Oppositional Behavior

The Parents’ Guide to Dismantling Oppositional, Defiant Behavior

Defiance is rarely improved by assertive requests or vague and shifting ground rules. Here, learn about the parenting strategies that may unintentionally exacerbate a teen’s symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder or pathological demand avoidance — and what to do instead.

Preteen boy is smirking and holds a skateboard against his shoulders. His frustrated mother stands before him.
mother bothering the son with the skateboard

Does your child bristle against limits? Challenge your authority? Resist even reasonable requests? Yes, youthful rebellion travels in lockstep with adolescence, but don’t dismiss your teen’s oppositionality as hormones alone. “No” could be your child’s way of expressing a wide range of emotions they can’t otherwise articulate. It may be their way of setting limits, slowing things down, or expressing their overwhelm.

Defiance is commonly associated with ADHD symptoms like weak impulse control and emotional regulation, but repetitive acts of defiance could be a sign of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or pathological demand avoidance (PDA). To determine the root cause of a child’s behavior, we must dig underneath inappropriate words and actions.

Why Is My Child So Defiant?

Many oppositional teens have a loud internal voice that tells them they’re a failure; they can’t do things right; no one likes them; they’re stupid. You name it.

As a parent, you’ve likely witnessed pushback resulting from this internal narrative. Your child’s defiance is an unskilled and ineffective attempt to manage some of these feelings. They’re trying to manage their external surroundings when things feel out of control on the inside.

Oppositional tweens and teens may demonstrate the following behaviors:

  • lack of cooperation
  • inappropriate language
  • refusal to do tasks such as homework or chores
  • instant anger or reactivity
  • threatening behavior
  • destruction of property

[Download: Free Guide to Ending Confrontations and Defiance]

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

ODD is classified as a disorder in the DSM-V, but symptoms of ODD often present situationally. Kids with ODD who are openly resistant in one setting or with one authority figure may be completely cooperative in other areas of their life. Their behavior presents like a switch — angry one minute and fine the next.

This can be confusing to the parent of a child who acts out at home but not at school. Children with ADHD may exert authority in an area where they feel relatively secure. They may direct their defiance toward the parent who they think is most likely to take and/or forgive it. They may push back because they can.

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)

Defiant behavior may signal PDA when it occurs almost without exception. This profile is characterized by an overwhelming and consistent need to avoid or resist demands. PDA is more intense and pervasive than is ODD; it is not limited to certain people or situations.

Kids with PDA are obsessive in their resistance to requests that they perceive as overly assertive. They may avoid compliance by resorting to manipulative behaviors and even turn down activities they enjoy. Parents may notice sudden changes in mood that are associated with the need to control or reject a demand.

PDA is not a standalone diagnosis in the U.S., but it falls under the umbrella of the autism spectrum diagnoses. It is seen most often in people with autism, ADHD, and high anxiety.

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Solutions to Address Oppositional Behavior

Parental communication style (and substance) can contribute to a child’s oppositional behavior — for better or for worse. Invitations, tag teaming, collaboration, being a body double, and noticing your child’s efforts all contribute to better cooperation. Reconsider how you ask your child to engage in a task and what happens when they fail to do so.

1. Nix Non-negotiable Words

A “no” might be a response to what your adolescent views as a demand rather than a request. The use of words such as “need,” “must,” or “will” may be triggering for kids who have PDA. These non-negotiables give them the impression that a decision has already been made.

Try the following phrases to reframe your requests:

  • “Is it okay with you if…?”
  • “How do you feel about…?”
  • “Do you mind doing this…?”
  • “If you’d be happy to, I would really appreciate…”
  • “When you’ve finished with this, could you then do…?”

2. Encourage Shared Involvement

You can also encourage cooperation by using words like “us,” “we,” “let’s,” and “together.” Or give autonomy and decision-making opportunities to your child by engaging them in directed free choice. This means offering them two or three options in a situation so they feel empowered to make a decision rather than resentful or angry about being told what to do. Kids may also want to play a bigger role in the brainstorming process.

3. Plan for Patterns

ODD and PDA are repetitive patterns of behavior, so don’t treat them like isolated events. Plan for explosions. What options are available when your child acts out? What logical consequences can they expect as a result?

Maybe your teen is given one free hour of screen time a day. They can earn additional screen time after completing cooperative activities such as basic chores and homework. If they get angry, scale back on this incentive. Reduce the free screen time allotment. This teaches the lesson that “have-to” tasks are necessary to get “want-to” rewards.

4. Institute Takebacks

Lying is a social behavior that occurs between two people due to avoidance, denial, or a desire to avoid punishment. It creates comfort in the present and minimizes conflict based on something that’s happened in the past. Kids with ADHD may lie due to poor impulse control or inattention. They might not realize that they misinterpreted an event until after they’ve said it out loud.

This is when we want to give them an option to take it back. I call this the “take back of the day” or TBD approach. I did it with my kids when they were growing up and I’ve recommended it to hundreds of families as a tool to diffuse tension and bring awareness to disrespectful comments. I think it’s helpful when everyone in the family has a chance to take back something they said without risk of penalty–including adults who can model how it works.

5. Meet in the Middle

If your child is stuck, it may be that your demands are too difficult to meet. Fatigue or low energy could also be signs of sleep deprivation or depression. Technology addiction, while composed of many things, is often related to an ADHD brain hunting for dopamine. Creating a balance or flow with high dopamine and low dopamine activities helps kids with building their abilities for shifting and flexibility. If your approach is not working, ask some open-ended questions about what’s going on with your child that is interfering with their compliance (e.g. ‘What is making it tough to do this? What would make it more appealing? How can I offer you support to get through this?’), and adjust as needed.

To encourage your child to cooperate or tell the truth, you might also create ground rules that are negotiable in certain situations. Maybe your ground rule is no swearing, and your child broke that rule. Instead of imposing consequences right away, take a pause. Consider the STAR method: stop, think, act, and recover. This process includes taking a pause with a planned, self-soothing activity, coming back together to discuss what each person thinks they could have done differently occurred, what the next right action will be and doing it and then giving time and space for recovery and moving forward.

6. Acknowledge Effort

If you notice that your child’s behavior is improving, acknowledge it. “Efforting” is what I call a full-body experience for outside-the-box thinkers. It’s emotional, it’s social, it’s cognitive, and it’s physical. It’s more than simply trying. It may result in accomplishing something or it may show genuine efforts without completion. It’s the process that contributes to growth mindset. We want to acknowledge, validate, and encourage the progress that we see our kids making.

Oppositional Teen Behavior: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Real-Time Support Group session titled, “Helping Oppositional Teens with ADHD” with Sharon Saline, Psy, D., which was broadcast via Facebook Live on February 10, 2023. Live support group meetings take place on Facebook most Fridays at 4 p.m. ET.

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