of adolescence and pre-teens. At this age, information from peers, media (especially social media), and other sources start to take precedence over parents. The child that once asked you about everything (“Mom, how do they make airplanes fly?”) may seemingly decide overnight that you now know nothing. And there’s a tone to your child’s voice—a sort of derisive, impatient, condescending tone—that lets you know your child is evaluating you constantly and finds your intelligence and skills to be lacking.

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This is “normal.” It’s not pleasant, but it’s normal. Adolescence serves two purposes: You irritate your children enough that they want to move out of your home to live independently, and they get on your nerves enough that you’re fairly happy to see them go.  Limit-testing behavior crosses into ODD when it becomes a frequent pattern and continues in the face of consequences or redirection.

Is it ODD or Something Else?

Think of children’s behavior as on a continuum. At one end, you have complete compliance: an adolescent who always follows the rules and limits set by authority figures. (We’ve never heard of such a teen, but let’s pretend for a minute that this exists.)

At the other end of the spectrum, you have Conduct Disorder: behavior that is so negative and dangerous, it is aggressive, illegal, or exploitative of others, and lacks remorse or empathy. If you’re afraid or intimidated by your tween or teen, worry about the cops coming to your door because of trouble he’s gotten into, or if she’s been expelled for bullying peers or taking a weapon to school, your child’s behavior has now moved into Conduct Disorder.  Conduct Disorder is a pervasive pattern of violating the rights of others.

In the middle is Oppositional Defiant Disorder.  Not the worst behavior, but certainly not the best. If asked to rate the severity of your child’s behavior issues on a scale of one to 10, and you reply anywhere from five to eight, you’re probably dealing with ODD. ODD can leave a parent overwhelmed, exhausted and disheartened. It does not leave a parent scared or frightened their kid will seriously hurt someone.

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These distinctions are important when it comes to correctly diagnosing and intervening in a pre-teen or teen’s behavior.  And a correct diagnosis allows mental health professionals to determine what type of interventions would be most helpful in treating the symptoms that are causing distress.

One Size Does Not Fit All

It’s important to remember that ODD can “look” different depending on the child. Just as your child’s personality is unique, so too are the signs of ODD. When we think of ODD, we often picture an angry, arguing teen, yelling at a parent in defiance. But some teens are, instead, “politely defiant.” Any time 14-year-old Jack’s mom or teachers asked him to do something he simply replies “No, thank you.” No yelling, no arguing, just no. So defiance can range from polite to furious and anywhere in between.

If It Walks Like a Duck and Talks Like a Duck, It May Be… a Chicken

Whenever a mental-health professional seeks to diagnose a child or adolescent, the first step is called differential diagnosis: determining what diagnosis best accounts for what we’re seeing.  Behavior that looks like ODD can stem from a variety of factors, including a history of abuse or trauma, anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or medical conditions.

Some kids with chronic illnesses, allergies, or other issues just don’t feel well. They may not know why and often aren’t able to put into words what’s going on inside. Before making a diagnosis of ODD, it’s important for parents and health professionals to look at the whole picture.

ODD does often go hand-in-hand with some of the conditions mentioned above. Your child, for instance, may be experiencing both ADHD and ODD. And sometimes oppositional, defiant behavior can actually become a habit. For example, a child is anxious or worried, refuses to do something when asked, starts arguing with a parent, and over time, gets used to dealing with stress or limits in a way that is oppositional.

You May Have Entered a Marathon, not a Sprint

ODD behavior can leave a parent feeling misunderstood, resentful, worried, and fearful for their child’s future. But there is hope. Many successful people in this world were oppositional and defiant during adolescence. The same traits and characteristics that are so frustrating for parents often serve kids with ODD well in achieving their goals later on in life.

Related Article: The Strengths of the Oppositional Defiant Child

Remember, we at Empowering Parents truly understand and are here to support you; you’re not alone, and there are tools that will help you manage and survive this challenging time.

