Category: oppositional defiant disorder

How to talk to a difficult teenager – what to say and do

How to talk to a difficult teenager – what to say and do

Have hope!

Parents can learn how to talk to a difficult teenager and reduce arguments and negativity.  There are good responses for when you and your teenager fight or argue or get stuck in the same negative communication patterns, but there are three very important principles to consider.

  • What you say and do depends on your unique situation, your difficult teenager, and what the problem is. There are no magic words or actions that work for every teen.  It’s up to you to experiment–discover which responses fit your child’s behaviors and customize them.
  • How you say it will determine success or failure. Doing this well means you must have an iron grip on your own feelings and behavior and not be a parent.
  • Improvement takes time. Pace yourself for a marathon.

1. Identify what goes wrong

Difficult teenagers typically sabotage dialogue when they experience mental and emotional overload.

As an adult, you know about managing emotions, but your teenager doesn’t have a clue and is too young to articulate what he/she really means or needs anyway–and they know it.  Talking with you makes them anxious and insecure.

Circle your teen’s most common sabotage techniques (below) and address one at a time. Learn to spot them the moment they come up, and plan ahead how you’ll respond.  You should not tell them what you are doing because it will only feel like blame or insult.

  • Make excuses – It’s not my fault and I shouldn’t get in trouble.
  • Lie – keep secrets, fake an attitude to avoid the conversation or hide something
  • Exaggerate – revise history or express extreme insult or trauma over minor things
  • “Catastrophize” – assume the worst and that it’s going to be forever
  • Entitlement – I’m unique, I’m superior, what you say doesn’t apply to me, I get things my way
  • Hostility – insults and verbal abuse
  • Overconfidence – I’m exceptional, I already know, you don’t know what you’re talking about
  • Self-pity – I’m broken and no one cares
  • Minimize – make light of others’ needs and feelings, deny their actions have consequences
  • Vague – Guess what I’m thinking/feeling. If you’re wrong it means you (don’t love me, don’t care, are stupid).
  • Silent treatment – I plan to make you crazy by ignoring you –or- I can’t handle this and want to disappear.
  • Keep score – I win and it means I get my way (and you’re stupid).
  • Righteousness – I’m an adult and have rights and can make my own decisions.
  • Pet me – Praise me, flatter me, agree with me or I’ll make you regret it
  • Harp – repeatedly bring up a sensitive issue to get you upset, whine about things long resolved

Don’t waste precious energy fretting about your difficult teenager’s immaturity.

2. Prepare yourself emotionally and learn techniques used by therapists

Be a quiet witness, not a participant

To talk to a difficult teenager, mentally take off your parent hat and become a neutral observer without emotions or bias from bad memories.  This is absolutely critical because you must be able to remove any negative tone in your voice.  Your child reacts to tone of voice more than what is said.  Your feelings are certainly important; just don’t allow yourself to express them.

  • ‘Channel’ your inner therapist like an actor who gets into character. Faking it works, and may even help you be more effective. [check out YouTube videos].
  • Practice quieting your thoughts, and beliefs, and feelings.
  • Remind yourself you are a good, competent parent; trust yourself and your good intent.
  • See strengths, pay attention to what’s great about your child
  • Avoid justifying or explaining yourself. Your teenager can pick up on something you say and use it against you.

In these examples, the parent doesn’t react to the emotions they feel or try to justify themselves.

Reframe – Present a different point of view of the facts, or reveal details that show the ‘facts’ aren’t what they seem.

Teen:  “If I don’t do well in this class, you’re going to punish me by sending me to stupid summer school because that’s all you care about are grades.”

Parent:  “Last year you had the same concerns at the end of the term, and then I saw you focus and pass the class with a really high grade and be really proud of yourself.  I think you will do this again.”

Paraphrase – Say the same thing you heard using different words.  This helps your child know if they said what they really meant, and gives them the option to clarify and provide details.

Teen: “You stupid effing b1tch you never care what I think and keep trying to control me and I hate you!”

Parent:  “I hear you telling me you want to make more of your own decisions.”

Use “I” Statements – Avoid saying “you” because your child can interpret it as blame or insult regardless of your intent.  Simply owning your feelings or stating your observations doesn’t impose your view and is hard to argue with.

Teen:  “You said you would help me but all you want to do is see me fail. You could care less about me and even my friends think you’re a bad parent.”

Parent:  “I definitely care; I explained the best I could why I can’t afford the time/money right now.  I am frustrated by this situation too.”

Validate feelings and explore why

Teen:  “You didn’t listen to me when I told you my teacher was picking on me.”

Parent:  “Maybe I misunderstood or didn’t think he was treating you differently than your classmates.  I’m listening now; can you give me more details?”

Check the facts

Teen:  “My friends hate me and I don’t want to be around them ever.”

Parent:  “What happened?”

Teen:  “They all went to a movie and I wasn’t invited, and told everyone else what a great time they had.”

Parent:  “Wasn’t that the day you lost your phone charger?  Could they have tried to contact you but your phone was dead and you never got the message?”

