My son was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder at the age of 6. Through getting curious to what was underneath his frequent outbursts and strait up, “NO’s” I discovered that what he really wanted was control over the decisions I was making over his life. When you think about it, children who desire a certain amount of freedom must find it hard being a child. They may experience feelings of powerlessness, causing them to react when being told what to do.
When I first started learning about ODD from our psychologist, she told me to make connection with my son my number one priority – not correcting his behaviour. This sounded absurd to me! I wanted someone to tell me how to improve my son’s behaviour. She went on to explain to me that when our children’s cups are empty, it’s hard to give them instruction – even important instruction – until their cups are full enough of connection with us. I had just spent the first 6 years of my son’s life yelling at him, wondering why he couldn’t get it together. His cup was empty.
As crazy as it sounded to me, I spent the next few months working on connecting with my son by not reprimanding him when he argued with me and controlling my desire to yell. I spent more time doing fun activities with him that increased the fun and laughter between us. I started saying things like, “That IS frustrating” or “I can see this really upsets you” when he would throw a fit. At first, these statements only made him more angry, but eventually when he could see that my motive was to UNDERSTAND and EMPATHIZE with him, not control him, he softened.
I didn’t realize that when I would raise my voice and I threaten my son with taking away privileges in an uptight manner, I would trigger anxiety, setting off his psychological alarm informing him our connection was being threatened. No parent wakes up wanting to yell at their children. So why do we end up there? We feel powerless. We don’t feel heard (and many times, we’re not heard!) The problem is that our powerless reactions tear our relationship with our children. This is why working on connection comes FIRST.
The feeling of someone looking to understand you disarms you. This is what my son needed from me. He needed to know that I understood his need to have choices and to not feel boxed in. He began to build trust with me, that I wasn’t just trying to enforce my own way on him. I gave him choices which made him feel like he was not being controlled. In the times he absolutely could not have a choice and it just had to be done the way I said, I had built up enough connection for him to comply.
Children, and people in general, who are more oppositional have two needs:
To be understood
To know you’re not trying to control them
It’s not opposition that is often out of order, it’s your child’s connection with you. Seek to understand where they are coming from and give them choices.
For clarification, we at Village are not convinced “Oppositional Defiance Disorder” is a great label, nor accurate. Psychologists debate about it as well. We like how Gordon Neufeld states it when he calls it, “Counterwill”, which is “an instinctive auto response to anything forced. It is triggered when a person feels controlled or pressured to do someone else’s bidding. Counterwill can also be positive as it creates autonomy, protects those who the child is not connected to. Discover their own minds and desires, yet connection is key to discovering their own mind in a healthy way. In counterwill, the child’s brain is blocking out any ideas that didn’t originate with him. Even if a child IS trying to control or manipulate us, they are doing it out of a need and a dependance on us to make things work.” (From Gordon’s book, Hold Onto Your Kids)
Next time your child is showing signs of opposition, use these steps:
1. Seek to understand where they are coming from.
2. Identify with their emotion (I can see this is frustrating for you).
3. Give choices.