Myth: Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is always caused by harsh or avoidant parenting.

Truth: Research shows that ODD has been *linked* with harsh or avoidant parenting, but the cause of ODD behaviour is much more complex.  Not only has ODD has been linked to neurological and genetic factors, but research also shows that children with ODD respond differently to the usual parenting tactics. In other words, it’s not just you.

Truth: Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Harsh or avoidant parenting can be a response to defiant behaviour

As parents, we are expected to shape our child’s behaviour. In reality, our children shape our behaviour every day.

As we go through the day, we look for what works, and we try to repeat our success. We look for those dead ends and danger signs, and try to avoid them. Usually, this strategy helps us to navigate through life smoothly.

When it comes to children with Oppositional Defiant behaviour, this strategy can backfire. Here’s how it works:rewards and punishments

Parent-child interactions: a two way street

As a parent, you have an effect on your child’s behaviour (that’s a given, right?) Let’s assume you’ve already heard all kinds of advice about how to use positive reinforcement, including when to dish out punishment and what behaviour to ignore. Of course, it’s hard to use these strategies perfectly, especially when your child is refusing, hiding, running away, spitting at you, or throwing things at your head (seriously.)

Other factors that can hurt your parenting

It’s also hard to be at your best as a parent if:

  • you have your own struggles with emotions or mental health
  • if you are depressed or you have attention deficit disorder
  • if you are on your own as a parent
  • if you are struggling with health or finances

Avoidant parenting and ODD

According to researchers, parents of children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are more likely to:

  • Pay less attention to their children
  • Avoid correcting inappropriate behaviour
  • Give less positive feedback to their children
  • Mix up positive and negative feedback

Most people assume that this kind of parenting behaviour is the CAUSE of ODD, but of course, it’s challenging to give positive feedback to children who are often grumpy, explosive and refusing to cooperate.

Beyond parent-blaming

Every family is different. As you can see from the list above, there may be stressful situations both INSIDE and OUTSIDE the home that are challenging your patience and parenting skills. You may be using parenting skills that are perfectly appropriate for a typical child, but your child’s brain differences may call for a new set of skills. Parenting a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder is extremely difficult, no matter what your situation.

rewards and punishments

Dealing with defiant behaviour: not the most rewarding process

Sometimes interacting with your child is a pure delight. That outrageous giggle. Those tender hugs. That special scent. It’s easy to do the things that feel good. Hugs, treats, cuddles and jokes… who wouldn’t want more of those? These are naturally occurring rewards that shape our behaviour as parents.

Of course, sometimes those interactions aren’t so much fun. When your child is yelling, complaining, destroying property… these are unpleasant experiences. It’s especially discouraging when you are trying to do your best as a parent (providing nutrition, encouragement, a reasonable bedtime, some clarification of the house rules) and you get explosive or hostile feedback from your children. These experiences can act as punishments, because they are not only unpleasant, but we are likely to avoid them whenever possible.

Because you are an adult with a mature brain, you absorb all those experiences, and you remember them. You use them to make decisions about what do to next. Sometimes these experiences are helpful, and sometimes they can lead you away from the right path.

Navigating around the barriers: how avoidant parenting develops

Parents, like everyone else, learn from experience. When you try out a new recipe for roasted cauliflower for dinner and your children roll their eyes and make dramatic barfing noises, you might not put cauliflower on the grocery list next week. When your child stays out late for a family event and wakes up with the social skills of a grizzly bear, you will probably keep a close eye on bedtime for the next few days. You are naturally good at avoiding bad things, because you remember what happened last time, and you think about what might happen next.

Unfortunately, this essential skill can lead you down the wrong path when it comes to oppositional defiant behaviour. When we try to do the right thing, we may meet with “punishment” in the short term. If we try to avoid the punishment, we may miss that parenting opportunity. Sometimes we make the wrong move, and our children accidentally “reward” that mistake. Unfortunately, when we experience a reward for a behaviour, it starts to happen more often, and avoidant or harsh patterns of behaviour can start to set in.