Reflect on the bigger picture

Teen:  “School sucks.  It’s never helped me and everyone there is an a55hole and I already know what I need to know anyway.  Don’t try to make me stay.”

You:  “OK, school isn’t working for you. Do you have plans if you drop out? a job or a class for a new skill or occupation?  You are growing up and will be on your own someday, and you will want your own money.”

Deescalate a heated moment without placing blame or accepting blame. You might apologize or change the subject temporarily.

Teen:  “Stop f**king treating me like you’re my therapist!”

Parent:  “I’m sorry that it feels that way.  I’m not your therapist but a parent trying to communicate with their son/daughter the best they can.   I need to check my messages so we’ll talk about this later.  Can you go make yourself some tea?”

Other ways to deescalate:

Take a time out so you and your difficult teenager can calm down and gather your thoughts.

Converse via text, even in the same house, even in the same room.  No talking, only texting.  This works surprisingly well.

Talk to your teenager through a door, you do not need to look at each other, and perhaps your teen feels safer in another room. 

3. Accept the limits

The goal is not to stop your difficult teenager’s challenging behaviors but teach them how to manage.  How you talk to your difficult teenager only needs to be healthy, which is not necessarily positive or comfortable.

A healthy conversation means both parties:

Feel heard and understood even if there’s disagreement

Feel safe because they expect no emotional assaults

Feel enough trust and to talk again later

4.  Pay attention to what improves or wrecks a conversation.

Visualize yourself as a wild animal trainer trying to teach an uncooperative creature to perform a task. You try various techniques and expect the animal to resist.  You keep trying until the resistance diminishes, and then you start supporting with positive feedback.  Some of the techniques below will work; some will fail spectacularly.  When you find those that work, mix them up or your difficult teenager will catch on and try other tactics.

Let your difficult teenager rant for a while.  Teens often vomit out emotions regardless of how they sound or if they make sense and parents don’t need to respond.

Ask why and how. Explore the underlying cause by using simple questions that can’t be answered with Yes or No to help them identify and articulate what they mean and need.

Redirect.  Change the subject, or have a pre-planned list of actions for ending a tough dialogue.

  • DEFLECT for manipulation and button-pushing:

“Consciously ignore” (pay attention but mentally or physically withdraw)  – Pretend you didn’t notice when he/she resorted to blaming, demanding etc.

Change the subject – ask what they want from the grocery store; ask if they remember an upcoming event

Escape – excuse yourself for the bathroom.  Say you forgot to call someone back who left an important voicemail.

  • SUPPORT for anxiety, whining, and obsessive thoughts:

“We’ll get through this together;” “I am looking after you.”

Confidently reassure, and point out what’s going well.

Consciously ignore behavior intended to distract you from something you’re doing

Deny false charges against you without explaining, just state the fact.  “I did not say that;” “I am not accusing you…”  Period.

Apologize immediately when guilty.  “You’re right.  That was not the right thing to say and I apologize,” nothing more.  You may be guilt-tripped into apologizing multiple times, so say something like: “I apologized and it was the right thing to do.  I haven’t done it again and won’t apologize again.”

Set simple boundaries like you might for a fussy young child.  “You can get angry and run to your room, but you can’t slam the door.”  Remember that anger is normal, but harm is not acceptable.  Screaming is normal, but ugly insulting words are not acceptable.  Depression and sadness is normal, but isolating is risky–they need to be in the presence of others.

No offering reasons or lessons.  Conflict is not a teachable moment.  Your teen absolutely cannot reason when they’re flooded with emotion.  Trying to teach something can seem patronizing and disinterested in their concerns.

Appeal to a higher self:  During a fight or argument, listen carefully for something your child says (without prompting) that reflects good values and character, even the tiniest teensiest thing.  Incorporate their stated good values in all your communications.

5.  Help your difficult teenager think about their future

You may have tried to motivate your teenager to think about their future, but ultimately your teenager takes responsibility for the details.  This helps:  Provide a list of open-ended questions, worksheet-style, which they answer for themselves.  Examples:

  • What do I care most about?
  • How can I feel better when I’m upset?
  • How can I cope with boredom?
  • What am I good at?
  • What are three things I’m most thankful for, why?
  • Who do I trust and why do I trust them?
  • Where do I see myself in 5 years? How will I get there?

Ideally they share their answers with you but this should be optional.  If you do see them, absolutely avoid guiding or correcting answers even if you think they’re wrong!  The point is to start them pondering and exploring.  If they write “kill myself” or “run away” or “use drugs”, let it be—they KNOW what you think—what you do future conversations is appeal to their higher self and values.

Remember this…

 

…when they do this.

Good luck.

 


You can find additional practical and common sense approaches to parenting here:  Solid Wisdom For Parents Of Troubled Children And Teens

Borderline children – how they function and how you can help

Borderline children – how they function and how you can help

Borderline personality disorder makes a child wonderful yet horrible; lovely yet vindictive; a great friend or manipulative bully; anguished or glowing with joy; self-hating yet self-important; self-centered but also charitable.

