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Setting Boundaries: How to Support a Child with Oppositional Defiance Disorder

April 27, 2023

Every parent has experienced moments of defiance or disobedience from their child. After all, learning boundaries and asserting independence is a normal and healthy part of childhood development. 


But what happens when that defiant behaviour is severe, ongoing, and begins to impact life at home or school? 


Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) is the most common behavioural disorder in preschool-aged children and is estimated to affect between 2% and 16% of the community. The DSM-5 defines it as a pattern of angry, vindictive, argumentative, and defiant behaviour that persists for at least six months. 

Signs of ODD include: 

  • displaying frequent and extreme temper tantrums 

  • regularly arguing with peers and adults 

  • intentionally annoying others 

  • displaying anger and vindictiveness 

  • blaming others for their mistakes   

ODD typically presents in children before the age of eight and as young as three years old. No one knows for sure what causes ODD, but it may develop in response to a traumatic life event and could be a mix of genetic, environmental, and biological factors.  


If you suspect your child may have ODDit’s important to seek an accurate diagnosis and a treatment plan as soon as possible. A mental health professional can make a diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan that may include counselling, behaviour therapy, parent education and medication. The good news is that children can overcome ODD with the right support. 


If your child has been diagnosed with ODD, it’s essential to remember thatit is not your fault 


Many others are going through the same thing you are, and help is available. Developing a relationship with a mental health professional is an essential first step in getting the support your child needs. 


Strategies for Parenting Children with Oppositional Defiance Disorder 


Start Therapy as Soon as Possible 

The risk of leaving ODD untreated is that it may develop into more serious personality disorders in teenage years or adulthood.  


ODD can impact a child’s ability to develop relationships with peers, manage their emotions, and develop a healthy self-esteem. The longer ODD is left unaddressed, the more difficult it becomes to treat. 


So, what might you expect in treatment? A common approach for ODD treatment includes parent management training, in which a licensed psychologist works closely with the parent to help them learn strategies to manage behaviours and solve specific challenges.  


The psychologist will also work closely with the child to help them better recognize and manage intense emotions. In some cases, a psychologist may refer a patient to a psychiatrist if medication is required. 


Use Positive Attention More Than Negative Consequences  

For most people, positive reinforcement can be far more motivating than threats or punishment – and the same holds true for children with ODD. 


For example, focus on giving the child opportunities to “earn” privileges, like extra playtime as a reward for good behaviour, rather than removing privileges as a form of punishment for bad behaviour.  


The key is clarity and consistency. One way to do this is to develop a rewards system with an accompanying visual so a child can easily understand the actions they need to take to earn reward. Positive attention is a far more effective way to encourage good behaviour than relying on punishment alone. 


Offer Closed Choices  

All of us want to feel a sense of agency and control over our choices. And kids with ODD are no different. 


You can offer children with ODD a sense of control by giving them acceptable options from which they can choose for themselves.  


For example, “would you rather do the dishes now, or would you rather do your homework now?” offers them a “closed choice,” which will help them feel empowered, while still leaving the parent firmly in control 


However, you must be consistent with your follow-through. If they don’t like their choices, don’t engage in negotiation. 


Pick Your Battles 

When you react to poor behaviour with anger and frustration, you can inadvertently make symptoms of ODD worse.  


That’s why it’s so important that parents develop their own coping strategies for staying calm in the face of a child’s defiance. 


A mental health professional can help you identify self-care and de-escalation strategies that will allow you to better manage your own emotions. They can also help you stay mindful of “picking your battles” – that is, deciding which behaviours really warrant a response, and which may be better to let go 

Finding the Support You Need 


If you know or suspect your child may be suffering from Oppositional Defiance Disorder, don’t delay in reaching out for the support you need.  


Using our free online tool, you can be quickly matched to a psychologist in your area that can diagnose and develop a treatment plan for your child with ODD.