None of my boys have been “officially” diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, but 3 of the 4 of them have had oppositional behavior and been defiant at times, some more than others. In my 21-and-a-half years of parenting, I thought I understood what consequences were, how and when to implement them, and the purposes behind different types of consequences, especially using natural consequences as teaching points. The ODD Lifeline is teaching me so much more about my children, the principles behind consequences and why they “work” or “don’t work” and an awful lot about myself!
I have always provided consistent consequences for my children, something that is recommended in the program. Each of my own boys learned from the limits we set in their own time and way, so I thought I was doing an awesome job as a parent. Of course every child is different and I was able to see clearly their different learning styles. My oldest son learned mostly from natural consequences which had to be repeated several times before it would sink in. Eventually he would learn that he was only hurting himself. Don’t like typing class? Okay, so get yourself kicked out and sent to the social worker each day. So, will they get that you hate the class and let you drop it if you get sent out enough? No — they will re-enroll you next semester and you will have to try again! Do you want to take typing 4 times? Go ahead, enjoy! Don’t feel like carrying that heavy math book? Dump it in the bushes and nobody will know! Until your mom gets a bill for it and deducts it from your allowance! These may seem like minor infractions compared to kids with severe ODD, but I’ll get into that.
So, along comes child number two. I discovered before he was 2 years old that he seemed to learn on a 3 month learning curve. Like clockwork, if I held my ground, by the third month the behavior was gone or the new rule was being followed. BUT if I gave in even one time, I negated the entire time I had already been implementing a consequence or a new rule and literally the 3 months started again. He was NOT a child where you could say, “Okay, just this once!”
Now enter my stepson. His mom sent him to live with us at age 9. I have not done anything different with him than with the other boys. He just does not seem to learn at all. He will repeat the same behaviors again and again even after having the same consequence for 3 years. At first we did switch it up a bit, thinking different consequences would work. We asked therapists, doctors, looked things up on line. We provided consequences and found a new therapist with more of a background in Reactive Attachment Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Still, we wondered, “What are we doing wrong? Why won’t he learn? Why can’t we teach him?!” It is hard not to take it personally and feel like we are failing him as parents. We were able to more consistent than his mom; that was why she sent him in the first place. She told us we were better suited to handle the discipline issues and were able to be more consistent than she could be. We started to feel like failures as parents. We wanted to “save” him. It was like watching a train wreck — we saw where he was headed, but we were determined to stop it.
What I have learned is that it is up to him. At first I thought, “Okay, so I stop giving consequences that don’t work and give up.” Of course that made no sense. Then I thought I should continue with the consequences as I had been, even though the behaviors continued. That made no sense to me at first either, because nothing was changing! But actually, over the years I have come to realize it makes perfect sense. My stepson knows he will have a consequence for the unacceptable behaviors. Just because he chooses to continue to do the same thing over and over, does not mean we have failed. It means he has decided the act of whatever thing he chooses to do (damage property, steal, etc.) is more important to him than the consequence he has to face.
His behaviors have moved from inside the home to outside and he has been involved in the juvenile justice system. He has poked holes in the wall, large & small; peeled paint from the walls; pulled up carpeting; scratched chairs and tables; pulled buttons off a new couch; stolen gum from the store; and scratched 6 neighborhood cars, and stolen from everyone in the house, even visitors. The damage to the cars was not the first time. He was sent here shortly after scratching his mom’s car. Then we found out he keyed neighborhood cars. These neighbors reported the vandalism last summer; we did not think he did it because he is very rarely unsupervised. Lo and behold, it turned out to be him! His mother got him a new bike last year and the one day he rode it around the neighborhood without one of his brothers, he scratched the cars!
He ripped buttons off a new couch and chairs. In addition to his regular consequence, he was not permitted in the basement. After several months of this, an uncomfortable consequence for everyone (we had to literally be with him everywhere in the house and we did not allow him downstairs at all!) he was finally able to go in the basement, only under supervision. After a few days, I found buttons in the washing machine after doing his laundry. Then, under further inspection, under the couch were more buttons and string. So what did he learn?
He learned that he has to face a consequence yet again and is no longer allowed in the basement. We learned that it is up to him to decide when enough is enough!
Editor’s Note: Children who exhibit signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder need a comprehensive psychiatric assessment and an individualized treatment plan. Because of that, if your child has either RAD or PTSD, we recommend that you work closely with a local counselor or therapist to coordinate your approach to challenging behaviors such as those Emmie has described here. Close and ongoing collaboration between your family and the treatment team will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.