Are you ready to bang your head on a wall?  Or praying for the day your child turns 18, when you can change the locks on your doors?  Children with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can traumatize everyone around them.

Children with BPD believe others will abandon them, and this makes them do one of two things:

    1. Do everything possible to obtain and keep love and admiration;
    2. Or if they detect the slightest hint of disapproval, blame themselves or others so as to feel they made a decision to break or run away from a relationship.  This can disguise  horrible feelings of abandonment.

 

A borderline child can be very engaging and affectionate… sometimes at random and sometimes when they want something.  Because they can be vindictive, they may also turn on charm as a way to embarrass you in front of others (such as in a meeting with a teacher or family counselor).  Since they often seem wonderful to other people, parents have been judged.  People often suggest they take care of their own issues instead.

Even if their manipulation or drama can be relentless, strive for compassion.  Trust me, your borderline child will suffer more than you in every important aspect of life.  They can make a mess of their relationships because of hurtful or clingy behavior.  They can drive away good friends, hate them for leaving, and then suffer from loneliness and depression.  They may make a mess of their jobs, be fired or forced to resign, and then bounce from one job to another… and they don’t understand why it happens to them.

A borderline child or teen is not a “drama junkie” on purpose.  There brain is primed to overreact.

A study published in 2008 in Science showed that brain activity in people with borderline personality disorder was abnormal—their brains lack activity in the ‘cooperation’ and ‘trust’ regions, called the bilateral anterior insula.  People with borderline personality disorder do not have an internal, natural sense of fairness or social norms, and distrust is their default mentality.  Some suggest that borderlines do not receive the attention they need as an infant and toddler.  Early neglect is also a predictor of reactive attachment disorder, which has similar trust issues.

When playing a game that requires teamwork, the brain of a normal person shows activity in the bilateral anterior insula.
The brain of a borderline person showed no activity whatsoever during the teamwork game.

Another study reported, “The disorder occurs in all races, is prevalent in females (female-to-male ratios as high as 4:1), and typically presents by late adolescence.”  It is estimated 1.4 percent of adults in the United States have this disorder.  A different study reported that BPD occurs as often in men and women, and sufferers often have other mental illnesses or substance abuse problems.  (In my observations, teenagers with borderline personality disorder have many bipolar disorder symptoms.)

From infancy, those who were later diagnosed with borderline personality were more sensitive, had excessive separation anxiety, and were moodier. They had social delays in preschool and many more interpersonal issues in grade school, such as fewer friends and more conflicts with peers and authorities.

As teenagers, borderline children can be promiscuous; impulsive and assaultive; more likely to use drugs and alcohol; and more likely to cut themselves and attempt suicide.  “…research shows that, by their 20’s, people with the disorder are almost five times more likely to be hospitalized for suicidal behavior compared to people with major depression.”

Evidence for hope

“Borderlines have the thinnest skin, the shortest fuses and take the hardest knocks.  In psychiatrists’ offices, they have long been viewed as among the most challenging patients to treat.”

“…almost 20 years after the designation of borderline personality disorder, understanding and hope have surfaced for people with the condition and their families.  Advances have been made in recent years.  Researchers studied 290 hospitalized patients with the condition over a 10 year period:  93% of patients achieved a remission of symptoms lasting at least two years, and 86% for at least four years.” Published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, the research argues that once recovery has been attained, it appears to last.  (from “Trying to Weather the Storm”, by S. Roan, September 07, 2009, Los Angeles Times)

“…our message to families is to please stay the course with your (child) because it’s crucial to their well-being.”
(Perry D. Hoffman, president of the National Education Alliance for BPD http://www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.com.)

Treatment

Psychotherapy is the primary treatment of BPD, and the gold standard is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which helps the person attain and maintain lasting improvement in their personality, interpersonal problems, and overall functioning.  It simply teaches coping skills so patients learn to control their emotions, calm down, and not destroy relationships. Medications support the therapy by reducing depression or anxiety and self-destructive behavior.

(from “What Therapy Is Recommended for Borderline Personality Disorder in Adolescents (13-17 years)?” by M. Muscari, 2005, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/508832)

When to hospitalize:

In an emergency, when your child has serious suicidal thoughts or an attempt, and/or is an imminent danger to others, or is incapable of calming down and functioning.

Consider psychiatric residential care when your child has persistent suicidal thoughts, is unable to participate in therapy, has a co-morbid (co-existing) mental disorder (e.g. bipolar, depression, narcissistic personality disorder), a risk of violent behavior, and other severe symptoms that interfere with living.

Other mental health supports your borderline child may need:

  • Treatment for substance abuse.
  • Therapy that focuses on violent and antisocial behaviors, which can include emotional abuse or physical abuse, baiting, bullying, and sexualized behaviors.  (The most effective therapy is DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.)
  • Therapy that also focus on trauma and post traumatic issues if present.
  • Reducing stressors in the child’s environment.  Most children with BPD are very sensitive to difficult circumstances, for example:  an emotionally stressful atmosphere; internal and external pressures to succeed or change; inconsistent rules; being around others who are doing better than them.