Taking a detour: why avoidant behaviour makes sense

Pretend for a moment that you are a car, and as you go through your day, you’re driving along a road. You are driving on your usual route to work, and there’s heavy construction. Huge trucks are backing up into traffic, and everyone is honking. Your heart is racing, and you feel trapped. What are you going to do tomorrow? Will you take this route again, or look for a side-street?

Your child’s oppositional defiant behaviour can set up barriers in your day, and it’s hard to know how to deal with them. When you have limited time and energy, when you are exhausted, when you are feeling financially or socially deprived, it’s very very tempting to just drive around these barriers. Sometimes you might not even want to get in the car at all.

Avoidant parenting in real life: Alex’s Mom Avoids a Crash

Alex is having trouble with his spelling homework. The work is boring and hard (he often has trouble with reading and writing at school), and he’s feeling frustrated, so he starts yelling “THIS IS F***ING TERRIBLE and I am NEVER DOING THIS AGAIN!” and throws his pencil on the floor. His mother sees that he is getting upset, and does her best to remain calm . “Sweetie, that’s enough homework for now. Do you want to have a snack instead?”

Alex’s mother would very much like to avoid any more yelling. Alex’s mother has tried to push through this situation before, and has also tried scolding him for yelling. Neither of these strategies seemed to help at all, so now she just tries to help him cool down as soon as possible. She has all the best intentions, and responds with love and empathy.

Avoidant parenting and oppositional behaviour: a destructive cycle

When Alex started yelling, his mother stopped the homework and offered a snack. Next time, Alex is frustrated and wants to escape a hard situation, the odds are pretty good that he could start yelling again, expecting that someone will offer him an escape. The yelling cued his mother to solve the problem.

This accidentally makes Mom’s life easier as well. When she offers the snack, Alex stops yelling, groaning in frustration and stomping his feet. The tension in the room eases up.

How to stop avoiding and start engaging

Alex is feeling frustrated, and maybe does actually need a break. Alex may have difficulty with language processing or focusing on repetitive tasks. He might also have trouble recognizing his body’s signs of stress until it’s too late. He doesn’t ask for help when he needs it.

Alex’s mom can help by working with Alex to find some calm-down or problem-solving strategies before his anger turns into a messy outburst.

For instance, she could ask: “Alex, what’s up? How are you feeling?” Alex’s mom could listen with empathy, and ask Alex to think of a solution (or help him choose from a list of options.) Alex does get some attention by complaining, but he also gets a chance to practice expressing his feelings and work on problem-solving. Best of all, he gets a break only after he has had a chat with mom, so Alex’s mom doesn’t have to worry about “rewarding” the wrong behaviour.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Collision course: harsh parenting and how it builds

Of course, not every barrier can be avoided. Imagine driving your car up to a red light, but when it turns green, you see that someone has started dragging traffic cones in the middle of the intersection. He’s not wearing a safety vest, and there’s no apparent reason for this delay. What is this clown doing? You pause, and look for a safe way around. You tap your horn and beep politely, but this person doesn’t even look up. You gently roll into the intersection, anxious to get through before the light turns red again. Finally, you blast the horn and roll down your window. The yelling and waving finally gets the attention of the intruder, and he hurriedly starts to clear the traffic cones out of the way.

There was no way to avoid the problem, and your courtesy and patience didn’t pay off at all. The only thing that worked was the loudest possible solution. You sigh with relief as you pull away, but four blocks later, there’s another weirdo in the street, doing the same thing! What do you do? You remember what happened last time you tried to be polite, and this time you’re already rolling your window down, ready to yell.

ODD disorder map for success

Taking a shortcut (when parents learn that harsh parenting “works”)

When you use gentle words and reminders with your child, but he simply ignores you or starts to argue, it’s tempting to crank up the volume. So many parents have fallen into this same dilemma: they’ve tried to be gentle, but the children only seem to respond when they go NUCLEAR. However, research shows that children are more likely to be diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant disorder when their parents use behaviour strategies that are avoidant, inconsistent or harsh. These harsh strategies may work in the short-term, but they can hurt your relationship with your child, or accidentally teach him that yelling, punishment and threatening work best.

