“That’s just the Terrible Two’s.”
“He’s just being a brat. All he needs is a good attitude adjustment.”
“She needs to know that you’re in control. Be consistent.”
If your young child is behaving in a way that is oppositional or defiant, you’ve probably heard one or more of these phrases from family, friends, teachers or the lady in line behind you at the grocery store. People are often well-intentioned (or sometimes just plain nosy) and quick to dispense advice on how to handle behavior problems with your child. But what about when your child is behaving in a way that is clearly beyond what most of us would call “typical?” How do you know if his behavior has moved into Oppositional Defiant Disorder? How young is too young to diagnose ODD?
“No matter what’s going on that’s leading to your child’s behavior, your job is the same: to help teach him or her what the limits are in your home and how to follow them.”
Even Beaver Cleaver Had Bad Days
Tantrums, low frustration tolerance, and the “gimme’s” are all typical in children, especially 2-7 year olds. Kids want what they want, when they want it. When faced with the word “no”—or any type of frustration—they will often have a hard time expressing that frustration in what we would call a “positive” manner. That’s part of being a kid. But over the years, many parents have told us things like, “I knew my son was different from the time he was two. He just reacted more strongly to everything than most kids. He would get really upset and angry, and it seemed like it happened all the time.” The difference between your “typical” young child and one who is acting in a pattern of oppositional-defiance lies in the intensity and frequency of the behavior.
ODD behavior can be a pattern of screaming and throwing things, or it may be outright refusal to follow your rules or directions. You ask your child to brush his teeth and he is just not going to do it—no matter what you say or do. If it seems more severe than typical behavior, it probably is. It’s always a good idea to speak to your child’s pediatrician when you have concerns like this. They will be able to tell you if the behavior is typical and age-appropriate.
If your young child is acting in a way that is oppositional or defiant, here are some things to keep in mind when responding to that behavior:
1.Try not to be afraid.
It can be very frightening when your child begins behaving in a way that is oppositional and defiant. You ask yourself, “Why is this happening? Am I doing something wrong as a parent? What if I don’t fix this before she gets older—adolescence will be horrible!” Before you know it, you’re picturing your child at age 16, breaking all the rules, completely out of control and hating you. If your child is showing signs of ODD, even at the age of two, she’s showing you that she has the type of personality that will push limits. As hard as it may be, try not to predict the future, or blame yourself or your child. When you do this, emotion can take over and parents end up reacting to their child’s behavior out of fear, desperation or determination to “get it under control now before it gets even more out of hand.” Instead, stay in the moment and focus on the behavior you’re seeing right now.
2. Don’t get too hung up on a diagnosis.
Is it helpful to know that your child has ODD? It can be. It can help you understand why “typical” parenting approaches usually aren’t successful with your child. It can help you understand your child’s personality and how it relates to his behavior. ODD can go hand-in-hand with another diagnosis, such as ADHD or Asperger’s Disorder. It’s helpful to know if your child is experiencing these things as well, so you can understand if there’s something else going on that’s contributing to the ODD behavior. You may find out that your child has trouble focusing and sitting still, so when he’s asked to do so he fights against it. You may choose to schedule your child with a psychiatrist or child therapist for an evaluation to see if there are any other underlying clinical issues that he is struggling with. But remember: a diagnosis is just a framework for looking at a set of behaviors. No matter what’s going on that’s leading to the behavior, your job is the same: to help teach your child what the limits are in your home and how to follow them.
3. Look at this as a prime parenting opportunity.
Life is full of limits, boundaries and consequences—for children and adults. When your child is young, even if he’s engaging in some pretty tough behaviors, it’s an excellent opportunity for him to begin learning those lessons on boundaries and limits. These life lessons begin in your home. As a parent, you are your child’s first “authority figure.” When you respond to his behavior, you are essentially saying, “This is the line, right here, and when you cross it, this is what will happen. Every time.” You’re preparing your child, from a young age, for what it means to have boundaries. You’re also preparing him for what to expect from you—his parent and authority figure—every time he crosses those boundaries. Down the road, he will have other authority figures (teachers, coaches, bosses, etc.). He may or may not change his tendency to fight against limits as he gets older. But he will always know what to expect because you’ve laid the groundwork.
4. Make consequences immediate and fair.
ODD kids have trouble problem-solving and tend to react negatively to strong emotions. Staying calm when delivering consequences to your child can help prevent emotions from escalating even further—yours and his! We know that’s much easier said than done. Knowing ahead of time what consequence you’ll be giving your child can lessen the emotion. Some steps that can help:
5. Hang in there.
Parenting is the hardest job out there. Sometimes it’s difficult to “see the forest for the trees” and some days may seem like a battle more than a relationship with your child. If a child doesn’t change his behavior in response to the consequences a parent gives, it can seem like what you’re doing isn’t working. That’s not necessarily the case. In fact, what you’re doing is working. You’re teaching your child that when he behaves in a way that is unacceptable or inappropriate, an uncomfortable consequence will follow. That’s a life lesson. ODD kids tend to learn and do everything the hard way. That strong will can serve them well in the long run. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. By following these steps, you are showing your child how he can effectively navigate his way in this world.