What parents and caregivers can do

  • With a co-parent or support person:  Maintain a united front.
  • Communicate privately with each other to effectively set limits.  A BPD child will do everything in their power to split authority figures against each other!
  • Have each other’s back even if you’re not in full agreement.
  • Never ever give away power by making democratic decisions or explaining your reasoning. Anything you say or do will be challenged or used against you in the future.

Maintain family balance.

Keep things relaxed.  If you need to set boundaries and apply pressure, do it only to maintain  appropriate behaviors and reminders for self-calming.  Let other things go.

Use praise proactively.  Borderlines crave attention and praise.  When they deserve it, pour it on thick.  And pour it on thick every single time they demonstrate good behavior and positive intention.  One can’t go too far.  When an argument or fight comes up, search your memory banks for the most recent praiseworthy thing they did or said, and bring it up and again express your gratitude and admiration.  This does two things:  it reinforces the positive;  and it redirects and ends a negative situation.

Become skilled in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).  It is the gold standard for treating
Borderline Personality Disorder.  It is the only therapy proven to promote genuine behavioral change and improve mental health.  You can ask questions or bring your child back to reality with the following examples
.

  • Did your friend really intend to upset you?  It sounds like they were talking about something else.
  • The delay wasn’t planned just to make you mad, perhaps you were just frustrated by being asked to wait, and it was no one’s fault.
  • The tear in your jacket isn’t a catastrophe.  It is easily fixed and I can show you how.

For specific examples of what your borderline child will say and for how you can respond, see:  How to talk with your difficult teenager – what to say and do.

 

Prevent dangerous risk taking – Teens with borderline personality are exceptionally impulsive and prone to risky behavior.  Consequently, parents should consider:

  • Tightly limiting cell phone use, email, texting, and access to social networking sites
  • Using technology to track their communications (this is legal), or disabling access during certain time periods
  • Reducing the amount of money and free time available
  • Searching their room (this is also legal)

A couple I know fully informed their borderline son that all internet activity would be tracked, as well as cell phone calls.  The father also installed cameras in the home, at the front and back doors, in plain sight.  Nevertheless, their son continued with bullying and verbally abusing his siblings right in front of those cameras, and he would get caught and deny it each time.  His denials in the face of clear evidence became a great source of private amusement for his parents.

Be patient – You are unlikely to receive your child’s respect, love, or thanks in the short-term.  It may take years.  But be reassured that your child will thank you for your firm guidance and limits once he or she matures to adulthood.

Never expose your heart like this!  Armor yourself emotionally.  Visualize those knives as fluff balls, or visualize your child as a toddler with a just another temper tantrum.  Find something that works for you and help the co-parents and siblings armor themselves too.

Address your own PTSD!  Families who live with a borderline child often need help coping with bullying, wrenched emotions, and the instability that person brings into the household.  A parent or family member may need their own therapy, antidepressants, and self-care skills for reducing anxiety.

Simple self-care for you and other family members

  • Three or more (very) deep breaths when stressed, the brain needs oxygen to begin a calming process.  Singing is a superb option.
  • Magnesium or Kava kava, these substances naturally help calm nerves
  • Sleep in a dark, cold room is the best way to promote deep sleep. Avoid screen time an hour before bedtime.
  • An activity that feeds your soul, such as a hobby, a loving pet, a gripping novel, just playing
  • Direct support from a trusted friend–face-to-face is ideal, but calls, texts, and emails as needed are really helpful too.


Characteristics of untreated borderline personality disorder in adulthood

Good things:  They can be very financially and publicly successful in many fields and hold positions of authority, and often succeed in the creative arts and especially acting.  They are so perceptive that they can ‘channel’ any person they want.  They can be enchanting, and alluring, easily attracting devoted fans, friends, and lovers.

Most challenging things:  Signs and symptoms of BPD may include significant fear of real or imagined abandonment; intense and unstable relationships that vacillate between extreme idealization and devaluation; markedly and persistently unstable self-image; significant and potentially self-damaging impulsivity (spending, sex, binge eating, gambling, substance abuse, and reckless driving); repeated suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats; self-mutilation (carving, burning, cutting, branding, picking and pulling at skin and hair, biting, and excessive tattooing and body piercing); persistent feelings of emptiness; inappropriate anger or trouble controlling anger; and temporary, stress-related disconnection from reality and paranoia.

Help your borderline child with each of these aspects!

