Many parents of children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder feel hopeless and alone. They live in homes that become like little prisons as they deal with kids who are absolutely out of control and unmanageable. They don’t like their child any more, even though they still love him or her. And they’re confused about why nothing works. They tell me they feel isolated and lonely because they can’t socialize with other families due to their child’s behavior. Certainly things like sleepovers, days at the beach, parties—all those activities become affected by this kind of child.

It’s not surprising that these families have a harder time in general, and often wind up emotionally, spiritually, and functionally bankrupt. The other siblings grow up in an atmosphere of intimidation and frustration. Attempts to just get the oppositionality to stop, however well-intentioned, are often met with frustration and failure. As a parent of a child with ODD, your strategy has to be to learn how to manage the oppositionality in a way that slowly leads to its extinction. In the thirty years I worked with kids with ODD, I found that the following strategies helped improve their behavior and taught them how to cope when someone told them “no.”

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As a parent of an oppositional, defiant child, every day brings a new fight as you try to exercise your authority.

Why “No” Triggers an Explosion
Nobody likes the word no, especially children and adolescents. “No” means disappointment, “no” means not getting what you want, and that’s frustrating and disappointing for everyone. Most children learn to deal with this somewhere around the age of two and three, when their personality actually forms. Over time, they develop the ability to balance their inner wants and needs with outside expectations and responsibility. But for kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, the message they internalize is, “If I’m not in control, bad things happen. When bad things are happening around me, the only way I can survive is by being in control.” They react to the word “no” with yelling, threats, punching the wall or hurting one of their siblings. And the more chaos and inconsistency they perceive in their lives, the more they feel the need to stay in control.

For many of these kids, oppositionality and defiance become a way of reacting to authority. Every day brings a new fight as you try to exercise your authority. Whereas many children learn to accept that they can’t be in control all the time, children with ODD often experience a sense of panic when they see they’re not getting control. Their parents learn to walk around on tiptoes, and too many of them blame themselves or try to find some person, place or thing to point the finger at instead of focusing on the task at hand, which is, “How can I teach my child how to manage things today?”

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Three Ways to De-escalate Oppositional, Defiant Behavior
“No” is a powerful word. All children have to learn how to deal with it, and children with ODD are no different. But there are things parents can do to avoid or escape from explosive behavior, or to redirect their child’s behavior.

I want you to remember those words: “Avoid”, “Escape” and “Redirect.” Because we want to try to avoid conflicts with ODD kids, or escape those conflicts as soon as we can, and redirect them toward something positive.

1. Avoid the Conflict

One of the ways we avoid conflict is by having a written structure posted some place where everyone can see it, like on your refrigerator, for example. This is really a schedule that would look like the following:

Daily Schedule
Snack and relax: 3:30-4:00 p.m.
Chores and homework: 4:00-to 5:00 p.m..
Free time: 5:00-6:00 p.m.
Dinner: 6:00 p.m.
Free time after dinner: 7:00 to 7:30 p.m.
Homework: 7:30 to 8:00 p.m.
Bedtime: 8:30 p.m.

I think these kids do better if they come home from school or daycamp, have a little snack, do some chores or homework, have brief play time, and then have dinner. After that they can do a few more chores, have some free time, then go to bed. Evenings need to be as subdued as possible. When you have such a schedule and your child says, “I want to play now,” you can say, “You know the schedule, Tommy. Playtime isn’t till after dinner.” Now in this case, although you’re saying no, you’re really re-focusing that child on the schedule. Understanding the schedule and internalizing the structure are important coping skills that kids with ODD need to develop. So you’re accomplishing two things here: You’re avoiding a direct fight with “no,” and you’re focusing on structure and scheduling, which are coping skills these kids need to learn.

And as a parent, remember that the idea is to not to think about yourself as giving in, but rather, you’re avoiding situations where there’s a higher risk of your child acting out. So if you find yourself having to avoid too many situations when you’re at the mall because of the fear of outbursts, my recommendation is that you avoid going to the mall with that child until he’s at the skill level where he can handle it.

2. Escape From Fights

The other strategy we want to look at is “Escape.” Once the fight with your child is starting or has begun escalating, you need to find a way to get out of it. First of all, you can state your position, turn around and walk away and not respond to the child’s backtalk. So, for example, you can say, “It’s not time for you to play video games now. It’s time for you to clean your room,” and then turn around and remove yourself from the argument. There are cases where you will find that a kid with ODD is backtalking to parents as they’re on their way to do the chore you asked them to do in the first place. Sometimes it seems that their mouth and body are moving in two different directions! Don’t let yourself be pulled into the backtalk, either. Just simply go about your business and do something else.

