“Oppositional Defiant Disorder” is an increasingly common diagnosis. But diagnosing it doesn’t actually give you much besides a name. Here are some ways to look deeper.

by Robin McEvoy

defiant kidNothing brings out our bad parenting mood like a defiant child.

For a diagnosis, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 goes with the formal title of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, used for the far end of the defiant spectrum. Simply put, this is the child who has knee jerk negative reactions to your every request:

  • “Get in the car. We are going to be late for school!” “IN A MINUTE, MOM!” (with eye roll…and no discernible movement)
  • “You need to pick up your toys in the den.” “Not NOW!!”
  • “Go get your dirty clothes. I am doing laundry.” “NO!!”
  • “Get in here right now!” (crickets chirping)
  • “You forgot to brush your teeth. Go brush them.” “YOU ARE ALWAYS BUGGING MEEEE!”

We are busy enough. We don’t have time for the no’s, the in a minute’s, the silent refusals, the constantly being ignored. It brings out our parental ogre. We feel it reflects badly on us as parents. And we take defiance very personally.

But maybe we shouldn’t.

Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, has said, “Children will do well if they can.” That is not just for the explosive child. It holds for the defiant child as well.

It is important to remember that ODD is diagnosed by checking off symptoms on a checklist. It doesn’t actually give us information about what’s going on to create those symptoms. It just gives us a name that describes a child’s behavior. This is no help, really, in helping us address this behavior.

In order to make shifts, we need to look under the surface of defiance and consider the reasons this behavior is occurring. Once we understand the reasons, then we can get to strategies that may work. There are many possibilities, including:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD). This child cannot control his attention. It controls him. He cannot put down the video game in order to get in the car. He just can’t because he does not know how to shift his attention to something important to someone else.
  • Medication side effects. For the child with asthma, allergies, or other issues for which he takes multiple prescribed meds (or even one), check the side effects. Agitation, irritability, anxiety and trouble sleeping are common. So your irritable, over-tired child becomes defiant.
  • Auditory processing problems. The child with auditory processing problems may not hear you in group situations where lots of people are talking. Or she may not register that you have called out to her from another room. Often, these kids will not realize you are talking to them until you literally get in their faces.
  • Sensory processing disorder. This one is exhausted after a long school day, followed by a scout meeting and errands on the way home. He is overstimulated and beyond being cooperative at this point.
  • Stress. Children with learning disabilities are under constant stress trying to cope with the day. Some kids are being bullied. Kids with autism spectrum disorder are constantly trying to figure out ever-shifting social expectations. Stress does not make any of us cope better. Once home, many feel safe refusing parents because, well, their parents will love them anyway.

And these are just a few of the issues that can contribute to defiance. Strategies to reduce defiance will vary depending on the challenge the child faces and the task being requested. For example:

  • The child with ADHD needs a regular routine (that is agreed upon beforehand) for tasks, as well as a parent who understands that this child does not control his attention well enough to transition easily.
  • The child who is anxious, irritable or did not sleep well due to her asthma meds may need fewer demands while alternative medications, dosing, or timing of doses are being explored.
  • The child with auditory processing problems will need directions given face-to-face in a calm voice to ensure good processing. This may add one more step to a busy day, but it beats yelling in frustration and creating low self-esteem.
  • The child with sensory processing disorder may need chores or tasks to be done in the morning when they are fresh, or after some sensory exercises. A calm, not overly busy, after-school schedule may also help.

The child under stress due to spending the day at school battling through with a learning disability may need a break from demands and a more carefully arranged set of demands.

If you are under stress or the family is under stress, that is a trigger for some children to become defiant. Its an emotional response to the strong feelings that may make them anxious.

Try to meet your child where he or she is, after finding out what the full picture is.

Of course, there is some defiance that is in a league of its own. Kids with a history of trauma (adopted after abandonment, for example) are capable of bringing a level of defiance that will simply need professional support. They want desperately to be loved, but may not think they are worthy of it or may want to find the limits of the love being given.

As we all know, the defiant teenager can be legendary. It is an age of striving for independence. Many teens think they cannot be grown up without resisting the parenting they are given. If you add ADHD, learning disability, stress, depression, or anxiety on top of a normal level of defiance, a parent may again benefit from some professional help to navigate those years.

So, lets re-define defiance. It is not bad parenting or a bad kid. It is a child trying to cope, but doing so in the wrong way. What can we change to make it easier for them (and us) and how can we help this child eventually meet the usual expectations?

There can be many reasons simmering under the surface. Child Decoded is here to help you find them and support your child in being his best.