Defiant Child: How to Get ODD Kids to Behave

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • 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.

  • Cathy February 3, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    After three yrs of testing (three psycholgists and two pediatricians) my son has been diagnosed with ADHD, ODD, OCD and anxiety along with a learning disability. He is now 11 yrs old and when he get “stuck” on something it is near impossible to change it (the dr. called is a cognitive loop and extreme rigid). My son can very easily overpower me so his violent outbursts are hard to handle. I have a home daycare and don’t know how to get his to his “cool down” spot when he refuses to leave and the daycare kids don’t know what is going on. We tried several reward charts, even having him pick out what the rewards should be, trading cards, computer time, time out for one parents for a treat but after the third day he looses interest. I feel m daughter is taking a back seat to this, because our family is helt hostage by his behaviour, it is now spilling into public outbursts. Any suggestions?

  • Rachel February 3, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I hear what you’re saying Cathy; and really, when a child is so out of control, the whole family has to take a backseat to his behavior, tiptoeing around, hoping not to set the fuse alight.

    I would recommend reading the articles on this site: They have excellent, professional advice on how to help kids like your son; I also own their program, and feel comfortable endorsing it (I don’t sell it, but I am quite familiar with it). I would also highly recommend reading Dr.Amen’s book, Healing ADD: The Breakthrough Program That Allows You to See and Heal the 6 Types of ADD .He shows you that much of what we think of as “behavior” has a biological basis, and can be directly traced to brain structure and function. Not everyone agrees with him, but I have also personally used many of his interventions for ADD, ODD, or foster children suffering from RAD- specifically the ones that recommend using certain types of amino acids based on the type of ADD they have- and they really do work.

    I hope some of this helps, Cathy. Hopefully you know you’re not alone out there; nor should you feel guilty about how your son is: you’re doing the best you can with what you have, and the fact that you’re asking for help shows you are a good mom.

  • Christina February 5, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Someone needs to come up with a REAL solution for this insidious disorder, and fast. Yes, I’ve used the word INSIDIOUS to describe this because that is what it is. It is hell on earth to have unconditional love for your child, but at the same time he has robbed you of everything that should be enjoyable about having him. One part of me loves him and would go to the ends of the earth for him, and the other part flat out can’t stand him and views him as an enemy so to speak. If he were a friend that treated me like this, I would never speak to him again. No one, and I mean NO ONE whether they are a teacher, doctor, mental health expert, therapist etc. has a clue what it’s like to live with this. If I hear ‘I understand’ one more time, I swear I’ll scream. No, you do not understand until you’ve lived with this day in and day out. The stress it has placed on my life, health, family, and anxiety issues is tremendous. It has effected EVERY single aspect of my life, to the point where I feel like a hostage in my own life. I don’t go anywhere with my 9 year old son because I cannot count on him not to embarrass me which is something he has done time and time again. Homework is extremely stressful as he just refuses to do it. He will drag out what should be a 2-3 hour workload into a 5-6 hour (12 hours on a saturday) visit to hell. He is very bright, has an amazing memory which is key to learning and studying, scores high test marks, and is fully capable of doing the work. He just digs in his heels and wont. I’ve tried timing him, offering a reward if he gets it done in a timely manner, sat beside him for hours trying to help him but all he will do is sit there and do nothing as he stares at me for a response without ever picking up his pencil. I’ve tried letting him do some of the work on the computer to speed things up, but he gets so distracted by opening other programs and pushing buttons that it takes ten times longer than it should. I’ve tried punishing him and taking away privileges to make him earn them back. I’ve tried explaining that if he gets his work done, he would have time for other things like tv, play a game, or go to the park etc. I’ve tried letting him earn “chips” that he can cash in for things he wants to do. “Do what you HAVE to do first and then you can do what you WANT to do” I tell him. He fights with my husband and I about everything. He even argues about arguing, if you can imagine that. He purposely ruins every birthday, holiday or special day. We can never have company over other than immediate family, and at times they have run out the door as well to get away from the insanity. Our 20 year old daughter moved in with my mother years ago to escape it, which breaks my heart. She rarely accompanies us on vacations (when we feel brave enough to go somewhere with him) because she knows the outcome. My neighbors are very understanding of the near constant arguing they hear, as they are aware of his issues, but still it embarrasses me greatly when I see them. I don’t smile much, and I’m always borderline angry due to the constant stress and frustration. My only salvation is when this child is in school and I have peace of mind for 6 1/2 hours. Summer vacation is something I start dreading in January. I’ve tried magnesium supplements as I have read in many reports that there is a link between a magnesium deficiency and ADD/ODD. While I know other parents it has helped, it hasn’t for us. I do not want to put him on medications because I know they are not a cure, and can cause other problems as a side effect. He is having problems in school with completing assignments and respecting authority. His social skills are awkward at best, and only recently began making a few friends that he can text and have face time with. But he is punished from doing any of that because he wont do his work to earn that privilege, so he doesn’t get to talk with them regularly. My husband enrolled him and coaches his hockey team in an effort to help make friends, get his aggression out in the game, get exercise and have fun. But he just fights everything his Dad tries to do, and often disrupts practice and makes little or no effort in games. I’ve read about staying calm and not letting these kids push your buttons. Please! Very easy to say when you don’t live with it, and nearly impossible when you do. We are at the end of our rope and don’t know what to do anymore. What I would like to know is where this is coming from. What is causing this? I have never in my life seen children that do not listen to A THING they are told, ever. It is becoming more common, and the parents living with this are all describing the SAME CHILD over and over. It’s sick to be honest. None of us know what to do, and all of us are going through hell. We need help, REAL HELP. Not words that sound good on paper, but are unrealistic to enforce in life. Not medications that will turn them into someone else altogether, or cause their bodies harm in other ways. Whomever it is that comes up with something that truly helps us, will be wealthy beyond their wildest dreams because we will be lining up for it. The thing I always say is that everyone should keep in mind that these defiant children are going to be adults one day, and there is a whole generation of them coming up. What then? I stumbled on this site during yet another fruitless search for help. It was my way of trying to ‘stay calm’ as my son sits and stares at me from the kitchen as he’s not doing his homework yet again.

