Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) was first listed in the DSM in 1980. The disorder is described as a condition in which a child displays extreme defiant behavior including vindictiveness, irritability, and anger. 

ODD is an ongoing disorder that starts very early in child development, usually preschool, and continues throughout their teens. Several studies indicate that roughly 3 percent of children have it. Symptoms may include many common problems for children, but on a much grander scale.

For instance, many children throw temper tantrums. It is a healthy part of growing up and tends to happen during 2-3 years of age. When a child becomes tired, hungry or stressed, they may lash out or become irritable. All of these actions are completely normal. Uncooperative and hostile behavior on a regular basis that seems more severe than other children’s temperament may be cause for concern.

Signs of ODD include:

  • Frequent or daily temper tantrums
  • A preoccupation with seeking revenge
  • Mean and hateful speech
  • Constant questioning of rules
  • Easily annoyed
  • Deliberate attempts to upset other children or adults

These behaviors are often seen not only in a school setting, but at home as well.

It is important to note that oppositional defiant disorder is separate from a conduct disorder. While both are considered “problems in the self-control of emotions and behaviors,” according to the DSM-5, “the behaviors of oppositional defiant disorder are typically of a less severe nature than those of conduct disorder and do not include aggression toward people or animals, destruction of property, or a pattern of theft or deceit.”

Anthropology associate professor Carolyn Smith-Morris from the University of Arizona worries that the diagnosis may subconsciously be given to children of a certain gender or race because of the cultural differences in the way children are raised. Defiance can be an appropriate behavior in response to injustice and/or oppression and to mute the behavior may also blunt the ability to think critically. A popular criticism of ODD stems from the fact that compliance is not always a desirable trait.

Despite the controversy of this diagnosis, ODD can have a major impact on the education of the child as well as the psyche of the parent. Recognizing ODD may raise awareness of trauma or anxiety that has impacted the child. The sooner the problem is understood, the quicker a solution may be implemented.

Before seeking help for ODD, it is important to understand whether the child has a learning difficulty or emotional disturbance created by either circumstance or biology. If the hostility is too intense or lasts longer than developmentally appropriate, the behavior may become pathological. Children with ODD rarely outgrow their aggression as it is the child’s most stable trait. According to ASCD.org, difficulty getting along with preschool peers is the single best predictor of antisocial behavior at age 11.

Coping strategies for parents include:

  • When disciplining your child, make consequences immediate and fair. A lack of consistency may confuse the child and ultimately delay good behavior.
  • Keep track of the child’s behavior and make a list on what specific changes you wish to see. Start with just one behavior rather than focusing on multiple behaviors at once.
  • Allow your child to pick from a list you create of consequences that he/she thinks is fair for each punishment.
  • Communicate with your child to make sure she/he understands why it is important that each behavior change.
  • Take time to focus on you and your partner/spouse. Stressful parenting can take a toll on relationships, sometimes when you need them most.

There are many different options for professional treatment. Family therapy addresses the whole of the situation and will usually last several months. Parent training is a process that helps parents learn how to be consistent and involve the child in shared goals. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy involves a therapist that coaches the parent on how to relate to their child. They may guide the parent through strategies that reinforce positive behavior for their child.

Another route for treatment includes social skills training. A child may need help learning how to navigate his/her social world better to learn how to relate to others and form long lasting skills to form strong connections. Ultimately, a strong connection can help bond the child to healthy relationships, causing more security and less pain.