Defiant Child: How to Get ODD Kids to Behave

by Rachel

in Defiant Child

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I read a very interesting article on oppositional defiant children a while back that I thought I’d share with you: We all know how difficult it is to get ODD kids to behave. Not only do they know what they want to do, but they are so darn persistent about it they could drive you crazy and back. It sure seems like no matter how much you punish them, they are back up and ready for more; when I was kid they used to call it being “hardheaded.”

So, researchers wanted to find out exactly what ODD kids do respond to, if not punishment. In order to do that, they presented the ODD kids and a control group of non-ODD kids with three possibilities. One, play a game where you have a chance of winning small rewards with small consequences (advantageous). Two, play a game where you have a chance of winning small rewards but big consequences (disadvantageous). Three, play a game where you have a chance of winning big rewards but also big consequences (seductive). If you’re the parent of an ODD child I bet you can guess which one the ODD children took!

The researchers presented these games in two frameworks: in the first one, the severity of the punishment (bigger consequences) went up, while in the second one, the frequency of the punishment went up.

In the first framework, both groups stopped choosing the disadvantageous scenario at about the same time. Interestingly enough, however, while the non-ODD kids continued by mostly choosing the advantageous game, the ODD kids chose the seductive and advantageous situation equally. This is even though they were getting serious “punishments” for the former.

What that means for those of you not out on the battlefield is that where the payoff is high, ODD kids will continue to engage in an activity even if it is dangerous, they get punished, or worse.

Now for the interesting part. In  the second situation, where the frequency of the punishment was increased, an astonishing thing happened. Not only did the ODD kids quickly choose the advantageous situation over the seductive one, they showed a greater preference for it than the non-ODD kids! On top of everything, it didn’t even matter what the size of the reward was, only that the consequence was frequent.

I started thinking about this, and tying it into the discipline method that I suggest for my clients’ most difficult kids. Keep an eye out for a more detailed blog on this method, but basically it involves three things: 1) Be sure to comment on as many positive things your child does as you can 2) Give the child a time-out for every little thing wrong they do, without showing any anger or annoyance whatsoever, and 3) have them state why it is they had a time-out, and apologize for what they did.

As I said, I’ll write later on exactly how this method is done, because there are some key details that are important to know about before you do it, but the main point to notice that I recommend EVERY TIME  your child does something wrong he gets a time-out.

Now some people imagine that kids don’t really know what it is they did wrong. This is simply untrue and the most unhelpful bit of psychobabble that I have possibly ever heard. If you only knew how many parents tell me this- heck, argue with me about this- and then are simply shocked when kids as little as three tell their parents what they did wrong before coming out of time-out.

Generally the reason kids won’t admit to what they did is because they don’t want to get a punishment, and/or want to continue arguing for whatever it is they feel they should be getting at that moment.

If you don’t believe it, I suggest that you try it. Choose one small thing that your child has done, and a few hours later, after tempers have cooled and you are back on good terms again (hopefully), ask your child in an off-handed manner why he did what he did. Don’t make a big deal out of it, just say you were just wondering. You’ll probably be quite surprised!

It can sometimes be tempting to just let ODD kids slide when they don’t follow the rules, because their behavior can be so difficult when they don’t get their way. But this is clearly the worst thing you could do, because eventually they will break the rules big time. Then you’ll find yourself pulling out the heavyweights…only to find out that your child doesn’t respond.

The good news about this piece of research is that these kids can and do respond to rules, but it needs to be frequent, consistent, and carried out calmly.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Alison December 5, 2012 at 11:05 pm

As I was reading this blog I thought FINALLY, someone is going to answer the question as to how to discipline my ODD child. Then I got through reading it and was left feeling let down. I do exactly what was suggested in this article….1) Be sure to comment on as many positive things your child does as you can 2) Give the child a time-out for every little thing wrong they do, without showing any anger or annoyance whatsoever, and 3) have them state why it is they had a time-out, and apologize for what they did.

That is my technique word for word. Here is the problem, and those who parent a child with ODD are probably wondering the same thing. How do you get your defiant, violent child to take a time out???????

If you can answer that question I will be forever indebted to you!! Even my son’s therapists cannot seem to answer this question and pretty much avert it when I bring it up.

My son will become extremely violent when I attempt to put him into time out. He kicks, bites, scratches, pulls hair, hits, throws things, kicks walls and doors. I try to place him in his room with the least amount of physical confrontation and as soon as I deposit him there and tell him he needs to stay until he is ready to change is attitude and come out and apologize, he loses it!!!

So I am left with two options: physically keep him in his room, risking injury to myself and possibly him, or let him go when he runs. Then he receives no discipline at all. Which I agree is the worst thing to do….so if I cannot physically get him to comply with a timeout….what do I do????
oh, my son is 4yrs old…and yes, he is too strong for me to hold during a time out. I have tried that and gotten bloody noses and scratches that bleed.

