HELP FOR PARENTS WITH STRONG-WILLED, OUT-OF-CONTROL CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS

Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD

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Help for Oppositional Defiant Disorder

“I hate you, you’re such a bitch, I am too going to wear my red dress! You promised me yesterday, and if I can’t wear it today, I’m not getting ready for school!” Molly had been arguing about the dress for the past forty-five minutes. It was 8:05, mom was running late, and the dress was filthy. That overwhelming exhausted feeling enveloped mom and, once again, she caved. “Go ahead and wear it,” she screamed.

If your youngster has been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), this scenario may sound much too familiar. According to the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth Ed., oppositional defiant disorder can cause clinical impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning, and is characterized by a recurrent pattern of negativistic, defiant, disobedient and hostile behavior toward authority figures which persists for a period of at least six months.

Since kids pass through many developmental stages as they mature, it is important to understand the differences between normal childhood attempts to defy authority and symptoms of full-blown oppositional defiant disorder. Nine year-old Molly appears driven to defeat adults, is relentless in her pursuit of proving adults to be wrong, stupid, or both, and her thoughts revolve around defeating anyone’s attempt to exercise authority over her. She typically turns every interaction with adults into win/lose situations and is vigorously intent on winning.

Oppositional defiant kids share many of the following characteristics:
  • The ODD youngster is socially exploitive and very quick to notice how others respond. He then uses these responses to his advantage in family or social environments, or both.
  • These kids tolerate a great deal of negativity – in fact they seem to thrive on large amounts of conflict, anger and negativity from others, and are frequently the winners in escalating battles of negativity.
  • They possess a strong need for control, and will do just about anything to gain power.
  • They typically deny responsibility for their misbehavior and have little insight into how they impact others.

Besides oppositional defiant disorder, kids like Molly may also have another psychiatric disorder. ODD is frequently a co-morbid condition with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. It can also be diagnosed along with Tourette Syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and mood disorders, Asperger’s, language-processing impairments, sensory integration deficits, or even nonverbal learning disabilities. What causes this troubling behavior? Some researchers believe that many of the symptoms of these disorders may share common neurobiological mechanisms. If your youngster is affected by one of these disorders, it is critical to keep in mind that ODD can create additional problems for you and your youngster.

Many authorities on parenting have indicated that oppositional behavior is more prevalent when structure in the home is out of balance – when there is either too much structure or not enough. In an overly structured environment the parenting is rigid and inflexible. These moms and dads “micromanage” and come down hard on their kids, controlling every aspect of their lives. This particular style of parenting only serves to create more opposition and defiance. On the other hand, structure that is too loose can also cause difficulties. Kids can exhibit oppositional defiant behavior when moms and dads do not provide enough structure by setting appropriate boundaries, or establishing and following through with consequences for misbehavior. These moms and dads usually give in to all of their youngster’s demands, either out of fear of the youngster, or in an effort to keep themselves in the youngster’s good graces. In order to prevent or reduce oppositional defiant behavior parents should aim towards a firm and loving parenting style in which the structure is balanced. Moms and dads must take charge, and place themselves at the top of the family hierarchy. They must use their authority as parents and, at the same time, make the youngster feel protected, loved and soothed.

How well the parents get along, whether married or divorced, is another factor to consider in preventing oppositional behavior. When couples are unhappy or oppositional in themselves, they frequently disagree on parenting issues, significantly limiting their success in changing the behavior of their youngster. Molly is an expert at dividing her parent’s authority, and will most certainly take advantage of exploiting rifts between her parents. Couples counseling may be in order to decrease the hostility and conflict between parents and set the stage for united, successful parenting.

Another factor to consider is how the family is affected by ODD. This can be one of the most stressful conditions a family faces and, when it is secondary to another neuropsychiatric disorder, that stress is compounded. Family counseling may be helpful to resolve family difficulties. The family therapist can provide a controlled environment which offers support and skills training to weary moms and dads.

