Mental Health

As a parent, you will have experienced your child behaving badly. But what if your child is in a permanent state of anger, insolence, and disobedience? Experts say they could be suffering from Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD).

Signs of Oppositional Defiance Disorder

Patience Mbhalati, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Tzaneen, explains that children who have ODD are, as the name suggests, defiant and argumentative. “They seem often to be in aggressive and irritable moods, and may display vindictive or anti-social behaviour,” she says. “They commonly exhibit anger and anxiety, possibly even depression.” The disorder may also manifest in impulsive behaviour or self-harm. This behaviour is most frequently directed towards authority figures like parents or teachers.

While it’s natural for children to challenge those around them occasionally, ODD distinguishes itself by ongoing episodes where the child is quick to lose their temper, is overtly rude to adults and outright refuses to do what they are told. Other typical actions include blaming others for their behaviour or being vengeful and nasty. These symptoms usually occur for periods longer than six months.

Mbhalati says the disorder is typically diagnosed by the time the child is eight years’ old.

Is discipline the answer for children with Oppositional Defiance Disorder?

Most often, we think that the solution to ‘bad’ behaviour is strict discipline – but in the case of those diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, this may not be the answer, says Mbhalati.

She explains that the disorder forms out of a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including trauma and abuse, parenting style, and a lack of structure within the family. “Discipline can be tricky here because it’s all about how it is applied,” she notes. “A parent who is a strict disciplinarian may try to enforce their desired behaviour in a manner that actually perpetuates the child’s moodiness and defiance – after all, a disobedient child is deliberately setting out to break the rules.” This may also lead to personality clashes, which further exacerbate the situation, she points out.

This can be extremely frustrating for the parent – but, says Mbhalati, it is important to recognise the child is exhibiting this behaviour not as a deliberate act or out of malice, but because of their condition. Bearing this in mind, it is equally important to adjust your parenting style: show compassion and understanding when there is an outburst but explain your rules and the consequences of breaking them. You may also be able to prevent episodes by recognising and praising positive behaviour; such as creating a reward system, for example. “Try to avoid power struggles,” Mbhalati adds. “Remember that discipline alone may not work unless the underlying cause of the condition is treated – and be aware that it may be the outcome of genetic factors that cause a clash of personalities. Understanding this will make it easier to give your child some grace.”

Treatment for Oppositional Defiance Disorder

It may also help to consult a therapist who specialises in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This type of therapy provides practical assistance that helps your child modify their behaviour.

Apart from the introduction of a reward system that reinforces positive behaviour and discourages tantrums, Mbhalati suggests taking extra care to model the kind of behaviour you would like your child to emulate. Children who are specifically prone to shows of anger may benefit from anger management training. Older children may benefit from cultivating problem-solving skills.

“Family therapy is also essential to help each member of the family develop coping mechanisms and teach the parents how they can support the child,” Mbhalati concludes.