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I oppose and defy Oppositional Defiant Disorder

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My heart flickers every time a kiddo is described as having oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Asking questions often is a trait of curiosity; challenging authority is usually an aspect of empowered self-determination.

Although I am more interested in neurodiversity and needs than psychological diagnoses, I appreciate Dr. James Webb’s book Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults. While discussing ODD as an anger diagnosis, he describes the child as the identified patient working with institutions or families that may be rigid. He guides adults to practice empathy and consider what the child is advocating for and whom they might admire. Without that empathy and consideration, it makes sense that a kid would be angry.

This diagnosis in particular, however, pushes my sensitivities. Unlike Asperger’s or dyslexia, ODD is not a part of neurodiversity with traceable brain differences. This cluster of behaviors says more about the adults than it does about how the kid’s mind works. Many gifted kids and adults alike struggle to find true peers who understand them; it is even more rare to find a trusted authority figure who can challenge them.

Some people spend a lifetime looking for deserving and compelling authority.

“Questioning authority” is assessing candidates for trustworthiness.

The two approaches of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) are useful communication tools in helping families identify priorities and make, keep, and renegotiate agreements with care. NVC encourages deep self-empathy, considerate empathy for others, and vulnerable self-expression. CPS encourages people in positions of power to be both firm and kind as they explore various strategies to meet needs. I integrate both into my work with families.

A nine-year old girl refused to engage in academic tasks, walked out of rooms when a parent was talking to her, and asked repeated questions about proposed plans. She received, from somebody other than me, an ODD diagnosis.

I coached the family to identify feelings and needs in order to fully hear the longings and desires of all involved. We reviewed levels of willingness, a continuum ranging from “over my dead body” to “begrudgingly willing” to “slight stretch but joyful” to “I really really need this, please Universe please!”

This clarity about levels of willingness allowed each of the two parents to reveal how badly they wanted ease and efficiency in daily tasks, including cleaning teeth and leaving the house. Slowly, apparently simple plans and decisions no longer required legal briefs.

The daughter, it turns out, was often wanting clarity about how the world works, and a significant fraction of her questioning was coming from childlike wonder and curiosity.

The parents worked to hear her curiosity and her preferences when they arose, and they worked together to meet them. They advocated at her school for increased flexibility, and the dignity of letting her choose which books to focus on and at what pace to approach her mathematics. This combination empowered the girl and reduced her “defiant” behaviors.

Not all ODD diagnoses are so easily overcome by acknowledging a kid’s brilliance, curiosity, or reasonableness. However, my point is that recognition, empathy, and an assumption of child innocence can go a long way in alleviating the so-called symptoms of this so-called disorder.

Besides… you don’t want an obedient child; you want freedom from unnecessary tantrums.  And respectful parenting increases the chance that your child will speak with power, authority and compassion as they find and develop their own voice.

And in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you. How have you found and related to authority in your life? What helps you feel more open to others’ requests?

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Anita Schnee January 13, 2014, 1:46 pm

    It’s never too late for insight, dear Bob, thank you! I’m feeling some ease coming in right this moment, at the idea that thwarted curiosity about the world turns into overwhelm turns into frustration turns into rage. I hate to think what I would have been diagnosed with, if I’d been a child in this modern age . . . . I take some comfort in thinking I might have broken the “normal” thermometer!

    • byamtich January 13, 2014, 6:46 pm

      I enjoy your addition of the concept of “thwarting”. Curiosity that can’t be addressed in a moment, even other types of pain and disappointment, don’t inherently have to transition to overwhelm and rage. It is not so much hearing “no” that hurts, it is the blocking, the denial, the lack of engagement, the longing for dignity.

      Pain, perhaps even profound pain, doesn’t have to become crazy-making. If a kid can have a caring adult to be present with them through their explorations, whether as simple as coloring of flowers or as complex as institutional racism, their soul can trust that they are supported on their path. If thwarted, it would make sense that they would rage against many things, and their immeasurable anger would understandably break typical thermometers.

  • Stephanie January 14, 2014, 6:41 pm

    You had me….right up until the last line. I do agree that ODD is actually code for “firm and clear boundaries need to be established in the context of love and mutual understanding”–authoritative, not authoritarian OR permissive parenting, is key.

    However, that last line about obedient children becoming boring adults…. Let’s consider that:
    1). “Boring”– Let’s not demean the dignity of any human. The ordered mind (which mine is not) is beautiful in its own right. The calm, kind, “still waters run deep” person is not boring. Unnecessary drama and petulance is boring.

    2) I know many obedient children/former children who are anything but boring. They just choose to be individuals WITHOUT tantrums. The adult or child who can choose not to overreact or argue for argument’s sake is not boring.