Once marital and family issues are addressed, moms and dads can begin to train both themselves and their youngster. If Molly’s mother continues to respond to her quarrelsome behavior as she always has, Molly will continue to tune her out, escalate the arguments, and push mom’s buttons. Most adults engage in an argument with concern for the outcome. The adult’s goal in an argument is to come to a resolution. In other words, what transpires as a result of the conflict is most important. As a parent, from your perspective, if you have determined the outcome of the argument, you are the one in control. For the oppositional youngster the process of creating an argument is more meaningful to her than the outcome of the conflict. These arguments over insignificant issues may seem pointless however, with such a strong need for control, it is your oppositional youngster’s goal is to escalate the conflict until you are no longer the one in control. What is important to her is not the issue being argued over, as much as what is going to happen during the argument.

In order to control the process of the argument the oppositional defiant youngster attempts to determine the topic and direction of the conflict, and seems to instinctively know when you are feeling most vulnerable and your energy is low. She will bring up conflict-laden issues during these times, aiming towards pushing your buttons and diverting you from issues in which you are likely to be attempting to exert your authority over her. When your ODD youngster finally pushes your buttons, in her mind, she has gained control of you and your emotions. At this point she has now successfully taken over your position of authority. Furthermore, when you lose control of your emotions, your youngster’s anxiety level rises along with her defensiveness. When her defenses increase she becomes more oppositional which is her main defense mechanism. As she becomes more oppositional, the situation escalates and we are caught in an endless cycle of conflict.

Strategies for avoiding conflict are essential to de-escalate the situation. It is wise to change the subject if your energy is low, or you suspect that the topic of discussion will result in an argument. Walking away from the conflict is another strategy to consider. If you cannot change the subject, or walk away it is important to keep in mind that the ODD youngster’s goal is to push your buttons. Think about your endurance, how long can you endure really oppositional button pushing? When you get to the end of your rope, what are your options? It is critical not to take what your youngster says personally. As soon as you defend yourself, your youngster, by the rules governing arguments, has the right to defend himself against your attack. In turn, you get to defend yourself, and he has now pushed your buttons and gained power. You do not have to defend yourself or try to convince him you are right. Do not lower yourself to the level of your oppositional youngster.

There are two options available for preventing him from drawing you in. Tell him, in an unruffled rational manner, that he has two choices. If he wants to stay around, he can change the subject and stop complaining; or he can go somewhere else in the house to complain if he chooses. Should your youngster choose to escalate, it is time to use two powerful words which can cut through any argument. These words are “regardless” and “nevertheless”. For example, “nevertheless, this is how it is going to be…” Using these words repetitively (like a broken record), in a calm unemotional manner will serve to de-escalate the situation without allowing your youngster to draw you into the power struggle.

Utilizing effective consequences for the oppositional youngster can be difficult since this presents one more opportunity for conflict in which you are likely to lose power. Discussing consequences while you are in the midst of their negative behavior will most likely result in more frustration for you. Therefore, it is critical to focus on consequences that do not require cooperation of the youngster. Rules and consequences must be clear, and in writing to provide clarity for both youngster and parent before the conflict occurs. Begin by removing reinforcers and allowing your youngster to earn the items back as a reward for acceptable behavior. Reinforcers include items such as television, stereos, CD’s computers, video games, telephones, bicycles, skateboards, visiting friends, access to favorite clothing, favorite foods, etc.

Once you have successfully avoided having your buttons pushed and gained some control over your youngster’s behavior, it is time to go on the offensive to soothe her, and help her get back to an even place. Oppositional kids do not like being soothed by their caretakers. This places them back into the role of being a youngster, and puts you back into the role as the parent. One of the driving forces behind ODD is that, for whatever reasons, a youngster is trying to grow up too quickly, and considers herself to be equal to her parents. The ODD youngster may feel less loved due to the amount of conflict going on, and it is difficult to simultaneously feel loved as a youngster and try to operate on an adult level. Your youngster may know intellectually that she is loved, but not feel loved. Moms and dads must be able to show love, and soothe and nurture their youngster. This is not always easy to accomplish, especially when previous negative behavior patterns have become ingrained.

Kids look to their moms and dads for a sense of security, belonging and identity. As our society becomes more complex, the need for our kids to develop a clear set of values is critical. Current research also has indicated that boys with ADHD and increased oppositional behavior are at greater risk for later antisocial behavior. With this in mind, the need for structure becomes particularly relevant in today’s world. It is apparent that kids affected by a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders are at greater risk for oppositional behavior. Since this behavior will create additional difficulties for them as they pass through the various developmental stages, it becomes even more important to use the authority vested in us as moms and dads to establish consistent limits and consequences, and to distinguish boundaries within the family. This will form a family unit characterized by established guidelines, affording kids a secure backdrop in which they can grow and thrive.