3. Redirect Your Child’s Behavior

The third important step in the plan to de-escalate the oppositional behavior is to “Redirect” the child. Redirecting is a strategy you can use when the child’s behavior starts to escalate. You can say, “Remember, you want to watch that show at 6:30, so stay focused,” and then turn around and walk away. This redirects their attention to something else and teaches them to focus on something other than the argument. Redirecting is also helpful in situations where there have been conflicts in the past, and where you know an explosion is likely. You can distract your child by getting him to do something differently early in the escalation period. So when you see that he is starting to get agitated, that’s the time to send him to do some alternate task that can be helpful for the family. For instance, “Please go get the lettuce out of the refrigerator and wash it for the salad. That would be a big help.”

Stop Throwing Fuel on the Fire
I think it’s important for parents to understand that once a kid with ODD starts arguing about being told “no,” he gets very invested in the process of arguing as much as the outcome. So in effect, the argument fuels itself. The first thing parents have to do is stop throwing fuel on the fire: Don’t argue or talk back to the child. State the rule, state the expectation or the task at hand, and walk away. When times are calm, sit down with your child and have a discussion and say, briefly and concisely, “I don’t think arguing helps us solve our problems. So I’m not going to argue with you anymore. And the time you spend talking back and arguing with me when I’m not responding will be taken off your computer time tonight. 2 minutes for every 1 minute you argue.” Don’t overly explain or justify by giving examples. Tell him the rule, but don’t sit there and get into an argument about it. Get up and move on to something else. Expect him to argue right then and there. But understand that the best way you can deal with children with this particular disorder is to lay out a structure and stick with it.

I think it’s important for parents to remember that many of these kids do develop coping skills, it’s just that, as the poet Theodore Roethke said, “a slow growth is a hard thing to endure.” Time helps with these guys. Age helps. And they can learn problem-solving and negotiation skills, it just takes a little longer, and will take more patience on your part. Stick to a plan that on one end is flexible enough to deal with their impulses, but on the other is firm enough to hold them strictly accountable, and I believe you will see real change.

About

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (26)
  • LauraUK80

    This is a good article. I am going through a very stressful situation at the moment. My daughter is nearly 9 years old. She is clever, bright, has an amazing personality. Is brilliant at school, good at school work, and behaviour is spot on - I would say now for the past 6 months we have had a lot of defiant behaviour....it is always linked to the word 'NO'. We are not soft, she is not spoilt, she is used to the work NO but we never used to get the reaction we are getting. I find myself arguing with her when it isn't necessary but she has an amazing ability to suck people into arguing with her. She only behaves like this with me and her dad, there is nothing going on at home, we all live together and are a very normal family.

    She also does not respond well if we are trying to do something together as a family and she doesnt want to participate. If its not her way its no way. Our Christmas at home was very very stressful - the past few days I have been reduced to tears and I very much feel like I am on my own.

    I spoke to her teacher who was horrified.

    We decided that all action I had taken was not hard enough. So I stripped her bedroom and she is currently trying to earn things back but she isnt earning much. She did well this morning, but then had an argument over a car door. She wanted to close it - it was already closed, and shut properly and locked....so i said no we dont need to do that its closed....'no its not'...this went on stuck her tongue out, shouting, and pushed me whilst we are walking to school. Lovely start to the day ! ! Any comments I appreciate ! !

