The Challenge of Parenting an ODD Child

Posted July 19, 2012 by

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When my son was young, I got frustrated easily with my son’s acting out behavior. I tended to react, yell, lose my temper and dole out ineffective (too harsh or too soft) consequences in the moment. We couldn’t understand where his explosive temper, rages and tantrums were coming from, and it was extremely difficult as a parent to know how to handle his behavior. Basically, I did the exact opposite of what James Lehman would consider “effective parenting” In The Total Transformation program or Kim Abraham & Marney Studaker-Cordber would advise for a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder in their ODD Lifeline program.  Of course, it didn’t work. Nothing worked. I would ask him to do something and he would explode, throw things, scream and refuse to do it by age 3. Being a calm parent with him was not even a realistic prospect.

I found myself struggling with what to do when I needed to set limits or discipline my son. Whatever I tried would result in tears, rage, throwing himself on the floor and non-compliance. Seeing that kind of rage in my child was frightening and exasperating. Over the years we tested him for everything from ADHD to food allergies.  We saw many different professionals, both medical and alternative, and also looked into traditional counseling in our quest to find out what was underneath our son’s behavior.

Eventually my son was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder.  We found a great counselor to work with him who helped to educate me on better ways to parent. At first, everything felt foreign. Instead of taking away his Game boy for 2 weeks, I was supposed to take it away for 2 or 3 days. He loved it, I felt defeated.  But it worked! I finally realized that short term consequences, the same thing James Lehman recommends, worked better, but incentives really motivated him. For example, I couldn’t get him to read books over the summer, even though he was an excellent reader.  After understanding the power of incentives, I made a list with him.  For every book he read he would get a small reward such as a squirt gun fight or get to choose dessert.  After five books, I would take him fishing. It worked.

The most difficult thing for someone outside the family to grasp was that he was not the sum total of defects or bad behavior. He was also loving, kind, generous and affectionate. We were very close, and connected creatively, athletically and verbally. Kids with ODD have an amazing ability to manipulate, negotiate and skew the facts.  But at the same time, they can be very compassionate, honest and sincere. The difficulty is figuring out which side of the coin is active, because that determines our course of action.  Once I understood this paradox of his behavior and realized I was not crazy, I was able to start parenting with tools that actually provided results.


Holly Fields has worked with children with emotional and physical disabilities for more than 15 years in the home, at school, and in rehabilitation settings, as well as therapeutic riding programs. She was with Legacy Publishing Company as a 1-on-1 Coach for two years. Holly has a Masters Degree in Special Education. She has two adult children, two rescue dogs and one cat.

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