“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.

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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.

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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:

  • Make a list of your child’s behaviors that you want to target. Review the list and determine if any of those behaviors have natural or social consequences. For example, if your child is arguing and refusing to go to bed and you know she’ll be tired the next day, that’s a natural consequence. It’s also an example of a life lesson: many adults choose to stay up late even though they know they’ll be tired the next day. Only you can decide which behaviors you are able to let go of—for now—in order to focus on the most serious concerns.
  • Identify one behavior from your list that you consider a priority to address. Pick just one problem behavior to start with. This will be your child’s target behavior. When you are successfully managing the behavior, you can pick another thing to work on from your list.
  • Make a list of potential consequences to use with your child. Consequences should be time-specific (Decide how long it will last—a few minutes, hours or days. For younger children, shorter consequences tend to work better.) and immediate. It helps to tie the consequence to the behavior if you can. (“If you throw your toy, you lose it for an hour.”) Choose which consequence you will give for each target behavior—one you can remain consistent and follow through with.
  • Talk ahead of time. Even though your child is young, talk with him clearly and briefly ahead of time, when he’s calm, about what will happen as a consequence for the behaviors you’ve chosen. This will help him know what to expect. Then stick with it to the best of your ability.

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.

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 (26)
  • IdontWannaGiveUp
    I read a previous article for the first time in regard to ODD and was having some difficulty reading because I could not stop crying. I cannot emphasize enough how much all of this relates to my son. Unfortunately he is about to turn 17yrs old and I have beenMore dealing with this since about 8/9yrs old. I have gotten him therapist in the past and they along with his pediatrician would his behaviour can just be part of because of his immaturity. The ped had assured me with the front part of his brain will grow he will grow out of this. Having other family members that were on meds for their behaviour kept me away from seeking psychiatry for my son because I did want him to be on drugs. I figured "he'll grow out if this stage". I am in a guilt trip now because I should've pursed it so much sooner 😢 it has been SUUUUUUUCH a battle for so many years... I'm spent and had even given up a few months ago when he left home to live with 'friend's. He has since returned... and I am basically walking on eggshells to not get him upset and cause him to have any more issues with myself or my daughter, whom by the way is the kindest soul... yet he treats her miserably!!!!! And yes.... he insists I favor her. He just went for his 3rd visit to therapist yesterday. ... all on his own. So i have hope... But change cannot come fast enough. Ugh... I can keep typing my little hurt, damaged, frail heart out but I am SO excited to move forward because now there can be a diagnosis that we can work on... not just my son being a straight jerk (for lack of words. Sorry)
  • Sveahsmom
    I am so relieved to know we are not alone. My almost 4 yr old daughter has got us on our knees. I just dont know what to do. Everything I try backfires. My older children just watxh in horror as their little sister runs the house. We litteraly areMore on eggshells. Some days are better than others but lately its a 24/7 ordeal. She has horrible night terrors and then its like it carries on into her day time. We have a routine, give lots of love and I do my best never to spank her. I wait until she stops screaming at the top of her lungs and sometimes thats after 2 hours. I have asked her dr for help and she says its NORMAL!! what is going on IS NOT NORMAL BEHAVIOUR. Any type of ideas you may have that I could implement would be amazing
    • MotherOfWildings
      Hi! I was wondering of youd seen progress in yout daughter... mine is 3.5 and sounds so similar, including the nightly night terrors. How did you proceed? Did you see improvement?
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I hear you. It can be so challenging when you have a young child who is defiant and constantly pushing limits. I’m pleased to hear that you have brought up your concerns with your daughter’s doctor, even though you did not receive the support you were seeking. More I encourage you to continue to discuss your behavioral concerns with her doctor, as s/he will be better able to assess what might be going on and rule out any underlying issues which might be contributing to this behavior. In addition, you might find some helpful strategies you can start using in Defiant Young Children and Toddlers: 5 Things Not to Do, as well as Explosive Child Anger: Taming Your Toddler’s Temper Tantrum. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Kaitlin
    I think my five year old with autism spectrum disorder may have ODD. Her behaviour fits every characteristic of ODD she is the hardest child to parent.
  • Samantha333
    My son just got diagnosed with adhd And odd he's on medicine and nothing is working well how can I stop his tantrums and him being really defiant towards me he's 5 years old
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Samantha333 I recognize how difficult it can be when you are faced with constant tantrums and defiance from your young child.  It sounds like you are currently working with local professionals to help you manage your son’s behavior, and I encourage you to continue to do.  In addition, you mightMore find some helpful tips and information in our articles, such as https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/child-with-add-or-adhd-5-donts-when-your-child-is-angry/ and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/defiant-young-children-and-toddlers-5-things-not-to-do/.  Please let us know if you have additional questions; take care.
  • gabesmomash
    My son is 5yr old he recently been diagnosed with odd/adhd hes having terrible problems with school they moved him to a half day they said the next step is kicking him out of school til next year they have also refused to give him a iep or speech therepyMore that i was told he needed what do i do
    • BennyTx
      Helpful tips you can do. I have gone to a many of ARD meetings. When I first started out I knew nothing on what my kids should receive. First was I had to educate myself on their rights because they will NOT tell you everything. Whenever you request for aMore meeting ALWAYS do it in writing and make a copy. I recorded my meetings too and that is your right. You just have to be up front and tell them your doing it. Also if your from Texas and feel that they're not meeting his needs you can contact Disability Rights of Texas and they will help you for free. Any evaluation or diagnoses from doctor's are good to bring to show your proof. If you feel he/she needs a one on one side then you can also request that for your child. I hope some of this helps. Sending prayers your way!
      • BennyTx
        That was supposed to say one on one aide. Autocorrect..
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      gabesmomash I’m so sorry to hear about the challenges your son is facing at school, and I’m glad that you are reaching out for support.  If the school has denied your son services and accommodations, you have the right to appeal this decision.  You can find more information on thisMore process in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-navigate-the-school-system-when-your-child-has-a-disability/.  You might also consider seeking out disability rights and advocacy programs in your area, as they will have more specific information on the process for your community.  You can find these services by contacting the http://www.211.org at 1-800-273-6222.  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your son.  Take care.
  • Stressedmotherhere

