Oppositional Defiant Disorder doesn’t exist, but children needing connection do
Complex families: I see you
To fellow parents who have struggled, I see you. My son is an intense kiddo. He’s twice exceptional: gifted and neurodivergent (confirmed ADHD and anxiety, possibly also Autistic). We’ve certainly had our share of power struggles and challenging behaviours.
Please know that when I say O.D.D. does not exist, I am not saying it’s the parents’ fault that parenting their child is incredibly challenging at times. Sometimes we do everything right and our child still has a meltdown. We can’t be perfect, and neither can they.
When I say O.D.D. is an unhelpful label, I in no way wish to minimize the heartbreak that families experience when their children have complex needs and behaviours. I’m one of those parents, and we’re one of those families.
What I am saying is that, while we can’t just pass it off as “bad parenting” (it’s not), we also can’t pass it off as something wrong with the child, because it’s not that either.
We can’t be perfect, and neither can they.
Some people are more intense than others, it’s a reality of life. My son and I are both very intense people. If I tried to change him into something he’s not, I’d likely make him feel bad about himself and cause all of us unnecessary stress.
Accepting that we’re both passionate people means I can take a more realistic view of our relationship, and of what will — and won’t — work for us when things get tough.
It also means I can embrace my son’s personality — his spirit, strength, and joy — and show him through both words and actions that I accept and love him for exactly who he is. I can delight in his passion, his strong sense of justice, and his fierce independence.
Accepting my son for who he is does not mean I accept every one of his choices or behaviours. Embracing reality does not magically make everything perfect, not by a long shot, but it certainly helps make things easier.
“The child is accepted, even if their behaviour is not.”
— Dr. Daniel Hughes
If you have an intense, strong-willed child like mine, I’ll share evidence-based information and strategies that can make your lives much easier.
Get on their side
If you find yourself butting heads with your child, regularly scolding, chastising, yelling, threatening, and punishing… I offer you this advice: slow your roll.
Take a breath. Take ten. Go for a walk, read a book, vent to a friend. When our relationships with our children aren’t where we would like it to be at least 80% of the time, the first thing we need to prioritize is self-care, so that we can keep our cool with our kids.
We’ll be more effective problem-solvers and much more skillful when dealing with tricky situations if we’re in a good place mentally and emotionally — easier said than done, I know, but this needs to be very high on our list of priorities if we want things to improve.
When we are calm, we have increased access to our logic and intellect, and will see our child for who they really are: a child. A kid who is struggling and needs to know the important adults in their life are on their side.
“Our children need to know that we take joy in them… they’ll cooperate when they believe we’re on their side.” — Dr. Laura Markham
When we team up with our child, rather than battling against them, we can looking for win/win solutions. Remember, parenting isn’t about being right or winning the argument, it’s about role-modelling and teaching the skills we want our children to take with them into adolescence and adulthood.
When we let go of this idea of having to “win” the argument, we can do a better job of picking our battles, and more easily find our way to compromise. When we engage collaboratively with our children, we are teaching them valuable problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills.
Cede control where possible
This doesn’t mean we let our children do whatever they want, but if we consider the ways in which children truly have control over their lives, we come to realize how few choices they really have.
When we give our children choices, this will make them feel less micro-managed and give them more autonomy, which allows them more mental and emotional room to cooperate when we really do need to enforce a limit.
Even when there are things our kids need to do, like brush their teeth and change their underwear, we can still give them as much independence as is developmentally appropriate.
When my son was a bit younger, we had a visual schedule with a picture card for each task he was to complete in the mornings before school. Instead of nagging and directing him where to go and what to do, I only had to ask him to check his list for what needed to be done next.
Now we use a checklist with Minecraft graphics and pictures to make it “cool” and interesting for him, but it serves the same purpose.
Retain your sense of humour
This can be really difficult at times, especially in the mornings when you’re going to be late for work, your child is going to be late for school, and you haven’t had nearly enough coffee to function like a real live human being (or is that just me?).
Well-timed humour can help lighten the mood and keep things from escalating.
I remember a camping trip my son and I took this past summer, just the two of us. We had arrived at our campsite and it was getting close to dinnertime. I was starving, but we had to get set up first so I could prepare our meal.
My son may also have been hungry, and was probably tired from the long drive. He’s a very experienced camper for his young age, and is usually extremely helpful when setting up and taking down camp.
