In my Tips For Parenting Oppositional Defiant Disorder – part 2, I talked about the skills (awareness, patience) critical to managing and surviving extremely trying interactions with someone who is deeply & firmly oppositional. For anyone who is raising a child diagnosed with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) or any severe behavioral issue, you know the hardship involved. And if the ODD is severe or coupled with other disorders (ex: mood, anxiety, depressions, etc), like it is in my son, it is purely tormenting.
My son is 17 and as we near the end of his young adult journey, I have come to realize that absent psychotherapy, medication and the maturity to have a desire to improve one’s circumstances – all of which my son does not yet have – there’s very little else that I can do to help my son. So the shift, in the last three years or so, has been to rehabilitate myself.
When I reflect back through these 17 years, I fully recognize all of the times when I fell short when it came to patience. Sometimes there were just some egregious moments when I used name calling and physical aggression to deal with my son’s behaviors. I am not a naturally patient person; if I can’t wait for someone to do something, I simply do it myself. So when my son was little and he just couldn’t integrate in schools or behave at home, I lost my patience many, many times. Fast forward to 2019 and I often wonder if my impatience played a meaningful role in shaping his opposition. I wonder this because he says it a lot – “You’re to blame for…” Or “You’re the reason why I’m difficult.” Or “I’m messed up because you’re messed up.” These kinds of comments would certainly make people shake their heads or make them judge me and him – me as a bad parent who by extension raised a bad person. But I know better. And I also know that this language is from his father saying these things about me to him.
Years ago, I would have taken these comments personally and sunk into a really bad, emotional and mental state. There was so much pressure from schools, daycare centers, doctors, work and worse, from his own father who, with his own psychological issues, had a personal vendetta against me and who continually undermined me every opportunity he could get. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t allow myself to sink to a bad place. So I sought individual & family therapy to try to address my & my son’s issues and to find ways to mend our deeply fractured relationship. I needed to find support and the skills critical to deal with a person suffering from severe emotional issues.
Today, like last weekend, my son had another episode whereby he took out his confusion and anger on me by calling me names, destroying my property, the same drill. It was a shorter episode – 30 minutes or so. Some episodes can go on for hours even if I choose to disengage and not react. This is simply the nature of oppositional people – they are persistently angry, they argue, they are deliberate with their words & actions, they can be vindictive. Throughout those long 30 minutes, I did the very best I could to make sure the mental mantra I kept repeating in my head was louder and more persistent than his behaviors. I kept telling myself – No, you are not going to regress to 5-10 years ago with yelling, verbal abuse, power struggles. You are going to maintain your composure even though your child is doing everything in his power to break you down. Do not feed into this. You have come too far, Katherine. It was hard as hell but I have learned, through years of therapy, that these behaviors and episodes are slowly chipped away at by showing a response that is indifferent and unflappable. Just as important, by remaining cool headed and controlled and by choosing to react from a place of compassion (versus offense and hurt), it is showing my son that I still love him unconditionally. (People who are diagnosed with ODD and other severe behavioral disorders are all too often labeled impossible and are therefore rejected.)
It is not easy to survive the wrath of a person diagnosed with ODD and mood disorder. If you are at your wit’s end trying to manage behavioral issues, it is extremely important to seek help for yourself. Doing so doesn’t mean you are a bad parent or person. It doesn’t mean you are incompetent or worthless. It simply means you need help. And asking for help isn’t ever a shameful act. If you were hurting through a different means, you would never hesitate to seek help. Mental health is no different. 17 years in and I would readily seek psychotherapy for any of my issues. My relationship with my son is a mess. But it would be immeasurably worse if I hadn’t sought help.