When someone has Oppositional Defiant Disorder, age is irrelevant. The sibling roles, even as adults, are ingrained after a lifetime of training. Both of my children are back home now — my daughter having graduated from college and now working to pay off student loans, and my son working his way through school to avoid student loan debt. They went to college in different states and spent years apart, but the ODD sibling dynamic is still intact.
Through physical and verbal intimidation, my son has been able to victimize his sister for years. Even with all the growth my son has done since he was 15, logic does not always exist in these interactions. The facts rarely coincide with what my daughter or I remember. But my daughter wasn’t completely without fault: like many kids who grew up with an ODD sibling she pushed her brother’s buttons and would purposely get him in trouble. She also could talk circles around him and had a verbal advantage. When he grew bigger and stronger, he didn’t forget any of it.
Throughout their upbringing, I set limits with consequences, used incentives, and addressed behaviors directly with both of them. This worked beautifully with my daughter, but failed with my son who seemed impervious to these strategies. With hindsight, experience, learning about the Total Transformation Program and drawing upon my own education, I know I did many things wrong. I over-negotiated, yelled, and allowed myself to be pulled into arguments.
What I know now is:
- To disconnect at the first sign of escalation in my child’s behavior.
- Not to try and reason with him in the moment, but again, to disconnect and walk away.
- Resolve conflicts by following up after he has calmed down and talk it out.
- To stop trying to prove who is right about the facts.
- To say, “That’s not the way I remember it, but I’m not going to argue about it”
- Stop trying to make him verbally acknowledge that something is his responsibility.
- Stopped trying control his feelings or behaviors. I learned from Debbie Pincus’s Calm Parent that you will only increase your child’s anger and resistance when you try to control their behavior. Now I let him feel what he’s feeling and allow him to sit in his anger or disappointment. Finding ways to cope with his uncomfortable feelings is a crucial part of developing into a mature adult.
His resistance to being held accountable made it difficult for him to look honestly at his own behavior. But here’s the good part — he is now actively working on it. After repeatedly describing to him how intimidating he can be and how much he interrupts with a derogatory tone of voice, he is now able to stop and listen. In the past he would have escalated to yelling, swearing, and possibly throwing something. He can now calm himself down and think things through. He is able to resolve issues, whether that means apologizing or validating what someone else has said. Reflecting his behavior back to him has been invaluable.
For my daughter’s part, she is now working hard to find her voice. She is now working through her own trauma around his behavior, determined to stand her ground and be heard. Outwardly, she stays calm, while she feels panic with every confrontation, and struggles to finish a sentence while he interrupts her. But now, with the help of a counselor, she is learning to repeat herself, until she feels heard. He might not acknowledge it, but it’s about how she feels that’s important. She is also learning how to deal with and deflect the force of negativity and intimidation.
The point is, neither one of my children are perfect, defective, or wrong. No child is. It is just where they are at this point in time. As Brene Brown beautifully states in her Power of Vulnerability video, “We are enough.” No child is able to avoid having conflicts or obstacles as they grow up. Those uncomfortable feelings and the anxiety they create are part of growing up.
For more on the sibling dynamic when you have a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, read The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings by James Lehman, MSW