    3). Could we please NOT malign good parenting skills?!?! If the parents of the “ODD” kids incorporate excellent listening skills, firm boundaries, etc they will have obedient children: children who trust and do the things they need to without drama. Is this really what you are saying will make them grow up to be boring adults? Then why change them or their parents? Shall we then go to the parents of obedient kids (perhaps the child is gentle in spirit or the parents have been blessed with wisdom or something) and say “wow your child is going to be a boring adult”?

    I actually know that that last line was meant to be funny and an expedient wrap up. However, understand that some people really will take that sort of pop off as part of the message and either freak out about their child being boring or refuse to seek help. People really can be that…slow to understand.

    Please consider rewriting that last line. It does not do the rest of the article justice.

    • byamtich January 14, 2014, 7:14 pm

      Thanks so much; your comment is really reaching me. “Drama and petulance is boring”!!!

      I think this better describes the world I am working for : “Besides… you don’t want an obedient child; you want freedom from unnecessary tantrums. And respectful parenting increases the chance that your child will speak with power, authority and compassion as they find and develop their own voice.”

    • Dana December 31, 2014, 9:03 pm

      You’re not really looking for an obedient person here. You’re looking for someone with an ordered mind and good self-control. Obedience just means you do whatever you’re told. You can do that with a disordered mind (sometimes) and you can do it with poor self-control (substituting someone else’s control for your own). And yes, an obedient person IS boring. Think for yourself once in a while; develop your own initiative. And what if what you’re being told to do is bad? We have an overdose of obedience in this country and it crops up at all the worst times.

  • Kristie March 14, 2014, 2:38 pm

    My son needs a logical explanation for everything! I mean everything. Once I figure out how to help him understand the necessity of what I am asking it comes with ease. He may forget the rule like a normal child but understands why the rule is in place. It is a gentle reminder instead of him challenging authority. I try to defuse conflict when possible.

    I never connected him needing to trust the authority figure as part of the equation. I think you have answered my question as to why he struggles at preschool. He is also bored.

    I myself have always challenged authority. I live by the quote “truth is the authority, authority is not the truth. I can’t remember where I saw or heard the quote but it resonates with me. I have an upbringing which has calloused my trust in “authority “. My mother would tell me her “answer ” then later I would discover she was wrong. I still do not completely trust any one source. I tend to get several opinions/information in order to decipher what I feel is the best choice or information. With no solid compass to guide me, my 20’s were a wreck. I trusted no one and made lots of decisions the best I could.

    • byamtich February 16, 2015, 8:33 am

      Oh boy, yes, the inability to proceed without fully accepting the explanation can certainly halt many endeavors. As far as empathy, I would guess about high values for understanding and choice. It’s interesting how all of these conversations about external authority end up making us develop our internal authority.
      I regret taking almost a year to respond, and for starters, I hope you have seen my article called “Take Boredom Seriously.”

  • Aurora December 30, 2014, 6:51 pm

    I agree, as a school psychologist it always wrankles me to hear kids diagnosed with ODD. It has always rang to me of, “we don’t know why this kid does what he/she does.” Especially since according to special education it is considered “social maladjustment,” and therefore not eligible on its own for services and support. I myself would never have been classified as ODD, but I spent a lot of time in at recess because my nonconformist Unitarian Universalist upbringing did not match my Authoritarian Spanish immersion teaching style.

    • byamtich December 30, 2014, 8:18 pm

      YES! I wish that adults were able to say your sentence, “we don’t know.”

  • Kelly P. December 31, 2014, 2:48 am

    What happens when the parent is authoritarian and tries to find out why the child will not comply? Two examples- my son will not do homework and will refuse to get ready when we need to be somewhere. His reasoning is he doesn’t want to use his brain for school and he doesn’t feel like going right at that moment.

    No amount of understanding, behavior plans, etc is changing his mind. We do see a child psychologist who works with him on identifying and controlling his emotions. We do homeschool, but that is not the cause of these behaviors. I have always been authoritarian and saw his opposition a positive trait if used appropriately. Unfortunately, it has become a major hindrance.

    • byamtich December 31, 2014, 3:16 am

      Hi Kelly,

      This sounds challenging, and I can imagine it is draining. It sounds like he hasn’t bought into the academic system. If he doesn’t want to use his brain for school, is there a project he is passionate about? I recommend work with Nonviolent Communication and Collaborative Problem Solving. Both of your examples are about what he doesn’t want; I would explore what he wants, what you want, and what agreements you could make that would work for everybody.

      Happy to chat about it for 15 minutes if you want to schedule a free consult!

      • Kelly P. December 31, 2014, 9:34 pm

        Thank you, I will contact you soon. Collaborative Problem Solving sounds great and we try to collaborate on what to do for school, but he only wants to do things super easy for him; no challenges. I suppose his perfectionism is behind that. We’ll keep working on that.

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