Does My Child have Oppositional Defiant Disorder?
Studies suggest that as high as sixteen percent of U.S. school children have Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Just the mention of the condition often sends parents scrambling for an oppositional defiant disorder test. Unfortunately, there is no litmus test for this incredibly frustrating and worrisome condition. There are simply a list of symptoms, thousands of worried parents, frustrated teachers and angry children. You may want to get your child screened by an expert if she demonstrates four or more of the following behaviors. Does your child:
- frequently argue with people in a position of authority?
- lose his temper often?
- openly defy rules and refuse to cooperate with adults’ requests?
- deliberately seek to provoke others?
- blame others for their misbehavior and errors?
- easily irritated by other people’s innocent behavior?
- consistently resentful and angry?
- do things out of spite and regularly seek revenge?
If four or more of these behaviors definitely apply to your child, and these problems have been consistent for a while, you have a challenging problem on your hands. It does not matter if an expert validates your concerns with a diagnosis or not. Obviously, you’d like these behaviors to stop.
Replacing the Behaviors Associated with O.D.D.
Oppositional Defiance Disorder evolves as a cluster of dysfunctional coping strategies for a child who is dealing with an unreasonable set of circumstances. This child is either struggling with a condition which makes normal interactions difficult for him, or he’s dealt with dysfunctional caregivers for a significant part of his development. Either way, what you have here is an angry kid with a set of really bad habits. Help him replace these bad habits with good ones, and he will become much happier.
The strategies that can affect this change fall into three general categories: modeling, authoritative parenting and behavior modification. Let’s examine each in turn.
Look hard at the eight behaviors on the O.D.D. test/list. This can not be you – not even a little bit. You need to show this child how to act, react and interact in the very most positive and productive manner. From this moment forward the adults in this child’s life must obey the speed limit, come to full stops at intersections, wave and smile when fellow drivers honk and generally behave in a cheerful, law-abiding manner. Profanity needs to cease entirely. Resentful, angry, backbiting conversations are verboten.
Adults in this child’s life must learn to apologize for their every error, no matter how slight. This means that every burp is followed by an “excuse me.” A forgotten loaf of bread on the way home from work should be followed by an apology, cheerfully accepted by the spouse. Annoying neighbors and offending work supervisors should be spoken of only in sympathetic tones.
Each adult must take opportunities to include the child in kind deeds. The deeds should be small, but genuine, like bringing home a small treat for the family from the grocery store, letting someone sleep in on Saturday, or taking care of a minor task for a neighbor. Better still is if the child can be involved in community service with his family, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen.
If there is an adult who can not or will not be a good role model, sharply limit or completely curtail the child’s exposure to this person. Allow the child to experience how much better life is when cheerful, cooperative, caring behaviors are typical. Do not ever allow a “teachable moment” to go to waste. Never lecture, always demonstrate.
There are four well-defined parenting styles: uninvolved, permissive, authoritative and authoritarian. Only one of them, the least recognized, has consistently positive outcomes. For this reason I will focus on authoritative parenting and ignore the others.
Authoritative parents are consistent in their standards. Modeling desired behaviors is part of authoritative parenting. If self-control, kindness, cooperativeness, cheerfulness and personal responsibility are expected of the child, reason demands that these things are also expected of the parents.
Authoritative parents have clear rules and high expectations for their children. Authoritative parents explain their expectations and rules so that children understand the reasons behind them. Authoritative parents also have reasonable consequences for failure to follow their rules and meet their expectations. Consequences are not to be confused with punishments! A consequence is generally agreed upon in advance, or at least not unexpected. Consequences “fit the crime.” Apologies for harming others and efforts to restore broken items or trust often feature prominently.
Authoritative parents listen to their children and take extenuating circumstances into account when administering discipline. They take into account their child’s feelings, opinions and maturity level. Children of authoritative parents are encouraged to express their feelings and opinions, even when they and their parents disagree.
While it may not initially be clear how authoritative parenting will help resolve the behaviors associated with oppositional defiant disorder, I encourage you to try this style of parenting anyway. Anger is a big problem with children who display the O.D.D. characteristics, and authoritative parenting techniques tend to reduce resentment over the long haul. It is highly likely that many if not all of the habits of an authoritative parent resonate with you. They seem reasonable, but perhaps you’ve never seen this parenting style defined and validated. Yes, it’s real; yes, it’s backed by scientific research; and yes, it’s a great choice which countless parents have made and never regretted.
Now that I’m fifty-four, I’m sometimes referred to (fondly, I like to imagine) as a “sneaky old person.” I can live with that. I smile, wink and say, “Never trust anyone over the age of thirteen!” It is perfectly legit to use psychological ju-jitsu to transform your child into a reasonable human being. Anything’s fair in love and war. The battle against O.D.D. is both. Behavior modification is a broad field. I’m going to focus on the three concepts that are most directly applicable to improving the symptoms of O.D.D. They are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and extinction.
Behavior Modification/Positive Reinforcement
Everybody’s heard of positive reinforcement. That’s where the kid performs a desired behavior, and you reward ’em – right? This is why elementary school teachers issue stickers and endless praise. It’s a well-accepted practice, and it can work pretty well with most kids. If you tweak your application of positive reinforcement, the results will seem magical. The key to making positive reinforcement work much, much better is to apply it in a more scientifically effective manner. Use positive reinforcement at inconsistent intervals, fairly frequently at first and less frequency as a new, better habit takes hold.