  • Rachel April 13, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    I waited a long time to respond to your comment Christina, partially because I planned to write a post instead of just a comment, but was never able to do so.

    My first response to you, is that unless your child was adopted, or is a foster child, or was otherwise not raised by you for the last 9 years of his life, then you need to take some of the responsibility-and yes, you can read that word as blame if you like- for how he’s turned out. I find it amazing that some parents will be the first one in line to take the credit when someone talks about how smart their kid is, or how talented, but won’t take the credit when their child’s behavior is less than stellar.

    And I know that people will find it controversial for me to say this, but HECK, this is my blog and so I have the right to say what I mean – but you need to take a hard look at what you are doing right, and what you’re doing wrong, in order to fix this problem. And if I were you, I’d start right where you say you give your child unconditional love, when you wouldn’t even keep a friend who treated you this way.

    WHY in the world would you ALLOW yourself to be physically assaulted by your child? What Western psychological mumbo-jumbo did you read that told you this is acceptable behavior, or even tolerable behavior? Giving your child unconditional love doesn’t mean you allow your child to run your life, to the extent that your other children have to leave the house to get a bit of peace and quiet. Unconditional love means that you do what it takes to make sure you raise your child so that he is a decent human being, and a credit for the world in general, and your family in particular. And if that means you have to lose a day or work because your child acted up in school yesterday, and you’d already told him that if he acts up again he’ll have to stay home because school is a privilege, then that’s what you do.

    And I’ve done exactly that, except I made my kids clean the house, do hard math problems, etc. until school was officially ended. You can bet that the next day (and the day after that) there were NO problems in school. Sure I missed work, but my child (actually this was my foster daughter, but she is still my child, even I didn’t raise her for the first 4 years of her life) comes first. I didn’t do it because I cared what the teachers thought of us, but I can tell you that they were happy to get a little girl who behaved, and more importantly, realizes that she is not entitled to anything, including school. It is a privilege; not all children get to go to school, and if she wants to enjoy that privilege she had better behave.

    BTW- my daughter did try to pull that homework business you wrote about, but believe me, that was the only day she did it. And if she does decide to test some limits and try it again, as children do, then I’ll do the same thing again that I did last time. Which I won’t detail here, because it’s not details you need, but a fundamental shift in your relationship with your child.

    And I have to wonder, how did your respond when your child acted up like this when he as two and three years old? Because I have seen a lot of parents think its cute, or be too afraid to discipline their children in the way they need to be, public opinion be d***ed. As my parents always said: “If they’re not paying my bills I don’t give a hoot about what they think.”

    And before you say I don’t know what it’s like to live with a child like this, I’ll be the first one to heartily agree and say you’re right! And the day I DO know what it’s like to live that way will be the day they put me in the ground, because I will never live that way willingly unless I am comatose and a mental incompetent.

    I sacrifice a lot for my kids, but that particular situation is not one I ever want to live.

    Oh, I could live that way if I chose to take the easy way out. If you haven’t raad many posts on this site, than maybe you don’t know that my husband and I are raising 2 (now 3) foster children. Those little girls were basically raised like animals: one was nearly 4 and the other around 1 1/2 when they took them out of a home where they didn’t even know what solid food was, because they were only given baby formula. They had never been outside their entire lives, because they came from a cult family that didn’t believe that they should go outside of their house. So they didn’t know what a tree looked like, or a slide, or a bird. They were scared of flies, running water (they’d never had a bath in their lives), and I could go on, but I won’t.

    I’ll just point out to you that these girls were far from normal when we got them, and I dare say could have been much worse than your son, if we’d let them. But instead, the oldest is in the middle of second grade and doing at or above grade level, and her sister is also doing well in a normal pre-K.

    So the best I can do for you Christina, is wish you the best of luck. I have no hard feelings towards you, as harsh as this comment may seem. I just wish you’d get off your high horse and start doing what it takes to help your child – doing what you know deep down inside yourself (because every parent knows if they trust themselves) you need to do to make things right.