Related Content:
Parenting ODD Children and Teens: How to Make Consequences Work
4 Ways to Handle Back-to-School Behavior Problems with Your ODD Child

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 (20)
  • Bliss
    My 16 year old stepdaughter was diagnosed with ODD at 12 and there's been a number of other diagnosis (ADHD, depression, anxiety) and she has several physical illnesses as well include a serious heart condition that limits the psychiatric medication she can take. She takes a lot of medications andMore complains about side effects - she's dizzy, she's tired, her stomach hurts, she feels "guggy". She doesn't care about anything. She can lay in bed doing nothing and it doesn't matter what motivation/consequence we offer - she doesn't do her homework, her room is a mess, it's a battle to get her to wear clean clothes or brush her hair. She sees a therapist who hasn't solved her behavior issues. We've always thought it was ODD and I've read all of the ODD articles on this site. I would get your ODD program if I thought it would help, but now I wonder- does she have ODD? What would the treatment be if it's not ODD? We're running out of time before she's 18. She's been in an in-patient program and got worse.
    • Jessie
      When reading your post, it felt like you were describing my own daughter to a tee. She also suffers from anxiety, has allergies, a heart murmur, an inhaler, is on medication and complains of the same side effects. We have recently moved, and I have to start over with findingMore her a psychiatrist, counsellor, getting community support in place. It is exhausting and frustrating! How did you manage for so long?also Thank you for sharing your struggles, it makes a difference knowing I’m not alone in this fight!!!
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles you have been experiencing with your stepdaughter. I hear how anxious you are about her behavior and what it might mean for her future, and I’m glad that you are reaching out for support, both here online as well as inMore your community. It’s difficult for me to determine if your stepdaughter has ODD, or what appropriate treatment might be for her. These are great questions to bring up with her treatment team, as well as what options might be available for your stepdaughter. If you are worried about the progress she is making with her current therapist, it can be effective to voice these concerns, as well as asking detailed questions about what you might expect as a result of her current treatment plan. I recognize how difficult this must be for you and your family, and I wish you all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Momslove

    The above article is the best yet, for me, on ODD. It describes our son (now 16), exactly. My husband and I learned about ODD from the pediatrician when our son was 12/13 years old. We had taken him for a checkup as we noticed he was defiant and would sleep a lot, and not care about most anything-we thought, maybe a thyroid problem. She gave us a paper with a checklist of "symptoms." I identified 8 out of 10 in my son’s behavior. We set about researching the condition but found mostly the leaning on aggressive behavior which our son was not. Nonetheless, we were able to watch out for things like power struggle and we tried to adjust our behavior toward him. We were able to get him to therapy but he soon gave up claiming he's not mentally ill. Things broke down fast and by 15, he had lost credits at school, and asked to attend an alternative program. Soon after, turning 16, he dropped out of school. Now, he stays home; locked in his room; smokes some kind of drug; does not talk to me (has not for 4 years), barely talks to his dad; does nothing constructive.

    We found out a year ago this teen has been smoking marijuana since age 14. I have overheard him say he has tried a lot of drugs-I'm guessing he has been looking for something to "help" him with his condition as nothing else has. He had returned to therapy only to drop out again and he used to see the doctor. He has lost hope and is refusing to participate in anything constructive. My husband has given up and refuses to take away Internet and phone services. I have been talking to different agencies but they’ll become fully active only if the teen is willing, and/or he’s a threat to himself and others. They did agree he needs help, but my son doesn’t talk to me, and my husband will do nothing so it gets very tricky as to how to help this individual before it’s too late. I refuse to give up though.

  • Carmar

    My son was diagnosed with ODD at the age of 8 and he is 17 now. Benn to

    jail and locked up. Committed to the hospital 3 times. Stole form em,

    lied and tore my house all to pieces. He drinks, smokes marijuana and

    abuses Xanax. He sells drug s to get money. He was kicked out of school

    and now has charge son his record. He spent 6 months in s residential

    facility and it did nothing if not make him worse. I think he has

    conduct disorder but the doctors don't think so. I need help and I am so

    tried. I am a single mom and I also have an 11 years old with cerebral

    palsy and I have been on hell for the last 3 years.

  • Christie
    What's the best way to find parent training programs in my area that deal with ODD behavior? I can't seem to find the right therapist/ psychiatrist in my area that is willing to listen and not just blame me for my child's behavior. I would love to learn provenMore parenting methods to help my child succeed at home, as well as a great therapist that will work with my daughter and myself, if needed. Please help!
    • tasha
      I have not found any trying in my state just yet but have been looking. My son has ODD and his behaviors have been out of control since he stopped seeing his councilor. I would see if you could find a councilor that you daughter feels safe talking to whileMore you keep looking for training. Counseling really has helped my son. The key is find someone they feel safe talking to and also keeps you are the parent involved.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Christie 

      Thank you for your question.  Finding a therapist who

      is a good fit for your family can be tough at times, especially when you have a

      child with behavioral issues.  For assistance locating resources in your

      area, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at

      1-800-273-6222.  211 is a service which connects people with available

      services in their community.  In addition, many parents have found our

      at-home, self-paced programs to be an effective resource in teaching their

      child more appropriate behavior.  You can find more information about our

      programs by going to our https://www.empoweringparents.com/shop/.  Please let us know if you have any additional questions; take

      care.