Not so much on this day. He was being silly, asking me a lot of questions, and wanting to go explore. We hadn’t yet set any boundaries for his independent wandering and I did need an extra set of hands, so I asked him to wait (patience is most definitely not a strong suit in either of us).
My crankiness got the better of me and I snapped at him to just sit down and wait until I had finished setting up our tent and camp stove. A few (very short) minutes later, he was asking me to do something for him. I started to lecture him about sitting around while I was doing all the work, and he interjected.
“ — but mom, you told me to sit down and not move!”
Oh. Right. I did do that.
I started making fun of myself for giving conflicting orders, “stand up, sit down, why are you just sitting there?!” and we were able to laugh at my hunger-induced crankiness. I apologized, explained that I really needed to eat, and I would be in a much better mood once I could do that.
This lightened the mood and got us on the same page, after which my son was willing to help out so he could go explore and Mom could eat and stop being such a grump.
It’s even more effective if your foolishness includes some physical comedy, whether that be tickling (only if your child enjoys tickling, of course), running around, and generally acting silly. This can be helpful because laughter and physical movement help to release tension.
Keep in mind that if a child has tipped over from slightly uncooperative to being dysregulated, humour may be perceived as mocking and will not be well-received, hence the qualification “well-timed”.
Ask for a reset
If you find yourself snapping or yelling at your child, stop and apologize. Easier said than done, I know (trust me, I really do). In the heat of the moment it can be really hard to hit pause, but the more we practice it the easier it will become.
This role-models self-regulation for your child, as well as taking responsibility for our behaviour and making amends when we hurt someone. If you’re too upset and not able to do that just yet, call a “timeout” instead.
I don’t mean the traditional timeout where you send your child to their room (or in my case, our tent… which wasn’t even set up yet). I mean taking a breather, taking a moment to cool off before either of you do or say something you might later regret.
This can be physically removing yourself from the situation, or asking your child to table the conversation for a little bit, so you can come back to it when you’re both calm.
If you need to leave the room, it’s best if you explain to your child that you are going to take a moment to chill out, so they understand you’re not rejecting them or the feelings they’re trying to express.
If you are anything like me, or your child is anything like mine, it may be extremely difficult to drop the subject for a while if you’re still in the same room. My son and I both have a really hard time letting things go, but we’re working on it, and it’s my job to set the example.
It can help to give yourself a distraction, or to utilize a calming strategy to help your brain and body switch gears. This doesn’t mean avoiding talking about uncomfortable subjects, we do need to come back to it when we’re ready, it means being more effective by addressing the issue when everyone is calm.
Engage the rational brain
Both yours and your child’s.
This can be done by simply narrating what is happening from a neutral or objective standpoint — or as close as you can get, all things considered. In my scenario, I could have said something like:
“I get it, buddy. You’re so excited about getting to the campground and really want to go explore, but I am starving and need to get our campsite set up. I’m so hungry it’s making me grumpy and I’m not being very patient right now.”
If you and your child are going to disagree on the version of events, this may not be a helpful tact. However, naming and validating both your experiences and feelings may be very effective, and can help you both re-engage with your reasoning abilities.
Put the relationship first
Having a strong relationship will help your child trust your motives for having expectations or for setting a limit. When we have built a strong foundation of trust, children won’t always like our boundaries, but they’ll trust we have their best interests at heart.
When our children are not cooperating, that’s a sign that we need to reconnect first, before we can address any behavioural concerns.
Try to keep the big picture in mind. As our child gets older and more independent, we’re going to have less and less control over their lives anyway. It will become even more important to have a trusting relationship where your child (or teen) will come to you when they need you and know you will be there for them.
© Jillian Enright
Berceli, D., Salmon, M., Bonifas, R., & Ndefo, N. (2014). Effects of Self-induced Unclassified Therapeutic Tremors on Quality of Life Among Non-professional Caregivers: A Pilot Study. Global advances in health and medicine, 3(5), 45–48. https://doi.org/10.7453/gahmj.2014.032
Greene, Ross, W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.
Hughes, D., & Gurney-Smith, B. (2020). The Little Book of Attachment: Theory to practice in child mental health with dyadic developmental psychotherapy. W.W. North & Company.
Markham, L. (2012). Peaceful Parenting, Happy Kids: How to stop yelling and start connecting. Penguin Books Ltd.