The Truth About the Oppositional Defiant Teen

Parents of teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) exhibit a bit more of a challenge. This disorder is characterized by a pattern of angry or irritable behavior, vindictiveness, and argumentativeness. To be diagnosed, an adolescent must display four symptoms from one of the following categories: angry or irritable mood, argumentative or defiant behavior, and vindictiveness. This disorder is similar to Conduct Disorder only that those with this disorder do not act aggressively towards others, do not destroy property, and do not show a pattern of theft.

No doubt children moving through the process of adolescence while also managing the difficult symptoms of ODD can be difficult to parent. Those children can be more at risk to fail academically, occupationally, and socially, and those failures might lead to problems at home. Teens with ODD symptoms and their families can experience immense challenges in their relationship.

However, it’s important to remove the diagnosis for a moment and zero in on the ways that your unique teen presents his or her challenges. Sometimes a diagnosis, although helpful, can mask the ways that your child actually expresses his or her symptoms. For instance, Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, explains that the medical description of ODD doesn’t do justice to the actual process of what he calls “inflexible-explosive behavior”.

In fact, the two lists below compare the medical description of ODD and Dr. Green’s description of the inflexible-explosive child.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the clinical reference used by professionals of psychology to diagnose clients, ODD teens are described in this way:

  • loses temper
  • argues with parents/adults
  • defies or refuses to comply with the rules of teachers, parents, and other adults
  • deliberately annoys other people
  • easily made angry or resentful
  • often spiteful and vindictive
  • frequently emotionally sensitive and irritable

However, Dr. Greene explains that this doesn’t give you an accurate picture of your child’s behavior. Instead, it might add more confusion. For this reason, he provides a more detailed portrayal of the characteristics and behavior you might see in your ODD teen:

  • Your child might have an incredibly low frustration tolerance. Your teen becomes frustrated far more easily and by far less trivial matters than other children his or her age.
  • An ODD teen might have a difficult time managing frustrating situations and might not be able to think through how to handle frustrating moments.
  • Frustration often leads to cognitive debilitation which leads to an inability to stay calm, consider options, and problem solve.
  • ODD teens usually have very little ability to be flexible and adaptable. They seem unable to switch gears or change plans when needed.
  • ODD teens tend to think in very rigid, concrete, black and white ways. There is frequently an inability to see the gray areas and recognize other possibilities.
  • Explosive episodes might have an out-of-the-blue quality to it. They might come out of nowhere, even when your teen is in a good mood. He or she might quickly switch to anger, frustration, and annoyance.
  • When other children might become irritable when tired or hungry, ODD children and teens might completely fall apart under these circumstances.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, when treated early with a comprehensive treatment plan, ODD can be managed and a teen can eventually return to normal functioning. However, if not treated through therapeutic means, such as psychotropic medication and therapy, teens with untreated ODD will have a very difficult time adapting to the demands of adulthood and will often have trouble holding a job, staying in relationships, and avoiding the law.

Certainly, the parent-teen relationship is not easy with this sort of diagnosis. Yet, with the help of mental health professionals, teachers, school counselors, and school administration, your teen might learn new ways of responding to frustration, raise his or her frustration tolerance, and learn new coping mechanisms. Furthermore, therapy that addresses family relationships can restore hope, healing, and health.


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