    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      Hi, Laura. I can understand your frustration. I've worked with many parents in your situation who have had similar responses to acting out, defiant behaviors. Truth is, harsh punishments like taking away all of a child's privileges or stripping their room usually aren't effective, as Carole Banks explains in herMore article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/youre-grounded-for-life-why-harsh-punishments-for-children-and-teenagers-dont-work/. You may find it helpful to check our out Personal Parenting Plan for tips and ideas on addressing these behaviors: https://www.empoweringparents.com/personal-parenting-plan/. Thank you for reaching out. Take care.
  • I have tried a schedule
    I’m sorry my daughter is 13 now and we have tried a schedule for years but she just won’t abide by it - I can remind her calmly all I want she will just ignore me - she sleeps at 2 am most nights
  • Nina
    My son has ODD with his autism. He ranked at 0.1% on Adaptive Behaviour Assessment (ABAS-3). I'm not really sure what to do at this point. He is nonverbal and doesn't understand concept or time, and then has these behaviours on top of it, partMore of them stemming from his inability to communicate. And the rest is just, simply put, ODD. He's in the 96th percentile of autism and 99.99% behind functionally and I've never seen a child so angry. He's been indefinitely kicked out of school (It's been two months so far) due to giving his para educator a concussion. He is not receptive to academia. ((11 yr old btw)), flips furniture, bites people and draws blood, bites himself, hits and kicks people and walls, targets and charges authority figures. I can't have company, talk on the phone, sneeze, sigh, cough, listen to music, turn the lights on, do nice things with him (and i really try because I'd like for him to be happy. I'd like for us both to be happy), but this isn't living. So, what now? If I just described your kid too, I feel for you.
  • Cindy
    To all the parents, thank you for your comments and stories. I have a 13 yr old step-son that was diagnosed with ODD, anxiety and depression about two years ago. I was a single mother for over 10 years with two boys of my own, 19y.o. and 16More y.o., when my step-son has an explosion or snippy with me, my sons come to "rescue their mom". I have tried to explain to both of them regarding his diagnosis and they don't believe it's an actual thing. They think he is just spoiled and out of control. His father and I are continuously trying to cope, teach and learn the skills needed for this child and our household. But sometimes there is always that one situation that we are lost for words/reaction. Between interactions at home, school, friendships, missing school, transition between biological mom then back to dad's (full custodial parent). Every day is a challenge. We do participate in family therapy (ODD focused) and relationship therapy, but that only goes so far. The day to day issues seem to be more difficult as this boy turns into a teen. My question, does a blog or support group for ODD parents exist? That would be so helpful.
  • Marcia
    This is a brilliant article. It helped me do much dealing with my odd son 16yrs who has been thrown out of 4schools because he has not conformed to rules at school
  • Don

    Thank you so much for your clear consice recommendations

    It's been really tough getting our son to listen and obey. He has very little respect for authority and very little gratitude for what we have done for him. It's so hard to understand why he cares so little for everything we have sacrificed and done for him , it really hurts.

  • EllenGrovesPaiva
    we had a very good morning up until about 8:20 am. We need to leave for the bus at 8:27am and Eleanor decided she wouldnt put her shoes on, brush her teeth or her hair, and then smeared toothpaste all over the sink, locked the bathroom door. She didnt haveMore to be defiant this morning. She knows how to get ready for school.
  • J9825

    My son is 11 and I can honestly say I do not know who he is anymore. I was a single parent for 8 years. It has always been tough. Constantly sent home from school or suspended. Fighting, angry and mean. On the flip side he can be the most amazing and bright and loving child which is what I am trying to hold onto. Lately things have started to escalate. He no longer does anything he is asked. He won't shower or go to bed. Taking iPod and PS4 away only make our lives more miserable because he attacks me verbally and sometimes physically. My new husband is at a loss. We have three other children in the house, all 5 years old. We do not have the time to give him the attention he demands. He also has ASD so he doesn't have many friends. I have been with every agency I can think of and have never stopped trying to get help but right now I don't know if there is anyone that can help us. His behaviour is escalating quickly and I no longer feel safe. I don't know what to do anymore. His biological father is useless so there is no where else for him to

    Live. I never imagined having my first born son would turn out to be this horrible. We all make mistakes. As parents We are only human. But this is almost too hard to take. It is emotionally draining. He says he hates me everyday, punches walls breaks things. Constantly putting me down. How does one escape an sbusive relationship with their child?

    • KCroc3

      My field of work is in social work. Taking your sons iPod or PS4 away is exactly what needs to be done. The escalation in his negative behavior shows that this is something that matters very much to him, So this is the perfect thing for you to use as leverage. And yes, his behavior will get worse before it gets better but there is no way around that. There is a pay-off for your child’s negative behaviors. Right now, he knows he can act anyway he wants and still get to use his iPod and PS4. It’s your job to show him by your actions, that this will not be the case any longer. State what you want him to do, and if he doesn’t do it you give him one reminder that if he doesn’t get started on what you asked him to do within one minute, he loses his iPod and PS4 for the next 24 hours. When he he has calmed down, let him know that HE chooses whether he has access to his iPod and PS4 by the choices he makes and as of that moment, he can start over and earn his iPod and PS4 depending on his choices for the next 24 hours. This works even better if you can break it down into smaller chunks of time, ie, In the summer when he’s home all day, his behavior choices between the time he wakes up and lunch determines whether he earns these things for 30-60 minutes after lunch

      and his behavior choices between lunch and dinner determines if he earns his iPod and PS4 for 30-60 minutes after dinner. I know it’s hard to do this but I promise you, that while it will get worse before it gets better, there is no way around that.

