What’s driving my child’s oppositional defiant behaviour?

Why can’t he just stop when I ask him?

Why won’t she listen when I say no?

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

What makes a child with ODD and ADHD go (and stop)? 

More articles in this series: 

    Where does it start? ODD from the very beginning

    Sometimes children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder do have noticeable differences in their brain structures and patterns of behaviour very early on. These differences can often be traced back through the branches of the family tree as well. If your family tree includes people with a history of depression, ADHD, or substance abuse, it’s more likely that your child will be diagnosed with ODD.

    Growing up: the highly sensitive child

    A baby who is hard to soothe and who expresses her needs with surprising intensity (some would call her “fussy” and “irritable”) can grow into a toddler who cries and gets upset easily (these children are sometimes labelled “sensitive” or “emotional.”)  Emotional self-regulation does get better over time for every child, but for children with ODD, this improvement seems to happen more slowly.

    This emotional up-and-down doesn’t only apply to angry emotions. Children with ODD are often diagnosed with depression and anxiety as well. Some families find that their child’s angry and defiant behaviour is a mask for sadness and fearfulness, which cannot simply be dealt with as a “behaviour issue.”

    Tracing these patterns back to the beginning can help to explain why Oppositional Defiant behaviour is about more than just parenting strategies. Not every child who seems angry and disobedient is just “lacking discipline at home.” (Side note: please tweet and share this article so more parents and teachers can understand this important point.)

    Ready, set, go…. and still going: Hyperactivity and Oppositional Defiant Disorder

    “What an active child!” What parent of a child with oppositional defiant disorder hasn’t heard this polite little phrase? Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (especially hyperactive or combined-type) are up to 11 times more likely to be diagnosed with ODD.

    Here’s how your child’s basic temperament and hyperactivity works together to create behaviour challenges….

    Understanding differences: The gas pedal

    Do you remember when your toddler was young, and every long hallway was an irresistible runway (with an amazing acoustical set-up for yelling)? Do you remember how you felt walking into a large space like a mall or a banquet hall, wondering how you were going to keep your child from turning it into the Indy 500 race? Even as children with ODD get older, they seem to hang onto that boisterous enthusiasm (and get even LOUDER!)

    Do you ever listen to your child wander into the kitchen to ask for a bowl of ice cream right before dinner, and wonder where your child finds the energy to ask for that ice cream fifty times in a row even though the answer is just NO and it has always been NO? Do you find yourself feeling exhausted just watching your child during “rest” time, wriggling under the blanket, asking dozens of questions, or hanging upside down off the mattress?


    Children with Oppositional Defiance Disorder are sometimes described as “impulsive” and many parents are amazed at how their child seems to “go from zero to one hundred in a second, out of nowhere!” This sudden intensity can be understood as an overactive gas pedal. With just a little nudge, her engines are roaring and she’s zooming down the road.

    When your child’s motivation is high, his speed is blazing and his power is unstoppable. He sees his goal and he is roaring toward it. All this energy and motivation comes naturally to your child, and it’s wonderful when it’s headed in the right direction.

    Understanding differences: The brake pedal

    So, your child is blazing down the highway at incredible speeds, but wait, what did that sign say? Is that something in the road ahead? Are we going the right way? What’s the speed limit here?

    Slow down! Stop! Woah there!

    How many times a day do you ask your child to be careful, wait, stop, hang on, just think, just listen…?

    Why is it so hard? Why don’t they slow down? Why don’t they listen?

    Why can’t they just apply the brakes? Well, children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are different. In order to make that turn, to stop and look, or avoid that collision, they need brakes that work, and sometimes those brakes fail. Children with ODD often struggle with impulse control (also known as inhibition.) This deficit is measurable and shows up in many other areas of life (not simply when mom or dad is asking her to do something she doesn’t want to do.)

    Have you ever watched a child struggle with the zipper on her winter coat, and before you can finish the sentence “Honey do you need some…” she’s already started to scream in frustration, thrown her mitts down the stairs and kicked you in the shins? Do you ever wonder if you’ll ever be able to see a puzzle or block tower completed because the pieces keep flying across the room?

    Have you ever watched your child run ahead of you as you haul groceries or push a stroller, ignoring your shouts until he starts to get closer and closer to traffic, and your shouts turn to screams? Have you ever felt your heart start to pound with frustration as you ask your child to please please PLEASE stop kicking the seat in front of you on the bus, to PLEASE stop banging your spoon on the table, to PLEASE PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF PETE, STOP JUST STAAAAAHHPPP.

    Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder need extra help to successfully stop, slow down, or change direction. The ability to stop requires the help of several parts of the brain, and these parts might work differently in children with Opposition Defiant Disorder. Scientists have started to pinpoint and measure the brain activity that affects impulse control but as a parent or teacher, all you need to remember is: the brakes don’t always work well.

    Using the gas and brakes in everyday life

    Here are some everyday situations where it can be helpful to know that your child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder is struggling to stop, slow down, change lanes, and make that turn.


    timer independent play amelia behaviorStuck in traffic: it’s so hard to wait

    Waiting and taking turns can be really challenging for children with oppositional defiant disorder. You might notice your child rushing to be first, cutting in line, refusing to wait for her turn, interrupting, or actually pushing others out of the way.

    Sharp turns: struggling to make transitions

    Changing from one activity to another means putting on the brakes, and heading in a new direction. When you ask your child to stop doing something fun (especially when it involves a screen!) you are probably hearing “No!” or getting no response at all. Your child’s foot is still firmly on the gas pedal. When there are lots of different steps to navigate, like when your family is getting ready for school in the morning, you may see your child getting side-tracked by distractions.

    Stop signs: don’t stop me now…

    Saying “No” to a super-motivated child can feel like a crash into a brick wall (and in this scenario, you are the wall.) When your child’s foot is on the gas pedal, it’s really hard for them to actually accept the word “no” and just stop. You may see your child having big emotional reactions to the word “no” or simply ignoring it altogether.

    What does this mean for parents?

    Understanding behaviour from a different point of view

    The mental picture of the gas and the brakes can be a really helpful way of understanding behaviour, because it’s nothing to take personally.

    When a child ignores you or refuses to cooperate with you, you might feel offended and hurt. You might see the lack of cooperation as a sign of a broken parent-child relationship or a problem with your child’s character.

    • “Why doesn’t she respect me?”
    • “How did I raise such a rude little person?”
    • “Why is she being so stubborn?”
    • “How dare he ignore me?”
    • “Why doesn’t my authority as a parent seem to matter around here?”

    Dr. Ross Greene often says “your child is not giving you a hard time, he is having a hard time.” Your child’s brain differences are part of why she doesn’t respond the way other children do. What seems easy to you might be very difficult for your child. The next time your child is racing down the road far too quickly, refusing to change directions, or crashing into everyone around him, just remember the gas and the brakes, and stay tuned to this blog series for ideas on helping your child become a better driver.

    ODD disorder map for success