  • Chronic fear of abandonment which results in a constant search for companionship, no matter how unsatisfying.
  • Clinging and distancing: Disruptive relationships due to the person’s alternating clinging and distancing behaviors.  When clinging, they may exhibit dependent, helpless, childlike behaviors. They can over idealize the person they want to spend their time with, constantly seeking that person out for reassurance. When they cannot be with their chosen person, they exhibit acting-out behaviors, such as temper tantrums and self-mutilation. They distance themselves by being hostile and insulting, usually arising from discomfort with closeness.
  • Splitting: Splitting arises from the person’s inability feel people are safe, and is the primary defense mechanism in BPD. They view all people, including themselves, as either all good or all bad.
  • Manipulation: Separation fears are so intense that people become masters of manipulation. They will do just about anything to achieve relief from their separation anxiety, but their most common ploy is to play one individual against another.
  • Self-destructive behaviors: Threats are most often manipulative, but some acts can prove fatal.  Cutting is very common.  Suicide attempts are common yet often happen in relatively safe scenarios, such as swallowing pills at home while reporting the deed to another person.  Another behavior is to set up a scenario where they are victim so as to get attention and love.
  • Impulsivity: Extremely rapid shifts in mood can lead to substance abuse, binge eating, reckless driving, sexual promiscuity, and excessive spending or gambling.  These are similar symptoms of bipolar mania, but BPD behaviors happen for different reasons, usually in response to real or imagined abandonment.

You really can turn your borderline child’s future around.

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How to manage defiance and oppositional defiant disorder

How to manage defiance and oppositional defiant disorder

Troubled children and teenagers who are pathologically defiant have a brain condition with many possible causes or diagnoses.  Whether they are overtly aggressive or “passive-aggressive,” parents have options for reducing symptoms of defiance and limiting the stress they bring into the household.

In a healthy brain, the pink region doesn’t light up quite like this when a person is confronted with a limit or rule. A healthy child starts considering options and ways to work around.

If your child is defiant to a degree that affects their life functions, this is what’s happening in their brain.  The pink color of this curving central region indicates intense electrical activity.  This is the brain scan of a 13-year-old boy with severe oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).  Hyper-charged activity in this region can also be responsible for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), unstoppable rages, pathological gambling, chronic pain, and severe PMS.

It is called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG), which allows a person to shift attention to different subjects and think flexibly–something defiant kids don’t do well.  Nor do they regulate emotions, something the ACG also does.  Children with a hyper-charged ACG have “a pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior lasting at least 6 months, during which 4 or more of the following are present:

  • Often loses temper
  • Often argues with adults.
  • Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules.
  • Often deliberately annoys people.
  • Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior.
  • Is often touchy or easily annoyed by others.
  • Is often angry and resentful.
  • Is often spiteful and vindictive.” 

–From the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition,” published by the American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Typical traits of children with oppositional defiant disorder.

  • They act younger than they are. Don’t expect them to mature quickly.
  • They live in the here and now, and can’t think about the past or future.  They don’t see how their actions result in a series of consequences.  They can learn sometimes, but only if it is pointed out immediately after an incident.
  • They don’t notice their effect on others.  Sometimes you can ask one of the others how they feel immediately after an incident, or you can gently report how it makes you feel.
  • Their brain is easily overloaded, and they have a hard time with changes.  And yet, you can use this overloading problem to your advantage (more below).
  • They cannot follow your reasoning, so don’t try.
  • Defiance may be a strength in their future. With mature skills, they’ll better resist negative things they’ll face in life.

Unrelenting defiance is a true disability that negatively affects a child’s life and future.  I’ve seen highly intelligent defiant or ODD diagnosed children experience academic failure or enough suspensions or expulsion to hold them back a grade.  This is a can’t-win-for-losing path that really sucks, doesn’t it?

Two different psychiatric approaches to defiant behavior and ODD

  • Treating it as a form of attention deficit disorder;
  • Treating it as form of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The attention deficit approach uses therapy in combination with medications, such as Straterra (chemical name is atomoxetine), Ritalin (methylphenidate), Risperdal (risperidone, an antipsychotic), Adderall (amphetamine) and Depakote or divalproex (a mood stabilizer).  This is not a complete list because new compounds are being formulated to reduce side-effects.

The depression & obsessive-compulsive approach combines therapy in combination with serotonin-based antidepressants such as Prozac (fluoxetine) or Zoloft (sertaline), and Anafranil (clomipramine, for anxiety). Again, this is not a complete list.

Treatment must also include holistic or ‘lifestyle’ approaches.

These are absolutely essential.  No amount of medication or therapy will help a child whose physical body is in poor shape!  The brain is an organ too, like the heart or liver, and needs the right nutrients and oxygen delivered through the blood.