    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!!!

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Stressedmotherhere 

      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.

  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    Exhaustedmom76 

    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.

  • Exhaustedmom76
    I am reading all of these comments and it's like a page right outa the book of my life with my adhd , odd, severe speech delay ,sensory issue child that is going to be 4 in 2 months....when I say to u all I feel ur pain believe meMore I feel.it...I do not know how to deal with this or what is in store for my son's future but I do know that this is the most challenging painful thing I have ever had to deal with in my life! And I have been thru alot of shit! They say God only gives u wut he thinks u can handle my question to him is how damn much do u think I can take or want to take!!! I want to be happy and enjoy the rest of my life!!! This is so horrible to deal with every single day I feel like time is going to fly by so fast and I'm not enjoying any of it with my child becuz he cannot enjoy it and just live!!!! Everyday is a fight a struggle it has torn my relationship with his dad completely apart!!! I have no life!
    • AlisonRossiter
      I hear you so much my son has adhd and in the process of a diagnosis of autism he is full care cannot leave him alone wont listen defiant and runs and screams.At school "well" we had to move so we could get a better school for a start asMore i was so sick of being called and having them continaully saying all the time he was naughty they use to get in his space hold him say it was for his safety and left bruises on his tailbone as they use to carry him by his jocks to the office he wasnt allowed to have even a paper plane because it was classed as dangerous the teacher that he had in yr 2 , was of military background they said, but it back fired, he use to scream at the top of his lung sso after 30 yrs packed up and left. Even though they thought they understood they really didnt and the school here is amazing. They dont touch him they work with him waiting to start meds soon as we have tried everthing and people to help me to know that im not a failure and that i dont have to explain to anyone or apologize to everyone. He is struggling in a world that is a fast pace for him 24/7 im am tired i cry a lot and yes ask how much can you handle. We still have a massive way to go and my time is from the time i get upwhere he is looking at me or screaming.Waiting for the school to ring when you drop him of screaming and running out and i feel sick just walking away. They are always positive around him even when the day is hard, i play with him with his friends after school otherwise he gets teased and my other son is autistic. I feel for all parents as i wont leave them anywhere, one day at a time one moment at a time is all i can cope with, i know the signs its hard not to see it sometimes and it is hard to even medicate we have tried everything oils, diet which he is still on kieniesology homeopathy im done as a mother and my marriage is on the line because it just a very hard walk for my family my 25 yr old is undiagnosed and my grandson is in the process of the autism. I would give anything to have a job but my first cant stay at school all day because of the concentration levels and sensory issues we know when the day is going to be even funner day lol when he wears different hats. Thinking of all you mums that do an amazing amazing job at helping our children. Our first specialist was terrible and he had a major reaction to ritlin and at hospital with psychosis terrifying as a parent to watch changed specialist when we moved and he is amazing and now will try something else soon so of course the stress for me/ mum is through the roof. Never forget all those wonderful things that they say and do when your struggling, like i explain to the one with adhd you have a mind like Ferrari race car but the problem is you only have bicycle brakes. My other the autistic one is such a beautiful boy as well but anxiety is high and worked through a lot of stuff with him since little he asked me the other day when the yougest screamed down the place for half an hour is there a cure mum for cody i hate it when he is angry and upset. I will always be there advocator and ive learned the teacher aides are there to help but its okay to agree to dissagree as well , but its ok to voice how you feel as you can see i dont get out lol but wish all you amazing parents and children the very best.
    • askiaahmad2014
      Exhaustedmom76 I've read every one of your comments and my god this sounds exactly like what my wife and I are going through......I keep saying "he's young, he's young, it will get better" but this shit has been abnormally hard. I don't know WTF to do. I just sent myMore wife the link to this article, she'll be reading this and chiming in later, but it just feels good to know that other people are going through what we are going through as weird as that sounds. Sometimes I think to myself, "Am I over-reacting? There's nothing going on." But I know a lot of people with children and they aren't looking up articles about ODD. Just by the simple fact that I'm here shows something's off.
      • erat3ballwifey

