“Is this normal?”
“Does this have anything to do with my child’s ADHD?”
“Am I screwing up this parenting thing?”
“Is it too late to have a better relationship with my child?”
When my son’s behavioural difficulties started costing him friends and putting extra pressure on our family, I googled it, just like any other parent would.
I saw that when children don’t respond to the usual set of disciplinary tactics, they are often given a diagnosis of “Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” I recognized the description: “irritable,” “headstrong,” “argumentative,” and even “vindictive.” However, the more I read, the less I understood. After all, the recommended treatment for Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) was “parent training” but I’d always been the professional at the front of the room *giving* the training about how to be consistent and get cooperation, not the one in need of support.
What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my kid?
I kept reading, and saw that ODD is also associated with environmental toxins, brain injury and parental substance abuse. So, did this mean there something physically affecting my child? Would he ever be able to get along with his peers and cope with difficult situations? Would we ever find out where his struggles were coming from? In other words: was there hope?
A comprehensive guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder
One day, an email arrived from a publishing company, asking if I’d like to submit a book proposal on the topic of ODD. After I finished dancing a jig, and then re-reading the email several more times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I spent the rest of the day dreaming of what I would write if I were given a whole book to fill!
The Parents’ Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder: Your Questions Answered
As I wrote this book, I had the opportunity to dig deeper into the research, and explore new angles. I combed through papers on genetic heritability, theories of emotional self-regulation, and physiological processes. I read research written by doctors, psychologists, social workers, neurologists and behaviour therapists.
As I researched, I realized that children diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are a complicated bunch, but their biggest struggles could be understood in five different ways. Each of these different perspectives could be helpful in solving different problems, and finding the treatments that actually addressed those problems.
1) Addressing challenging behaviour from the inside out
First of all, I wrote about the experience of being the parent of a child who is extra-sensitive, extra-expressive, extra-opinionated, or just extra. I was learning that my attitudes and coping skills were a key part of my child’s success, so I researched the way parental emotional self-regulation can affect a child’s behaviour, and wrote about how to support it.
2) Your child’s emotional self-regulation
In many cases, children diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder performed like other children when tested on cognitive abilities and academic achievement. However, a “short fuse” and lack of patience or flexibility can present barriers to meeting the child’s full potential.
In these cases, a well-defined system of rewards and punishments is unlikely to be effective because the child’s responses are “in the heat of the moment.” Fortunately, a positive relationship and careful coaching can help a child to build emotional self-regulation and practice self-control. I searched for the most up-to-date and evidence-based methods for improving emotional self-regulation.
3) Communicating boundaries and expectations
Children and parents are bound to disagree sometimes about what can be reasonably expected of one another, but in some families, these disagreements regularly escalate into blazing arguments or they collapse into sullen stand-offs. When communication breaks down, each side may try to gain an advantage through pressure tactics, intimidation and threats. Parents in this dilemma start to feel like prison guards, then the balance of power shifts and they feel like hostages. It’s possible to recover from this cycle (sometimes called the cycle of coercion) and rebuild a positive, supportive relationship, but it’s not easy.
If your child’s big emotional reactions are undermining your efforts to set firm limits, it’s important to think about how you are communicating, and to look for ways to take as much stress, surprise and confusion out of the situation. However, there are other factors that could also be sabotaging your ability to guide your child through daily routines, so make sure to consider all the angles before you settle on simply “getting tough.”
4) Building your child’s executive functioning skills
When it comes to family relationships, there are always plenty of moments each day where problem-solving will come in handy. For children who struggle with planning, flexibility, memory, and other executive functioning skills, the problem-solving process can be a fragile one. Struggles in this area can put stress on a child’s emotional coping skills, so you might notice your child getting fearful, aggressive, or avoidant before a big family event, or snapping irritably as you are trying to leave the house. So, it might sound like your child is “having trouble listening” or being “disrespectful” when actually, he or she is overwhelmed by the demands of the situation and needs help to take things one step at a time.
In these cases, incentives and warnings will not be as helpful as a system that helps your child manage the “brain strain,” such as a visual schedule (in addition to some extra support with emotional self-regulation.) As you can see, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions!
5) Understanding your child’s values and motivation
Oppositional Defiant Disorder is rarely diagnosed in adults, and I have a pet theory about why that might be (bear with me.) The simplest explanation seems to be this: as we grow older, we are given more freedom. We have fewer rigid expectations to “oppose” or “defy.” We can find our place in the world, and be with people who appreciate our particular styles of self-expression. We don’t always become more cooperative or less argumentative as we age, but the expectations on us definitely change.
In other words, our environments can be nurturing or restrictive. Sometimes our classrooms and living rooms are places where we are comfortable and at ease, and sometimes we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. When we understand a child’s values and strengths, we can harness the strength of their intrinsic motivation. We can adapt to their pace, and try to find family goals that everyone can get behind.
Challenging the stereotypes of Oppositional Defiant Disorder
In writing this book, I hope to challenge the dangerous assumptions that have grown up around the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, so parents and teachers can see the child underneath the label and cultivate their considerable strengths. I’m also hoping I can speak to the hearts of discouraged parents, and let them know they are not alone.
If you’d like a copy of The Parents’ Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder, you can purchase one online at Amazon in paperback or on Kindle, or you can support other companies (such as Barnes and Noble) or check with your local bookstore, who will have the title in their catalog and can even order copies for your whole book club or parent group.
Thanks so much for your support, and when you’ve read the book, please leave a review so that other parents and teachers can find help!