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?