        @askiaahmad2014

        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.

        • NotAlone
          Please can you email me - I need support for my son. I can't believe I am not alone.
          • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

            NotAlone 

            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

            care.

  • Cayleejo

    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?

    • Alison White
      Wow I feel for you, have you had any progress with help? X
  • Georgie Ann Evans
    Can anyone offer me some advice on why my 2 year old acts out as soon as his father gets home from work? It's like Jeckyl & Hyde the behavior is so different. This happens on weekends as well. I have twins and sometimes it's overwhelming managing on my own.More When their father is home to help it should make it easier, but the behavior is so bad when he's home that I can't barely wait for Monday to come. I'm alone again with two 2 year olds, but at least they act like their "normal" selves!
    • Exhaustedmom76
      Oh my God my son is the same exact way but opposite parent. When he is with his dad he is fine. As soon as dad and I are together he is so whiney and crying and running around on full speed and won't listen to either of us tearingMore up everything. It is only when I am around. When he is with other people he is ok a bit but when I come around its the most horrible time ever....
  • commiserating mom
    My 4 yr. old son is about to be introduced to a behavioral therapist. He's been declared disabled because of delayed development, possibly due to an autism spectrum type disorder. He's always had a hard time dealing with his feelings. He has a very low tolerance for frustration, throws wildMore and destructive tantrums daily, sometimes hourly, and can be self-abusive. He has very limited speech, and has a very hard time responding appropriately to authoritative requests. He is doing well with potty training, but that's mostly because he hates diapers, and feeling wet or poopy. He just started a half-day special education preschool program, and is also in speech therapy. He does surprisingly well in these settings. He is actually pretty quick to learn new things when he feels it's beneficial to him, and intelligent, despite his challenges. Where we have the most trouble is at home. He's very determined to be independent. Too much. He does not respect our rules, no matter how clearly they are laid out, and seemingly, no matter the consequences. We do our best to be consistent about punishments for breaking the rules, and clear and concise in our explainations of what he did wrong and why. I think we are doing our best although sometimes we lose our cool when dealing with our volatile son. I'm hoping we can all find a way to meet in the middle soon. I think we're on the right track, but I wanted to let other parents know that they aren't alone.
    • Exhaustedmom76
      I did in home behavior therapy...it doesn't work. It's worth a shot but didn't work for us....I am at my wits end.
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