  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    @Mommyof4 

    I can hear how much you are struggling with your 8 year

    old’s behavior right now, and I’m so glad that you are here reaching out for

    support.  Parenting a child with behavioral challenges can be such an

    overwhelming and frustrating experience at times, and we speak with many

    parents who describe situations very similar to yours.  You are not

    alone.  Something which tends to help many parents is using some kind of

    local support, such as a parenting support group or a counselor, to help them

    to process these emotions, as well as developing strategies and coping skills

    to use when these situations arise.  For assistance locating these and

    other supports in your community, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222.  In

    addition, if you are feeling as though you want to harm yourself or kill

    yourself, I strongly encourage you to contact the http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).  They have highly trained crisis

    counselors available 24/7 to talk with you and provide you with support. 

    Suicide is not the answer; it can get better.  Thank you for writing in,

    and I wish you and your family all the best as you continue to move

    forward.  Take care.

  • Sarah1005
    Hi my daughter is soo like this at home but not at school ? Is it possible she has odd ??
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Sarah1005 

      You ask a great

      question.  It’s actually quite common for kids, whether they have a

      diagnosis or not, to behave differently depending on the environment.  As

      Sara Bean points out in her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/angel-child-or-devil-child-when-kids-save-their-bad-behavior-for-you/, it’s

      actually a good sign that your daughter is able to behave well at school

      because it means that she has the skills to make appropriate choices. Now, it’s

      more a matter of applying those skills to situations at home.  In

      addition, if you are worried that your daughter may have a diagnosis, I

      encourage you to bring your concerns to her doctor.  S/he would be in a

      better position to assess your daughter, and any underlying issues which might

      be contributing to her behavior.  Please let us know if you have any

      additional questions.  Take care.

  • Lynette123

    Can ODD occur at any age? As young as 5 years old?

    Please respond

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Lynette123 

      Most young children

      will demonstrate some defiant behavior, such as aggression, refusal to follow

      rules and arguing, as part of normal development.  As Kim Abraham and

      Marney Studaker-Cordner point out in their article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/young-kids-with-odd-is-it-oppositional-defiance-disorder-or-just-bratty-behavior/,

      the difference between ODD and more “typical” defiance is in the intensity and

      frequency of the behavior.  If you have concerns that there might be an

      underlying issue contributing to your child’s behavior, we encourage you to

      check in with your child’s doctor.  Thank you for your question; take

      care.

  • kingzbabe
    If you have a 12 y/o ADHD son on stimulant and is exhibiting these behaviors mostly in the mornings, how do you know it is ODD and not side effects (or withdrawal ) of meds?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      kingzbabe 

      Thank you for your question. I encourage you to speak with

      your son’s prescribing physician about your observations.  S/he would be

      in a much better position to assess what might be due to medication, or any

      other factors which might be contributing to your son’s behavior in the

      morning.  Take care.

  • Wits End
    We're grandparents to an ODD nine year old boy that lives with us. He has started cursing and it is very, very bad. We receive the brunt of it. MF, F, B, GD, flipping us off, etc. When he is around his mother and father (divorced) he isMore most times good. We don't curse. What is in our future.
  • regina18
    I loved this article! It's the first one I've read that explains ODD from a medical standpoint and not just how the personality affects the family.
  • Lynette123
    I have a child that is 4years old and is showing signs of ODD. Is it possible to have ODD at age 4?
    • SoCal Mom
      @Lynette if ODD doesn't really feel like a perfect fit, please check out PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). It helped me make sense of my 4 year old and using PDA survival techniques has made our home much more peaceful!
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Lynette123

      You ask a question we hear often from parents. If you have

      concerns your son could have an underlying issue that is having a negative

      impact on his behavior, it would be beneficial to talk with his pediatrician.

      Your son’s doctor would be able to answer any questions you may have concerning

      your son and his behavior. S/he would also be able to determine if any further

      evaluations would be necessary. We appreciate you writing in. Take care.

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