Even the best-behaved children can be difficult and challenging at times. But if your child or teenager has a frequent and persistent pattern of anger, irritability, arguing, defiance or vindictiveness toward you and other authority figures, he or she may have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
As a parent, you don't have to go it alone in trying to manage a child with ODD. Doctors, mental health professionals and child development experts can help.
Behavioral treatment of ODD involves learning skills to help build positive family interactions and to manage problematic behaviors. Additional therapy, and possibly medications, may be needed to treat related mental health disorders.
Sometimes it's difficult to recognize the difference between a strong-willed or emotional child and one with oppositional defiant disorder. It's normal to exhibit oppositional behavior at certain stages of a child's development.
Signs of ODD generally begin during preschool years. Sometimes ODD may develop later, but almost always before the early teen years. These behaviors cause significant impairment with family, social activities, school and work.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, lists criteria for diagnosing ODD. The DSM-5 criteria include emotional and behavioral symptoms that last at least six months.
Angry and irritable mood:
- Often and easily loses temper
- Is frequently touchy and easily annoyed by others
- Is often angry and resentful
Argumentative and defiant behavior:
- Often argues with adults or people in authority
- Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults' requests or rules
- Often deliberately annoys or upsets people
- Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
- Is often spiteful or vindictive
- Has shown spiteful or vindictive behavior at least twice in the past six months
ODD can vary in severity:
- Mild. Symptoms occur only in one setting, such as only at home, school, work or with peers.
- Moderate. Some symptoms occur in at least two settings.
- Severe. Some symptoms occur in three or more settings.
For some children, symptoms may first be seen only at home, but with time extend to other settings, such as school and with friends.
When to see a doctor
Your child isn't likely to see his or her behavior as a problem. Instead, he or she will probably complain about unreasonable demands or blame others for problems. If your child shows signs that may indicate ODD or other disruptive behavior, or you're concerned about your ability to parent a challenging child, seek help from a child psychologist or a child psychiatrist with expertise in disruptive behavior problems.
Ask your primary care doctor or your child's pediatrician to refer you to the appropriate professional.
There's no known clear cause of oppositional defiant disorder. Contributing causes may be a combination of inherited and environmental factors, including:
- Genetics — a child's natural disposition or temperament and possibly neurobiological differences in the way nerves and the brain function
- Environment — problems with parenting that may involve a lack of supervision, inconsistent or harsh discipline, or abuse or neglect
Oppositional defiant disorder is a complex problem. Possible risk factors for ODD include:
- Temperament — a child who has a temperament that includes difficulty regulating emotions, such as being highly emotionally reactive to situations or having trouble tolerating frustration
- Parenting issues — a child who experiences abuse or neglect, harsh or inconsistent discipline, or a lack of parental supervision
- Other family issues — a child who lives with parent or family discord or has a parent with a mental health or substance use disorder
- Environment — oppositional and defiant behaviors can be strengthened and reinforced through attention from peers and inconsistent discipline from other authority figures, such as teachers
Children and teenagers with oppositional defiant disorder may have trouble at home with parents and siblings, in school with teachers, and at work with supervisors and other authority figures. Children with ODD may struggle to make and keep friends and relationships.
ODD may lead to problems such as:
- Poor school and work performance
- Antisocial behavior
- Impulse control problems
- Substance use disorder
Many children and teens with ODD also have other mental health disorders, such as:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Conduct disorder
- Learning and communication disorders
Treating these other mental health disorders may help improve ODD symptoms. And it may be difficult to treat ODD if these other disorders are not evaluated and treated appropriately.
There's no guaranteed way to prevent oppositional defiant disorder. However, positive parenting and early treatment can help improve behavior and prevent the situation from getting worse. The earlier that ODD can be managed, the better.
Treatment can help restore your child's self-esteem and rebuild a positive relationship between you and your child. Your child's relationships with other important adults in his or her life — such as teachers and care providers — also will benefit from early treatment.