Stop Calling Children “Defiant”

Jillian Enright

Stop Calling Children “Defiant”

It’s a harmful, inaccurate label that often stigmatizes developmentally and situationally appropriate behaviour

“Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told. Obedience is doing what is told regardless of what is right.” — H.L. Mencken

I’m oppositional. If you tell me to do something, I will likely do the exact opposite, just because I can. And if you tell me I can’t do something, I will do everything in my power to prove you wrong.

I’m stubborn AF.

This can be both a blessing and a curse, I am driven and passionate, but as a child it was mostly a curse. I was labelled “defiant” and told I had an “attitude problem” — yeah, so what?

Except I wasn’t and I didn’t. Or, I did, but that wasn’t the whole picture.

What I actually had was trauma, anxiety, academic boredom, poor social skills, and undiagnosed ADHD.

I was bullied while teachers and other adults stood idly by, then those very same teachers turned around and lectured me about my attitude, knowing full well they had done absolutely nothing to intervene.

Why would any child trust an adult who allows children to be mistreated under their supervision? Why do some adults expect unquestioning obedience from children to whom they are either essentially strangers, or worse, a malevolent authority figure?

In any relationship it takes effort to establish rapport and build trust, especially in those with a power imbalance, such as that in any adult-child relationship.

Ending the Cycle

Fast forward a couple of decades, and my son was being met with the same ill-informed, child-blaming labels.

He was so bored. Despite his school having a full, in-depth psycho-educational assessment completed by their own school psychologist, they had not provided him with any academic acceleration.

He was anxious. He was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety at age 6. He had difficulty self-regulating, was painfully aware of his differences, and incredibly self-conscious about them.

When the frustration, boredom, and anxiety led to acting out, the school was quick to blame and shame him, and henceforth all behaviour was viewed through a lens of him being a “difficult and defiant” child.

He is incredibly smart, observant, and intuitive: he can read your micro-expressions like a book. When the adults were looking down at him with their negative assumptions, he knew exactly what was going on, he just didn’t have the words to express it.

I mean, who assumes that a 6 year old little boy is vindictive, manipulative, and violent? Apparently some school administrators and teachers do. Anyone who understands child development knows how ridiculous that is.

In fact, just giving a kid the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing the best they can with the skills they have at that time goes a very long way. You don’t need training in child development to show some compassion.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Also known as stressed out kid lacking coping skills.

My son was not diagnosed with ODD, but he was certainly labelled as “defiant”. One teacher even went so far as to call him “belligerent”. Have I mentioned he was only 6?

If these are the expectations adults have of a child — that they will be belligerent and disobedient — then the kid has no chance. They’ve lost before they’ve even had a chance to play because any time they try to stand up for something they believe in, or question authority, they’re already wearing a label that reads defiant.

If you had recently started a job in a new workplace and found out your boss had made a number of very negative assumptions about you, how excited would you be to work there? How successful do you think that working relationship would be when you weren’t even given a fair chance to show what you were capable of?

For every kid who is slapped with the label “Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” hundreds suffer from what one educator has mischievously called Compliance Acquiescent Disorder. (Kohn, 2016).

“The symptoms of Compliance Acquiescent Disorder (CAD) include: defers to authority, actively obeys rules, fails to argue back, knuckles under instead of mobilizing others in support, and stays restrained when outrage is warranted.” – Norm Diamond

Conflation and Confusion

When children have underlying stress, anxiety, or trauma, they should not be diagnosed with O.D.D. until and unless those underlying conditions are first successfully managed.

In addition, it has been shown that when ADHD is treated in children who are thought to have both ODD and ADHD, their ODD symptoms improve significantly (Turgay, 2009). Before labelling a child with ODD, clinicians should take great care to first address any other conditions that may contribute to those symptoms.

People with ADHD often have increased sensitivity to perceived injustice. If you feel very strongly that something is extremely unfair, don’t you take a stand and rail against the injustice? Shouldn’t that be considered a positive trait, provided we learn to pick our battles?

Speaking of which, if children are being labelled as “defiant”, that means there are adults who are choosing to engage in arguments with those children.

“You can’t have two people pushing against each other if one of them doesn’t participate! You can’t have a power struggle with only one person engaged.” — Susan Stiffelman

Does it still make a sound?

Finally, O.D.D. is the only disorder that requires another person to be in the room in order for symptoms to exist.

For example, I have ADHD and anxiety. I have been by myself all day, working from home while my son is at summer camp, but I’ve still experienced ADHD and anxiety symptoms all by myself. I don’t need to interact with anyone else in order for symptoms to be present.

Meanwhile, if a child labelled as oppositional and defiant is alone, they essentially cannot exhibit any of the “symptoms” listed in the DSM-V.

Although, I guess I do argue with myself a lot… does that count?

Instead of “defiant”, try these adjectives:

  • Stressed
  • Overwhelmed
  • Anxious
  • Frustrated
  • Confused
  • Missing needed skills
  • Critical thinker

The DSM-V criteria for O.D.D.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

A pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or vindictiveness lasting at least 6 months as evidenced by at least four symptoms of the following categories, and exhibited during interaction with at least one individual who is not a sibling (DSM-V, 2013).

Angry/Irritable Mood

1. Often loses temper.

2. Is often touchy or easily annoyed.

3. Is often angry and resentful.

Argumentative/Defiant Behavior

4. Often argues with authority figures or, for children and adolescents, with adults.

5. Often actively defies or refuses to comply with requests from authority figures or with rules.

6. Often deliberately annoys others.

7. Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior.

Vindictiveness

8. Has been spiteful or vindictive at least twice within the past 6 months.

(American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Wow.

If you’re someone about to work with this child and are given these descriptors, how likely are you to give them the benefit of the doubt?

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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Up next: In my next piece, I will unpack the DSM-5 Criteria for O.D.D., and dig deeper into why a lot of these “symptoms” are so problematic.

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References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

Barkley, R. A. (Ed.). (2015). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: A handbook for diagnosis and treatment (4th ed.). The Guilford Press.

Cornacchio, D., Crum, K., Coxe, S., Pincus, D., Comer, J. (2016). Irritability and Severity of Anxious Symptomatology Among Youth With Anxiety Disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 55(1), 54–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2015.10.007

Greene, R. W. (2014). The explosive child: a new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children.Revised and updated. Harper.

Kil, H., Aitken, M., Henry, S. et al. (2021). Transdiagnostic Associations Among Parental Causal Locus Attributions, Child Behavior and Psychosocial Treatment Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 24, 267–293. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-020-00341-1

Kohn, Alfie. (2016). The myth of the spoiled child: coddled kids, helicopter parents, and other phony crises. Beacon Press.

Kohn, Alfie. (2005). Unconditional parenting: moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. Atria.

Luvmour, Josette. (2017). Grow together: parenting as a path to well-being, wisdom, and joy. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Stiffelman, Susan. (2013). Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids

While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. Simon & Schuster.

Stoddard, J., Stringaris, A., Brotman, M.A., Montville, D., Pine, D.S. and Leibenluft, E. (2014). Irritability in Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders. Depression & Anxiety, 31: 566–573. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22151

Turgay, A. (2009). Psychopharmacological Treatment of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. CNS Drugs 23, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.2165/0023210-200923010-00001

Webb, J., Amend, E., Webb, N. (2016). Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Asperger’s, Depression, and Other Disorders. Great Potential Press.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of ADHD 2e MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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