Harsh responding in real life: Ella’s father drives right through

It’s bedtime. Ella’s father says “Ok, time to brush your teeth!” Ella laughs and runs around to the other side of the bed. “NO! I’m not doing it!” she insists. “Come on, Ella,” her father says, taking a few steps toward her. She shrieks with delight and jumps on the bed. She picks up her stuffed animals and starts to throw them around the room. “That’s enough, Ella. Come brush your teeth, okay?” he cajoles. A teddy bear bounces off her father’s head, and he has HAD ENOUGH. “ALRIGHT!” he growls. “If you can’t play properly with your toys, then they are going AWAY.” He grabs the nearest teddy and throws it into the hallway. Ella bursts into tears. Dad loudly complains: “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST BRUSH YOUR TEETH WHEN YOU ARE TOLD?” Ella continues to cry as she rushes past him to retrieve her teddy. Her father continues: “If you don’t brush your teeth right this minute, I’m taking ALL of these out to the curb.” Ella screams “FINE, YOU MEANIE!” and runs to the bathroom.

Ella’s father wants those teeth brushed, and doesn’t want to have a big debate about it. He tried to be gentle and and reasonable, but Ella ignored his kind requests. However, her behaviour quickly improved as soon as he started to use angry threats and a raised voice.

Why could this backfire?

Ella cooperated only after her father yelled and threatened. Ella’s father is less likely to try gentle reminders in the future, because they haven’t worked well in the past.

Unfortunately, Ella may follow her father’s example when it comes to problem-solving in the future, and she will probably use yelling or threats to get her own way. Also, she’s just had a screaming blowout with her father, she has quite a low opinion of him right now, and might not be really cooperative with him any time soon.

What should Ella’s father do instead?

Ella seems to have a hard time switching from one activity to another. She’s also very energetic, and doesn’t seem to notice her father’s increasing frustration.

Ella seems to be very motivated by fun at that moment. Her father’s request sound like the opposite of fun. If Ella’s father wants the best possible hope of cooperation, he could try observing Ella closely before he gives an instruction, and sharing her activity for a moment. This helps to make the transition easier, because Ella and her father will be more tuned into each other, and they can shift their attention together. If Ella’s father can think of a way to make teeth-brushing fun, that’s even better.

Mixed Signals

So, now you have seen how oppositional defiant behaviour and avoidant or harsh parent strategies seem to go hand in hand. Parents of children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder may be struggling with how to react to their child’s difficult behaviour, or they often have other stressful situations to deal with, so they do what seems to work best in the short term.

Because children with ODD don’t always respond to a gentle approach or regulate their behaviour well, parents or teachers may accidentally “reward” disruptive behaviour, and ignore or discourage appropriate behaviour. These patterns can persist for a while, even when parents start to respond with more positive reinforcement and less punishment.

Bascially, parents (like everyone else) learn from their environments, and they often do what “works” with the best of intentions.

brain differences ODD disorder

How to get help if you are trapped in harsh or avoidant parenting patterns

One of the most recommended treatments for Oppositional Defiant disorder is parent training. A good parent training program can bring a fresh perspective, and help to reset some of the unhelpful behaviour patterns that may have taken hold in your family. It can also help teach new strategies that work better for children who don’t react well to the usual reward and punishments in everyday life.

These strategies can help with both the unhealthy behaviour patterns, and even help support brain development. It’s actually possible to “unlearn” the disruptive patterns of behaviour, but it takes time, energy, consistency and a lot of creativity.

What happens in a session with a behaviour consultant?

When I work with families, we start by looking at strengths and values. What’s working? What do you care most about?

Next, we look at struggles. What are the hardest parts of the day? What usually happens afterwards? What’s going on in the moments before disaster strikes?

To get to the heart of the problem, we look at what could be causing the oppositional and defiant behaviour.

  • Is your child overwhelmed and reacting to stress?
  • Is your child missing key problem-solving skills?

We work on three different kinds of strategies:

  • “Green” strategies: when things are good, how do we make sure they stay that way?
  • “Yellow” strategies: when you can see a problem building, how do you nip it in the bud?
  • “Red” strategies: how do you keep everyone safe and get things back to normal when someone “loses it”?

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