  • Eat brain food that includes nutrients and minerals listed in these articles:  The best vitamins for your child’s brain, and The brain diet for troubled kids.
  • Avoid foods that cause mood extremes and limit cognitive functions (such as memory and processing speed) such as:  food fried in oils other than olive oil, refined sugars and starches (flour, white sugar), saturated and hydrogenated fats, diuretics like caffeine, and any other foods that have dyes or nutrients removed by processing (for example, apple filling in pastry instead of actual apples).
  • Get more sleep and exercise – these have an immediate and direct impact on brain health!  In even one day, a brain will under-perform if there’s been inadequate sleep or exercise.  Sleep restores brain function and memory, and exercise pumps oxygen to the brain and causes the release of positive hormones and neurotransmitters.
  • Drink water (sports drinks are OK too if they don’t have caffeine)

Defiance and ODD often include symptoms of other disorders

  • 50-65% of defiant children also have ADD or ADHD
  • 35% develop some form of depressive disorder
  • 20% have some form of mood disorder, such as bipolar disorder or anxiety
  • 15% develop some form of personality disorder
  • Many also have learning disorders

Anthony Kane, MD 

Other conditions can cause oppositional defiant disorder

  1. Neurological disorders from brain injuries, left temporal lobe seizures (these do not cause convulsions, no one can tell these are happening), tumors, and vascular abnormalities
  2. Endocrine system problems such as a hyperactive thyroid
  3. Infections such as encephalitis and post-encephalitis syndromes
  4. Inability to regulate sugar, resulting in rapid ups and downs of sugar in the blood
  5. Systemic lupus erythematosus, Wilson’s disease
  6. Side-effects of some prescription medications:  Corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory and arthritis drugs such as Prednisone);  Beta-agonists (asthma drugs such as Advair and Symbicort)
    –From Peters and Josephson.  Psychiatric Times, 2009
  7. Autism spectrum disorders
  8. PANDAS – an acronym for a strep infection-caused disorder that can make a previously normal child violently resistant.  (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections)
  9. Dehydration

If your child has these traits, it will be easier to reduce defiant or ODD behavior

  • A normal IQ
  • A first-born child
  • An affectionate temperament
  • Positive interactions with friends their age
  • Nurturing parents who can consistently set clear behavioral limits

–From the Journal of American Academic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2002.  Author J.D. Burke.

Let’s face it, consistently enforcing limits isn’t possible 24/7.  It’s exhausting.  Take a break; let some things go.

Parenting that works for ‘normal’ children does not work for defiant children or teenagers.

First, be kind to yourself; this is hard.  Get enough sleep, maintain your supportive relationships (spouse or partner, children, friends), schedule breaks and getaways, and guard your physical and emotional health.  Don’t expect quick results because success may take weeks or months. 

Address just one issue at a time, then strengthen yourself for running a marathon.

Find something positive to do together.  Your child needs for closeness and appreciation and joy, like everyone.  Ask your child what positive activity interests them most, or try new activities until one brings about a good chemistry between you and your child.

Praise is a powerful tool for managing disruptive behavior.  Make an effort to inject positive energy into your relationship with your child or teen.  It’s likely that this relationship has become mostly negative over time.   Caution: don’t expect thanks when you praise your child.  They are typically self-absorbed and not thinking about you.

Set limits – “Consistent limit setting and predictable responses from parents help give children a sense of stability and security.  Children and teens who feel a sense of security regarding the limits of their environment have less need to constantly test it.”
–Webster-Stratton and Hancock, Handbook for Parent Training, 1998

Actively ignore – This works for best with children between the ages of 2 and 12.  It involves purposefully withdrawing your attention away from your child when they are misbehaving, such as a temper tantrum, whining or sulking, baiting or teasing, or making continuous demands or loud complaints.  Pretend you don’t care and even turn your back if possible.  Give attention only after their behavior is ending or over.

Make the behavior uncomfortable.

  • Example:  If your kid swears, test them, “C’mon, you can do better than that, be creative, I’ve heard all those things before.”  They can get frustrated when they aren’t getting the reaction they want from you, and defy you by giving up.
  • Another example:  Your teen refuses to get out of bed for school.  Don’t nag or repeat, repeat, repeat.  Remove the bed covers and set them far enough away that your child has to get out of bed to retrieve them.  (“Managing Resistance,” John W. Maag)

Give multiple instructions at once, where at least one of the instructions is what they want to do, and one is what you want them to do.  “Close the door while you’re yelling at your sister and don’t forget the light.”  Your child will be overloaded as they try to figure out which thing they’re supposed to defy.  Kids tend to get flustered by the mental effort and comply without knowing they’re doing it. (from “Managing Resistance,” Maag)

Use reverse psychology: it’s a good kind of manipulation.  Insist or pressure your child to do something they think you don’t want them to do, so they will defy you and do it… which is indeed what you wanted in the first place.  Pretend to agree or disagree with a behavior or choice so that you get the outcome you want.

A mother I know did this with her 14 year old daughter who’d threatened to cut off all her hair and self-tattoo her face.  The mother said she “went ballistic” over the idea of her daughter’s beautiful hair being cut (she knew it would grow back, whereas a tattoo would be permanent).  The results were exactly what the mother wanted.  Her daughter totally butchered her hair, and the tattoo idea never came up again.

Offer unexpected rewards – On random occasions, reward appropriate behavior with something they like.  They are more likely to do a desired behavior if they expect something they want and aren’t sure when it will be offered.