Rachel December 6, 2012 at 1:01 am

Actually Alison, I wrote a second article that has some very specific advice about what to do: Defiant Child: How to Discipline Your ODD Child Part 2.

But I’d still like to add to it, especially since this isn’t an uncommon question.

First of all, you can’t have consequences without a reward. So you need to sit down and make a list of big and small rewards, and big and small consequences. And then you need to write down the kinds of behaviors that each one warrants. Personally, I tell parents to talk briefly to their child about this, and to explain that when they follow the rules, they get a reward. Don’t say anything about a consequence until it comes up, and then say, “If you do X, then you are CHOOSING not to get a reward. I need you to do X, or there will be a consequence.”

Make sure that you actually use rewards that are doable, and remember that they don’t have to be presents. They can be as simple as staying up an extra 15 minutes at bedtime, choosing what breakfast cereal to buy, or getting to use bubble bath at bathtime. As for consequences, it’s important to remember that consequences and punishments are not the same thing. A punishment doesn’t really do anything for the child – it’s not a learning experience, and it doesn’t usually make them want to behave next time. But a consequence is different: it’s like making a person thirsty so they’ll want to drink.

So what that means is that with your son, you don’t always have to use a time-out to get him to behave. If you can, use a natural consequence. Is he throwing food around? Good, then he’s done eating. Is he hitting a sibling? Fine, then you can play by yourself. People don’t want to play with people who hit. Let’s see if in five minutes you can play nicely with us.

Just remember that at the same time you’re doing this, you must remember to reward your child (legitimately) as often as he deserves it. Doing this will also help you stay out of those behavioral spirals where you keep giving worse and worse punishments, but nothing helps. And by the way, if he does act out after he gets a consequence, you can have one specific consequence for that, and that’s it. No escalation.

I think it’s easier to take something away, than force him into time out. Different things work for different kids though. My foster daughter, for example, was completely unable to understand normal consequences (a result of her history), so only time-outs worked for her.

The second very important thing is that your child’s behavior won’t improve solely through consequences, since it stems from an inability to problem-solve. When you son has a problem, he uses an inappropriate (though effective, which is his main goal) method of doing so. He needs to learn how he should handle this situation in the future. I talk about this in the article that I linked to above, but I would add that he can also draw a picture to show what he could do next time.

As for the abuse, personally I don’t tolerate that at all. From the time my kids were very little – even as young as one and a half, if they even raised a hand to me, I made it very, very clear that they shouldn’t even think of even raising a hand.

You need to make it clear to your son that you won’t tolerate that at all. It doesn’t matter how old he is: that type of behavior is abuse (yes, even if he’s “only” 4, and it is not allowed. Can you get anyone stronger to back you up? Male or female, anyone who he wouldn’t dare to hit? I would ask if they’d be willing to back you up for a day or so, and either spend the day with you, or let you call them when something happens.

Then they can go to him and briefly explain that he is not allowed to hit his Mommy, or he (your son) will have to answer to them.

It may be unpleasant, but kids who do this at this age end up using this type of behavior on their spouses, friends, or others; for his sake, even though it may seem extreme, you’ve got to do it.

Best of luck Alison, I know it’s hard, but it’s never too late for him to change. Good luck, and let me know if you have more questions.


Sara December 7, 2012 at 1:31 am

Hi I just came across your blog and you have some good tips there but I was wondering if you have any tips for getting an O.D.D child to behave at school. My son just can’t seem to bring home good reports from his teacher. Today for instance they were standing in line and he decided it would be a good idea to swing a jump rope around like a lasso above his head, his teacher told him to stop doing it because he might hit another child and he looked right at her and continued to spin the jump rope. Yesterday he was banging on his desk and she asked him multiple times to stop and he just kept right at it. Any advice would be great.

Rachel December 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Hi Sara!

Great to hear from you. I think that the entire problem is in something you said, “she asked him multiple times to stop.”

It sounds like this teacher doesn’t have a clear plan of what to do when kids misbehave in her class. I would bet that she has a general discipline problem in her class, as well. What needs to happen is that she needs to decide what consequences your son (or any kid) can get in class when they misbehave, as well as rewards for when he does misbehave for increasingly longer periods of time. (First have him behave for the first half hour of class, then 3/4, then whole class, etc.)

It’s clear he knows she won’t do anything, and that’s why he looks her right in the face as he does it. He wants to test her and get a response from her.

It would be better for her to set up a behavior plan, making sure that there are other opportunities for him to get the attention he wants in positive ways.

Also, many kids misbehave during transition periods, since they don’t handle unstructured time well. If that is the case with your son, then one quick way to deal with this is to make sure she gives your son a specific activity to do (one that he likes or will actually do), like clearing off the board, bringing something to the office, etc.

Let me know how this works for you. If you need more help, you can e-mail me at, and I’ll be happy to help.

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