    • AmyDonato
      My first born son with 3 younger siblings as well!!!! You basically stated out family's story as well.
  • Lost Momma

    My daughter is 6 years old.  Life is by far from easy, I love my daughter (s) more than anything but my oldest is more than a handful.  At times I feel so lost and emotionally drained, I want to just walk away from the situation but I am unable.  Some day's she is an amazing child and other days she is so emotional that no matter what you say to her she will cry and other days she is so angry that she has started to hit herself.  She has hit, kicked, slapped and even bitten me.  My youngest she has hit and lied about it, its so hard to trust her anymore before of her behavior and lying.  When she doesn't listen and gets in trouble she will scream louder and louder and louder.  Then I try to get her to calm down and she starts to scream at me more and yell at me.  She doesn't care about loosing toys sometimes and when she does she acts like it is life or death if she doesn't get it back.  She will cry for days because if she doesn't get her toys back she is going to get me in trouble for being a bad mom.  I'd like some advice from parents who deal with similar situations.  I am at a loss what to do, she see's a therapist once every 2 weeks and is on Medication, we are working on trying to get her ADHD under control but it just seems like a never ending battle.

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    • KCroc3
      Don’t try to get her to calm down because by doing this, you are letting her know that her screaming bothers you. Ignore her and her behaviors will initially increase and then gradually lessen until they stop altogether when she realizes her behaviors don’t get her what she wants, norMore does her behavior bother you. Be very detached and unemotional when you deal with these situations. Simply state your answer and why and then don’t respond anymore. Walk away or go about doing whatever you need to do and pretend like you don’t hear her screaming. She acts like that because there is some sort of pay-off for her. If there’s no pay-off(benefit to her), then there is no reason for her to continue that negative behavior. It sounds like there is very much an element of her wanting control and how she goes about this is by engaging you in the issue(maybe angering you, embarrassing you out in public, you trying to placate her by trying to calm her down). When she’s in a calm state of mind, teach her coping skills she can use to manage her emotions. Look online for information about “the zones of regulation.” There are many fun activities to help teach her skills so she can manage her motions and positive ways. When she chooses to use negative waste to manipulate you, just make sure that she understands, not through your words, but through your actions(not allowing her to manipulate you into giving her what she wants), that negative behavior will not result in getting her way but that through positive behavior choices, some of the things she wants can be earned.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Lost Momma 

      We hear from many parents who describe similar situations with their child,

      so I hope that others will write in with their experiences.In the meantime, I want to let you know that

      it’s not uncommon for kids your daughter’s age to act out as you have described.This is because they tend to have a low

      tolerance for frustration, poor impulse control, and few appropriate coping

      skills.I’m glad to hear that you are

      working with local supports, such as a therapist and a doctor, to help your

      daughter with her behavior.You might

      also find some helpful information in our articles, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/hitting-biting-and-kicking-how-to-stop-aggressive-behavior-in-young-children/ and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/adhd-and-young-children-unlocking-the-secrets-to-good-behavior/.Take care.

  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    Karma209 

    It sounds like you have done a lot of work to help your

    child, and it can be so frustrating when it doesn’t seem to be helping her to

    manage her behavior in a more appropriate way.  I encourage you to

    continue taking her suicidal statements seriously, as you have been.  If

    you haven’t already, it could be useful to talk with local treatment

    professionals during a calm time about any other steps you can take to keep

    your child safe.  It can also be useful to focus on how you can take care

    of yourself too.  Self-care is a crucial, yet often overlooked, component

    of being an effective parent.  Your self-care plan can be anything you

    wish, from engaging in an activity you enjoy, to using more structured supports

    such as counseling or a support group.  If you need help connecting with resources

    in your community, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-622.  211 is a service which helps people locate

    supports in their local area.  I recognize how difficult this situation

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

    forward.  Take care.

