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.
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.
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.
Parenting ODD Children and Teens: How to Make Consequences Work
4 Ways to Handle Back-to-School Behavior Problems with Your ODD Child
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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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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Can ODD occur at any age? As young as 5 years old?
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
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.
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.