In today’s world, with so much information out there on parenting, we’re taking our job very seriously as parents. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in trying to figure out why our child is acting in a particular way, we get sidetracked from addressing the behavior itself. Kids act up. That’s their job. Our job is to show our child ways to effectively handle frustration and emotions, and provide discipline until he gains self-discipline. These are the life lessons that your child will take with him into the world, regardless of how he is behaving today.
How to Discipline Young Kids Effectively: 4 Steps Every Parent Can Take
Am I Spoiling My Young 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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My daughter is nearly 4 years old and has behavioural problems. I'm actually hoping she has ODD and not PDA. Her older brother has autism. I'm trying to divert my attention from PDA but the symptoms are very similar but PDA is lifelong ?
My question is does ODD have any repetition? As my daughter does sometimes repeat over and over the same thing. Sometimes she's completely normal and other times a changed person. It's difficult to believe she's the same person at times. Just really worried!!!
I hear your concern for your daughter, and how much you want
to address her behavioral issues. If you believe that there might be
underlying issues contributing to her inappropriate behavior, I encourage you
to talk with her doctor. Because her doctor has the ability to directly
observe and interact with your daughter, s/he will be in a better position to
assess what might be going on, as well as provide appropriate referrals for
follow up with local resources if needed. I recognize what a difficult
situation this must be for you, and I wish you and your family all the best
moving forward. Take care.
I hear your frustration and your exhaustion with your son’s
behavior, and the challenges you are facing daily. I’m glad that you are
here, reaching out for support. I understand your reluctance to take your
son to a psychiatrist based on your previous experiences. It could also
be a helpful resource for you to get support for both you and your son.
Because a doctor would be able to observe and directly interact with your son,
s/he would be in a much better position to help you develop effective ways to
address his actions as well as rule out any underlying issues which might be
contributing to his behavior. In addition, although I recognize how
challenging it can be, I encourage you to take steps to take care of yourself
too, whether it’s calling a supportive friend or family member when you are
feeling stressed, or using more structured supports like respite care or a
support group. If you are not taking steps toward your own well-being, it
can impact how effective you are able to be with your son. For assistance
locating supports in your community, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222. Thank you
for writing in, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things
are going for you and your family. Take care.
Oh my God when I read this article I felt the same way. I have 2 older children girls and they were so easy. This is the worst time I have had as a parent. I know for most people when they here a parent say such horrible things they want to call social services on you and come take your kid away....and sometimes with what you have to deal with you probably wouldn't mind them taking him away! Lol but that was just a joke....although you need some time alone! I just don't know how I'm getting through this but I am. I have found some programs for my son and I am trying to get a medical diagnosis in order to get ssi for him and get in home support services for him which means the state pays you to take care of your own child because this is a full time job! If you and your wife need any information or help I can tell you what I know and maybe you can look for programs in your area. It is hard as hell and it will cause a strain on your marriage...it is going to make you and your wife so drained and tired and angry that you may start to take out your frustrations on each other. His father and I have split because it has caused such a big rif between us. good luck to you both.
Thank you for reaching out for support. As you can see
from all the comments here, you are not alone in experiencing these struggles
with your son. We hear from, and speak with, parents everyday who are
facing challenging child behavior. If you are looking for help in your
area, you might consider contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222. 211 is a service which connects people
with resources in their community. We also offer additional assistance to
parents and families through our parenting programs and individualized coaching
services. If you are interested in finding out more information about
these offerings, please visit our https://www.empoweringparents.com/shop/.
I hope you will let us know if you have any additional questions. Take
My son just turned 4 years old. He has always been very willful and defiant since before he was born, but lately it's gotten out of control. He has no remorse for what he does and the consequences for his actions have no effect on him whatsoever. My husband and I have tried everything possible to get through to him and I'm at my wits end. Just today while I was in our basement, he was supposed to be in his room asleep, he snuck outside naked and I was greeted with a police officer in my living room! A neighbor called the cops! I had no idea how he got out of the house! We tried safety locks, but he gets those off. He could have been abducted or injured! I could have been in serious trouble for this! What does he say when the officer and I try to explain this to him? "You're not a real police man! You don't have a hat on and you're not shooting at me!" What?!? He doesn't watch violent things! Paw Patrol must have changed when I wasn't looking! He isn't even around others who speak like this! His older brother, aged 6, who speaks well, myself and his father. I put him in his room for a 5 minute time out, go back to talk to him about what happened and he somehow managed to open his window, rip the screen and pulled out the phone jack from the wall! Thank goodness it wasn't live wires! 5 minutes! I tried to get him to talk to me about what he was feeling, what he was thinking and he just repeated back to me the rules he is supposed to follow.
My husband came home from work and I thought that the night was going to get better. While making dinner, my son went into the bathroom and flooded the toilet. Before we noticed it, my husband went into our sons room to put laundry away and discovered that he peed in his closet. That's when we found out about the bathroom.
As we struggled with putting him to bed tonight, which took 5 hours, he was also able to pull up the vents in his room and destroy the blinds on his window.
Anytime he doesn't get his own way, he is told "no" or asked to do something that he doesn't want to do, it's a full out meltdown, with him yelling, screaming, kicking, dropping to the ground and refusing to move!
I've made several pleas with his pediatrician to get help but she believes that it's just his own personality. This past week and today, I've called over 12 child psychologist/psychiatrist to try and get some sort of help and answers for my baby boy. Not a single one has called me back. What is a mother to do to help her child and family?