What Underlies Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)?

ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) just doesn’t suddenly appear.  Defiance is not an innate attribute; children are not born with it.  I believe defiance or ODD is the byproduct of something else such as impaired executive functioning skills, anxiety and maybe even sensory processing issues – all of which my son has displayed at some point in his life.

Impaired executive functioning skills – Children do not have the ability to think ahead and assess the impact of their behaviors.  Many have impulsivity issues (which is why ODD is frequently co-morbid with ADHD).  Because executive functioning skills are lacking, children often react in ways that come across as intentionally oppositional (ex: losing temper, arguing, blaming others).  This is daily life for me and my son.  If he can’t handle someone else’s comments or perceives something as unfavorable to him, he argues and blames rather than trying to understand other points of view, mine included.

Anxiety inducing situations – These situations are very scary for children and rather than deal with the source of the fear, they try to escape it by acting out.  Lately, there has been an uptick in my son’s annoying ODD-related behaviors.  But when I step back and just listen to him, I suspect the stress of college planning, job searching and thinking about life after high school are creating a lot of anxiety for him.  So the anxiety is coming across as irritability, deliberate annoyance, even arguments at times, etc.  But in fact, he may just be anxiety-ridden.

Sensory processing issues – Sensitivities to light or noise or even clothing are examples of sensory processing issues.  When children are overwhelmed by many sensory inputs, the “fight or flight” response kicks in, resulting in tantrums, moodiness, and sometimes even actual escape from whatever environment is just too overwhelming.  When my son was a toddler, he was extremely sensitive to trains & sirens and he hated wearing shoes because his feet always felt too hot even in the middle of winter.  He also ran out of classrooms often which, at the time, seemed like difficult behavior.  But looking back at it now and understanding ODD better, perhaps he was fleeing because the classroom was just too stressful.

As I read more information about ODD, I am building a wealth of knowledge that I did not have early in this process.  I am recognizing that this information is incredibly helpful and powerful to have because it gets me/us to thinking differently about ODD and how we should approach and handle it.  Too often, children are incorrectly & unfairly labeled as “difficult” or “impossible” or “undisciplined”.  It is really important for you, as the parent, to know this information so that you can advocate for your child at schools and other settings along with medical providers and anyone who cares for your child.  Most importantly, it is important to be knowledgeable because the only way you can help your child is if you empathize and try to see the circumstances from his/her impaired point of view.

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