5 Signs & 4 Ways to Help an ODD Child

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Peter Barnes
Brain Science, Podcasts, Behaviour

Does your child argue a lot – with you or teachers?  Does he or she seem to anger easily?  Is this behaviour worrying you?

It could be quite normal – just a phase your child is going through. On the other hand they may have oppositional defiant disorder, also known as ODD.

There are five signs which can point to ODD, according to Dr Martha Burns.  In a conversation on the Learning Capacity Podcast, she described the signs and discussed how to help a child who has this disorder.


5 signs of ODD

Sometimes it's difficult to recognise the difference between a strong-willed or emotional child, and a child who has oppositional defiant behavior. This is because it's normal for children to exhibit oppositional behaviour, at certain times, especially toward their siblings.

"So the criteria that differentiates oppositional defiant disorder from just a willful child, or just a child who's misbehaving is that the child has five specific kinds of symptoms", says Burns.

They are:

  1. The child is often angry, irritable and argumentative.  They get angry easily, and they're angry frequently.
  2. This behaviour has to occur in a situation that doesn't involve the child's sibling. If the child frequently gets angry at their siblings, that can be fairly normal.
  3. It has to cause significant problems at school, or home.
  4. The behaviour happens on its own. It doesn't occur in relationship to some other problem or some specific situation, such as ADHD, drug abuse, or other life issues such as parents divorcing.
  5. It lasts for at least six months.

What's happening in the brain

Dr Burns suggests that these types of behaviours are related to over-activity in the child's hypothalamas and adrenal glands.

When we are under stress, we produce two kinds of brain chemicals:  adrenaline, which gives us a lot of energy, and cortisol which shuts down unnecessary functions to allow us to direct all our energy to dealing with the stress.

"Cortisol kind of shorts out the rest of the brain", says Dr Burns. "You can think of it like this: when a child has a disorder like ODD, their brain is actually in a fight or flight mode. And the parts of their brain that put them in control of themselves have been shorted out. Their energy is devoted to striking out at other people, and they have trouble with impulse control. They're easily annoyed". 

4 ways to help

If you think your child or a student in your classroom has oppositional defiant disorder, there are at least four things you can do to help them.

  1. Seek advice from a mental health professional who understands the behaviour and knows how to modulate it. The first place to start is a family doctor who can make a referral to an appropriate person. It's important to make sure there aren't other complicating diagnoses like ADHD, an anxiety disorder, depression, or bipolar disorder. These disorders can overlap and if they exist, they need to be treated. The mental health professional will also assist you with the next three ways to help.
  2. Get the child to recognise when they're behaving well or not. Have them recognise behaviors that are appropriate, and praise those good behaviours to reinforce them.
  3. Set up limits and routines for the child so that they don't lapse into old inappropriate habits.
  4. Model the behaviors you want from the child. So if your child yells at you, don't model the undesirable behaviour and yell back and saying, "Don't you yell at me! You don't yell!" It's important to reinforce positive behaviors and avoiding modeling the negative behaviours.