Redirect their attention.  If you’re entering a situation where you know your child will become defiant, distract them.  Make yourself a list of actions or behaviors you can do that are distracting during times when their defiance should not be tolerated, such as when there’s a threat to safety.

Keep your power. Claim your throne as ultimate decision maker and boundary setter.

Don’t treat your home like a democracy or try to be fair and equal.  Be a benevolent dictator.  A troubled child should not have an equal say in how things are done.  To keep your authority and power in the household, tell your defiant child that you’ll listen and consider compromise, but make no promises.

Never justify your decision or provide reasons.  Reasoning does not work; it only promotes endless arguments. As your child ages into adulthood, an adult child will continue to require limits, and limits will still need enforcement. To a parent, it will feel like you’re treating your adult offspring as a child. YOU ARE and you should be, and this is the interesting part:  they won’t notice.

Allow some aggression.  When it’s appropriate and safe, ask your child to do more of what they’re already doing so that they turn around and defy you by stopping the behavior. Example: your child refuses to take a direction and throws a book on the floor in anger.

  • Parent:  “There’s only one book on the floor. Here is another one, now throw this on the floor.”  (Child throws book down.)
  • “Here’s another one. Throw this down too.”  (Child throws book down.)
  • “And here’s another, throw this down, too.”  (Child stops throwing books in defiance.)

Be a marshmallow.  Show no resistance.  Instead, listen and respond to how they feel, not what they say.  Show them you are open talk later when the stress dies down.

  • Teen:  “I hate you f- -king b- -ch!”
  • Parent:  “Sounds like you’re really angry.”
  • Teen:  “Shut up you stupid c – -t!”
  • Parent:  “Can you tell why me you’re angry so I can do something about it?”
  • Teen:  “Leave me alone f- -k face!  Stop patronizing me!”
  • Parent:  “OK, I hear you don’t want me to patronize you.  I feel this is stressful for both of us, so let’s take a break and talk about it later.”
  • Teen: F—k you!  I’m not talking to you ever.  (Well that’s not true, but they may ‘defy’ you by avoiding the behavior.) 

Call their bluff.

  • Child:  “I’m going to run away!”
  • Parent:  “OK, if you do, call me, and I’ll bring your stuff and maybe a snack.  Here’s the runaway hotline phone number if you don’t want to call directly.”  Then walk away.  If they do run and call, you’ll know where they are and can fetch them or call the police.
  • Child:  I’ll kill myself!  (This rarely true if shouted in anger and defiance. Your child may be throwing out threats to see how you react and get you to back down.)
  • Parent:  “If you really mean that, this is serious and means we need to get you to a hospital!  Let’s get ready and go because you need to get assessed.”

Warning, once you make progress regaining authority and reducing defiance, a honeymoon phase will be followed by a huge backlash… but this is a good sign! 

It’s proof your work is having an impact.  Extreme resistance to behavioral change is a common response called an “extinction burst;” see diagram below.  Pressure builds because it’s exhausting to try and control an urge to misbehave, and they eventually explode.  This as predictable so plan ahead.  The extreme “burst” is evidence the ingrained behavior is ending or going extinct.  There may be more bursts that test your resolve.  Eventually, your child likely stops defying at least one rule.  Pick the most critical behaviors that need extinguishing and keep up the effort.  Eventually, they back off again, and the pattern continues until it’s just not worth it to defy these rules anymore.

–From “Behavioral Interventions for Children with ADHD,” by Daniel T. Moore, Ph.D., © 2001, http://www.yourfamilyclinic.com/shareware/addbehavior.html .  The author requests a $2 donation through PayPal to distribute his article or receive printed copies.

Some rules for you

Don’t blame your child.  It’s easy to think they’re being bad on purpose because they’ll act like it, and show amusement when they’re bad or belittle you. Keep in mind that their behavior is no one’s fault, and your child would not choose to behave like they do if they understood what it meant.

Don’t ignore other challenges that might be responsible for their behavior.  They may face bullying at school, lack of sleep, or stress from things at home for example.

Seriously, defiant teenagers think this way, and can’t see the obvious right in front of them.  I got this cartoon from a therapist who treats teenagers with criminal convictions, who are required by juvenile court to get counseling.

Always enforce your rules as immediately after the fact as possible.  Why:  If enforcement comes later or only occasionally, the child does not connect the broken rule with the punishment. They really don’t, even when you explain it quite clearly.

Don’t direct anger at your child.  If you do, apologize.

  • They can use your reaction against you, and tease or bait you to get you angry again
  • Don’t model that anger is an OK response to stress.
  • Do model that apologies are a proper response

Avoid explaining and justifying rules. Defiant children and teenagers are not able to reason once their emotions take control. They will only resist harder and pelt you with arguments. (What’s interesting is I’ve observed parents trying to reason with young children (4 or 5), too young to be reasonable in the first place, or with young adults (early 20’s) who have a long track record of being unreasonable.

Don’t interpret everything as pathological defiance or oppositional defiant disorder.  Some rebelliousness is normal for children.  It’s especially so if parents are over-controlling.