For example, let’s say it’s your kid’s job to take out the trash every morning on his way to the school bus. The first morning you remind him to do it and thank him immediately, explaining how much easier your morning is when he does the task. The second day he forgets, and you say nothing, but you don’t take out the trash either. The third day he remembers, and you thank him much later in the day, in front of the whole family. You heap on the praise. The following week he remembers more than half the time. When he asks permission to do something reasonable, you say yes. Immediately explain that due to his taking out the trash on an almost consistent basis, you think he’s demonstrated a growing degree of responsibility. Don’t pay him a “wage” in stickers or praise for every good act.
Notice, appreciate and reward on a seemingly casual, irregular basis. In this manner the positive reinforcement becomes a pleasant surprise rather than an entitlement. The reasons why this tactic makes positive reinforcement more effective are complicated and not entirely understood. Nonetheless, according to extensive scientific research, less frequent, irregularly applied positive reinforcement works far better than the more popular consistent reward model.
Behavior Modification/Negative Reinforcement
Most people have the idea that negative reinforcement is punishment for a misbehavior. It’s not. Negative reinforcement is rewarding a desired behavior by removing something the child does not like. I have personally found that the negative reinforcement the child most ardently desires is the reduction of conflict in his relationships. (I can hear you screaming right now, “What? Are you out of your mind, You Old Bat? This kid craves conflict; this kid creates conflict; this kid IS conflict!”) I feel you, My Friend! Hear me out.
Recall that one of the characteristics of O.D.D. is that the child persistently blames others for his misbehavior. Further, notice that he seeks revenge and is easily irritated by innocent acts performed by others. Observers consistently point to these traits as evidence that children with O.D.D. are unreasonable. That’s not true! If we pause and take time to examine the inner life of a child with O.D.D, we see that the child genuinely believes that he is under constant attack from the people around him. In short, the best negative reinforcement you can provide is to reduce reminders (which the child experiences as nagging), and reduce close scrutiny of their performance of tasks (which the child experiences as contempt). Obviously, you’re only going to use these reductions in overt supervision if the child has earned them.
Other instances of negative reinforcement, such as reducing the period of time the child remains on restriction, may seem indistinguishable from positive reinforcement. It’s not always important to mark the difference between the two terms. Just remember that there may be negative reinforcement options applicable to your situation as well as positive. Sometimes these are easier or make more sense.
Chances are you are already doing this! Every day you say to yourself, “I am not gonna let this kid get on my nerves today. It only makes things ten times worse!” You’re right, of course. He’s trying to get on your nerves. He’s trying to punish you for what he considers to be your relentless attacks. One of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal is extinction.
Extinction, in the context of behavior modification, is removing everything that reinforces the undesired behavior. In the real world it is almost always impossible to remove everything that reinforces the O.D.D. child’s efforts at provoking others and taking revenge. What you can do is appear not to notice these behaviors.
You don’t have to get irritated when you ask the child to do something and he doesn’t leap to obey. You can ignore it. He may comply slowly, particularly if it becomes inconvenient for him to remain stock still, waiting for you to get upset! You don’t have to notice that in retaliation for being asked to clear the dinner table he’s tossed all the silverware in the trash. You can unobtrusively collect the silverware later and dine without utensils for a while. You don’t have to notice he doesn’t get in the car for a shopping expedition, particularly if he’s over the age of 12 or so. You can return from your shopping trip, licking the ice cream cone you acquired on the way home, apparently unconcerned. I could go on, but you get the point.
You can refuse to engage in many battles, although obviously not all. You can avoid situations where the child’s O.D.D. behaviors are likely to kick in, at least while you’re working on replacing those unfortunate habits with better choices. Each hour that passes in which the child does not perform one of the eight undesired behaviors is a step closer to eliminating the problem.
Tying it All Together
Whether your child actually has Oppositional Defiant disorder or just displaying some of the symptoms as a consequence of stress, it’s a difficult situation. The good news is that your family can emerge from this crisis stronger and better prepared for whatever comes next. Try Modeling, Authoritative Parenting and Behavior Modification. They’re powerful tools.
In closing, I’d like to share with you a personal perspective. I have had the privilege of working with many children. The most troubled kids were as wonderful and rewarding to teach as the most academically gifted and charming. When I was a teen I sang in a choir for a few years. (I was enthusiastic but without talent. It was no loss to anyone when I was replaced.) We often sang a song you’ve probably heard performed by The Carpenters, Bless the Beasts and the Children. I loved that song and the line, “Bless the Beasts an the children, for in this world they have no choice, they have no voice.” Oppositional defiant disorder is definitely NOT a choice. Whatever the causes, you can be sure that they child does not deserve this suffering. You can correct many of the bad habits which are considered symptoms of O.D.D. You can give the child a safe, loving environment and help him learn to make better choices. Even if the condition is never entirely cured, you can help the child grow into a self-aware adult who understands how to manage his own impulses appropriately. There is no doubt in my mind that these goals are worth your very best effort.