Remember Veruca Salt? She was one of many problem children who made Willy Wonka’s candy wonderland their playground in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But forget all those other miscreants. Veruca clearly “out-deviants” her peers with her get-what-I-want-at-any-cost approach to life. She’s also a prime example of a child suffering from Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)—not only because of her frequent temper tantrums or her defiance of authority, but also because of the way her awful behavior is rewarded by the very people against whom she rebels: her parents.
It’s easy to take Veruca’s trip down the “bad egg” chute lightly, but parents of real life ODD children should see hers as a cautionary tale. Unchecked behaviors in defiant children often have dire consequences and lead to more serious behavioral disorders as the child enters adulthood. But how do you know if your child has Oppositional Defiant Disorder or is simply “going through a phase”? And if your child has ODD, how should this disorder be treated? ODD diagnoses stretch far beyond the occasional temper tantrum and issues with authority.
Among the symptoms the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lists for ODD include: questioning rules, touchiness, resentment, and hateful language when upset. An oppositional child likes pushing buttons. They blame others for their misdoings. Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder take revenge when others refuse to play their games. Of course, we all have oppositional tendencies from time to time so, for children to be diagnosed with ODD, such behaviors should persist for more than six months and put serious strain on the family and on the child’s academic success.
Most commonly, ODD children are treated with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). A Cognitive Behavior therapist works to pinpoint certain cues the parents may be unknowingly giving the child that reinforces the bad behavior. The classic example of bad behavior reinforcement is that of a little boy who throws a tantrum in the middle of a department store. Perhaps the parent refused to buy the child a new toy. The parent frantically tries to appease the child and, in a moment of weakness, puts the toy in the shopping cart and proceeds to the checkout. This boy has learned—or mis-learned, rather—that tantrums are rewarded. At a very early age, he has assumed an authoritative role, a role that will be compromised later in life when the he is confronted by other authority figures who aren’t so quick to surrender.
Of course, Oppositional Defiant Disorder is far more complex than the example above suggests. The treatment is no different. Dr. Tracy Barcott, a specialist in early childhood development at Southeast Psych, says:
“Parents often reinforce their child’s ‘bad’ behavior in much more subtle ways, such as by ignoring behaviors that should be punished or simply in the emotional dynamic between the parent and child, so treatment involves observation of these behaviors as well as detailed conversations with the parents about alternate strategies to try with their children. Parents are essential to the process, and when they are able to make a few changes they can see really dramatic results, particularly when children are younger and more readily responsive to change.”
Do you fear your child may have ODD? Do you feel you may be reinforcing his or her behavior? Or have you taken innovative steps to prevent your child from being a bad egg? We’d love to hear about your concerns and of your successes!