Don’t keep trying the same things that still don’t work.  Like yelling or repeating yourself over and over (Don’t be embarrassed; we’ve all done this).

It helps to lower your expectations for your child’s behavior and progress.  What you want may be totally unrealistic, and more than you and your child can handle.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I feel much better now that I’ve given up hope,” and found it strangely comforting. 

Don’t jump to conclusions that demonize the child.  I often hear parents say:  “Why does he keep doing this?, or, “Why doesn’t she stop after I’ve told her not to, over and over again.”  Then they answer their own questions:  “It’s because he always wants his way,” or, “She’s doing this to get back at me.”  As they tell their story, I hear them taking things personally:  “He does this just to make me mad;” “She manipulates the situation because she wants more (something) and I won’t give it to her.”  Is this really what you want?

Two training approaches that help parents like you: 

Parent Management Training:  this is an intensive educational program that has been proven to help parents handle extremely difficult children, including those defiance and ODD.  PMT teaches parents precisely how to assert consistency, keep interactions predictable, and promote pro-social behavior in their child.  A good explanation can be found at this link: Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders.  Examples of parent management training include:  the Total Transformation and the Incredible Years.

Collaborative Problem Solving:  CPS teaches how to negotiate with a defiant or resistant child.  This may seem like giving in, but it depends on how one negotiates or comes to a compromise.  If defiance is a result of something the child needs but can’t express appropriately, a CPS approach helps the parents hone in on the  underlying need, which may be simple and easy to address.  A great place to find out more is on the Think:Kids website.

Find the energy and doggedness to be consistent, and the compassion and forgiveness to be nurturing.
This is a heroic endeavor.


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Get your power back and reduce your child’s tantrums

Get your power back and reduce your child’s tantrums

If you have lost control of your troubled child and your household (most of us have), you know how hard it is to get things back on track.  This is especially for following house rules. Each time you try to enforce a rule, it’s ignored, or your child throws a huge tantrum, and you give in rather than expend more of your precious energy.  Who wants to invite another backlash?  Who wouldn’t give up, and choose the lesser of two bad options by allowing them to get their way?

A powerful tantrum is a good thing… only if you’re holding the line.  It’s evidence that you are regaining authority.

This seems counterintuitive, but the more your child fights back, the more power they lose, and the more you recover your authority.  It is normal to fight back harder and harder against rules and boundaries, then have an over-the-top tantrum.  It’s a psychological response that psychologists call an “extinction burst.”  It means the original behavior goes extinct and behavior improves thereafter.  It has been measured through behavioral observations of people of all ages and has nothing to do with troubled behavior.  The term “extinction burst” is even used by dog and horse trainers to describe a behavioral change in training. 

It goes like this: parents set a rule and start firmly enforcing it, and one of two things happen: 1) a huge tantrum, or 2) things are OK for a little while, and then tantrums start again.  If you can hold the line, psychological studies show that when massive tantrums fade, the extinction burst peaks.  They give up their own power and change their behavior.  Look at this diagram:  The vertical scale indicates level of bad behavior.  When a rule is firmly enforced (intervention), the tantrum peaks then it falls off quickly.

If you can stick it out through that huge tantrum, you will see fewer tantrums over time.  It works, but one must be like a rock and have support when The Big One happens. But be prepared, you might need to face several extinction bursts.  Little by little, simple rules will be followed, or they’ll be followed most of the time (you will always be tested).  But by this point, enforcement becomes easier.

Plan for major tantrums ahead of time and recruit help for holding a firm protective wall.

For explosive and aggressive children, it can be scary or dangerous to be on the receiving end because you know about the potential for violence and harm.  Prepare family members and others, and explain how the tantrum will be handled and how everyone will be kept safe.

Rules for house rules:

  1. Few
  2. Fair
  3. Strictly Enforced

Run a tight ship at home, but only have a few hard-and-fast rules, maybe 2 or 3, to save your energy.  Holding fast on enforcement is draining. Pick the rules carefully because they need to make sense and feel fair to everyone. Rules should also consider safety and family wellbeing, examples: we will eat every dinner together as a family; curfew is 8 pm; if there is any outburst, the person must stay in their room for 15 minutes, then they can come out, etc.

You may be surprised how relieved everyone will be after living through chaos for so long!  They will be thankful someone is finally in charge instead of the troubled child.  When I put on my armor and set about getting my power back, it was exhausting and very stressful, but consistent order brought a sense of security and safety. Use common sense and be flexible, set aside some rules temporarily if your child is in crisis or the family is too stressed at the moment.  Be very strict on only a few critical things, for example:  have zero tolerance for violence against others and alcohol and drug use.

You earn more respect when you are in control and better protect everyone’s peace of mind. 

You are the king or queen of your home, it is not a democracy.  Make reasonable and fair rules, enforce the rules with an iron hand at first, and then relax bit by bit, and live in a peaceable kingdom (with problems you can handle).

 –Margaret