From a very young age, many children diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) experience a great deal of negative interactions with parents, caregivers, teachers, etc. Often because this disorder is not diagnosed immediately or parents do not know that there is a real problem to diagnose, many people quickly label children as difficult and defiant, lacking discipline and control. The problem with this thinking is that it begins a cycle that, if not corrected early, results in children who grow up to be negative and angry with very low self-esteem. This is what has happened to my son. He is turning 17 in a few months and has openly admitted that he is angry – not only at me but at his absent father, schools, teachers, therapists, doctors, anyone and everyone who has had interaction with him throughout his experience with ODD.
There are many, many times when I reflect back through the years and wonder if I could’ve done more or better. Could I have been more patient? More creative in my parenting? More empathic? More firm? More warm and nurturing? The questions are endless but I try not to beat myself up too much thinking about this because what is done cannot be changed. There is no point wallowing in regret or self-pity. I have learned to accept that ours has been a messy and challenging situation from the very beginning – his father & I split when he was an infant, his father was emotionally abusive, and I was left to raise my son alone for most of his life with little/no support from him. To this day, his father is simply impossible to deal with.
When I do think about our entire experience, I know that the only way to make this right or better is to do what I should have done a long time ago – be more patient, kind and empathic. For many years, I was the very opposite. I couldn’t tolerate anything or any behaviors that wasn’t acceptable. I didn’t take the time to see my son’s experiences through his eyes and his feelings. I didn’t adjust my own behaviors and expectations to better fit with his temperament. I constantly resisted him and our circumstances. I was always angry – angry at his dad, at our situation, at his difficult behaviors, at my being alone to do it all; always angry because of the constant struggle. So many times I took it out on my son – mostly by saying harsh things. In turn, he started to develop negative interactions with me that evolved into negative feelings towards me. He resisted me by becoming increasingly defiant and disrespectful. It was a horrible, vicious cycle that he and I didn’t know how to break. So here we are, today, where my son is angry and I am unsure about our future and our relationship.
If your child is difficult and defiant, it does no good to deal with him/her negatively, whether through ineffective discipline, harsh words, name calling or labeling, hitting, etc. Being difficult or defiant is a temperament, no different than being impatient, introverted, hot-tempered or gregarious. These children did not choose to be born difficult. So it is unfair and perhaps even irresponsible to treat them negatively. In the moment, when your child is acting out or when schools are complaining again & again about his/her behaviors, it is very hard to stay positive and patient. Naturally, it’s frustrating especially if these situations happen frequently. When you add other stressors of daily life – like work, finances, other family members, perhaps even health issues – it’s easy to see how parents lose their patience and begin to fall into this negative cycle. It’s important to catch this very early on and do something about it so that you don’t end up with an angry young adult and/or a lost parent/childhood.
Raising a defiant child or any child with mental health issues is really hard. It’s exponentially harder when you do it alone and there aren’t many people who can truly empathize with and support you. But that is not an excuse to stop trying. Frankly, there will be many more episodes in which your resilience will be tested – this is just parenthood. Your child needs you. His/her success managing his/her mental health condition starts with you. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned along my own journey. Seek help from school psychologists, from private mental health specialists, from support groups & the community, from friends & family willing to listen, from this blog. Find creative ways to stay positive and make sure you surround yourself with people who will encourage you, especially during the roughest episodes. Do your best to tune out the negative people and the negative self-talk. There is enough on your plate already; you don’t need distractions like these. Don’t be afraid to seek therapy yourself. Many of the most insightful and motivating advice I have received from therapists. And because their point of view is objective, they see the experiences from both sides. This is important because understanding your child’s experiences through his/her lens allows you to learn and develop empathy – which is critical to have as you go through the process.
Start as soon as possible so that your child can learn and develop skills to cope with life’s challenges, so that everyone will treat him/her with the respect and kindness that he/she deserves and so that he/she grows into a thriving and functioning adult.