  • nowhere to hide

    After years of miserable vacations and day trips, we no longer took vacations and day trips due to the obnoxious behavior of our youngest son.  I could not even go to the grocery store for fear that every emergency vehicle would be outside my home when I returned.  My family was miserable, his twin was the most miserable.  She no longer took vacations or day trips either.  After disgusting  mental health evaluations, we ended up just sending him away.  There is hope with specialists of this disorder, we were denied the attempt.

    This is what I know, we were miserable and now we aren't and haven't been since he left. No one misses him, we have had no contact what so ever for 4 years.  My twins are now 18 years old and he has made contact for the first time (an agreement that only he can make contact was made), his twin sister just sent the contact back.  

    Now that he is an adult we all fear for our lives.  The best part,  he will be entering the military.  Everyone has something to fear, now.

    I am not still trying, I am scared out of my wits for my family.

    • Nathalie72
      Where did you send him away?
      • nowhere to hide
        Nathalie72  to family out of state
  • Bedhief
    I agree with hapelade ... my 10 year old son will volunteer his games , iPad , phone etc and say "here , you forgot to take this too" ... he now runs away whenever I have to run an errand with his 3 year old sister ... I've chasedMore him over fences, through creeks, and to the woods but clearly he can outrun me ... not to mention I can't leave my 3 year old in the house alone to chase him ... sometimes I have important plans / appointments that I can't relent on and stay home ... but he's TEN, he can't be roaming the streets !!!! I feel lost, hurt, defeated, physically ill, emotionally drained ... I cry myself to sleep every night ... I know each morning will bring a similar day for me ... my soul is tired ... I'm embarrassed and only discuss it with a few very close people ... we're a decent family... I'm horrified ... I'm heartbroken ... I'm a failure
    • Nathalie72

      Same with me.. its horrible, mybson is 9 years old.. with others out, he is a angel, I can leave him home alonecwhen I go to work the week end, but with me, he sometime is very nice, but as soon as I ask him something, its finish, to start home work now that he is 9, it was a orror, like he go in his room, bang and kik the wardrobe, last time his fit whent true the chair, he cut his fit, .. I stayed calm and explained him how to take his anger doing exercices, or beating a pillow. But he just started in school, friday because a kid mark a goal, he and his friend, he crushed a plastic botyle, but his friend kik the boy!! And monday he poke a boy with his crayon.

      At home when he came back, he started, I ask him to do home work, he said, im tired when to sleep!

      Then he fid, this morning, he ask me water, I told him, please get uour glass, he reply, so I dont drink!

      Then strait away ask me to buy him a toy!!!!!!!

      He left his cap at school, so I have to pay a fine

    • helpwanted
      Bedhief My son is ten as well...Your story and feelings are exactly like we live/feel. But your not a failure and your not alone. The fact that you even made it onto this website states that your still trying. Thats the most important thing. I cannot tell you how manyMore times my wife and I have thrown up our hands and said f@#k it i'm done. To the point of breaking up our good marriage and getting seperate places so we can split custody and try to have a "normal" life on our days without him... Its hard , its unfair and it sucks but all you can do is keep trying and there is no failure in that...Wish I had a miracle cure to pass on to you but I don't. But i've decided that I will be knocking on every door and calling as many healthcare providers it takes till I find the help he needs.. you are not alone...Good luck...
  • hapelade
    What about when NONE of those tactics work...we have done them all! He "doesn't care" about anything, any consequense, any authority.
    • Bedhief
      Agreed !!!!
  • GingerKerplin
    I am going to try your methods... I am at a lose at what to do with my son lately and I feel like the worlds worst parent because of it. I feel like all I do is yell at him. And that is not the kind of parent IMore want to be. Thank you for a new direction to take, and let us hope that it does better than what we have been doing currently!
    • Dad of Two
      @GingerKerplin After 12 years of not understanding how to manage my son, I now find myself feeling like you. The only thing I can think is that you must really care about your child to keep going. I know in my own life as a single parent this has allMore been on my own shoulders and is painful to say the least. From one who truly seems to have failed here, I can only wish you are able to find some peace in what you yourself are going through.
  • Dani
    This is very true and I implemented this myself before reading this and the routine and structure has.worked for years dictating to adults / authority is a challenge now and again but staying on track with what is in place works
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