My Out-of-Control Child: Help for Parents

Teenage daughter runs away from consequences...

Hi Mark,

We bought my out of control teen for our problem teen, H___ aged 16 (with undiagnosed emotional problems) and have found the tools very helpful, however we are at a loss to know how to deal with her runaway episodes which she does when she receives a consequence.

She ran away late one night in bare feet and walked all the way to her dad's house 7& 1/2 kms away, (he was convicted with 18 charges of violence against me) she hadn't seen him for 10 years...and it turned out to be a bad experience...then went and stayed at a friend’s. As she told us she wasn't coming home but was planning to move out which she can legally do at the age of 16, which she is now. I just told her how her choice to move out would affect her...we wouldn't support her financially...she would have to arrange all that herself and stayed in constant contact with her.

We have contacted the police and they have said unless she is considered at risk (ie mental health issues which she does have) they do not have the power to go and bring her home.

I managed to persuade her through much carefully thinking and talking to come home and return to school which she wanted to drop out of. She did work experience during the holidays that I took her to and now school has started she became very wound up and yelled at and gave me mouth for half an hour when she was reminded of a job she was required to do.

She went to school Monday and never came home...I believe she has gone to a friends...and I don't know what to do....I replied to her text on someone else’s phone but have not heard back from her.

By running away when she is given a consequence (this has gone on for 2 & 1/2 years) she avoids all responsibility and accountability and I renders useless any discipline program.

What can I do about this as our Australian laws as we have signed the convention on the rights of the child have taken away parental rights?

How can I approach this problem for her benefit?

very distressed mum,

J.

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Hi J,

We as parents want to model for our children HOW THE "REAL WORLD" OPERATES.

In the real world, one has to follow certain rules (e.g., obey the speed limit).

In the real world, when someone breaks the rules, there is a consequence (e.g., a speeding ticket).

In the real world, if someone refuses to accept the 1st consequence (e.g., not paying the ticket)...

...there is usually a much stiffer consequence to follow (e.g., lose of driving privileges).

Thus, you will do more harm than good by (a) pleading and begging her to come home/return to school and (b) tip-toeing around her in fear of issuing any consequences that may result in her running off.

As long as you take ownership of her "running" and "avoiding" -- then she does not have to take on any responsibility (you are taking it all). As soon as she realizes that HER PROBLEM IS HER PROBLEM (i.e., where she lives and whether or not she goes to school is HER responsibility), then she will begin to make some better choices.

Tell her she is always welcome to come home, but there will be rules as well as consequences for violating the rules. Then say, "You decide where you want to live. Take all the time you need."

Mark

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Hi Mark,

Thank you so much for your sound advice. Here's how I implemented your advice...

I sent her an email explaining the consequences of her choice to run away (which were increasing in severity the longer she stayed away). They involved confiscating all her important stuff and selling it should she not return home, and giving the money to her sister who she owed money to.

I would call her 'safe house' (which we had no details of without lots of investigation) and inform them of what we were going to do, and that she was under my legal guardianship, I would call CATT and CAHMS, adolescent and mental health teams, I would report her as a missing person to the police.

I gave her a time limit when they would begin. If she wasn't home by 8pm I would begin to implement my plan. Then I told her what would happen if another day went by....I would put up missing person posters of her around all her favourite haunts asking people for information. And I would sell her horse and cancel his agistment, and warned of daily consequences increasing in severity.

She was on the phone to me quick smart to say she was coming home before 8 but she couldn't find money for a bus fare, then rang to say there weren't many buses, then she rang to ask if I could pick her up.

Your right. Reading her the riot act and telling her the consequences made it her problem not mine and she became very anxious to avoid them.

Thank you so much, she came home a very compliant and subdued and obedient kid.

very grateful

J.

Should I tell him that I am not his biological father?

Hello Mr. Hutten,

I have a question for you. I have a 14 year old step son who does not know that I am not his biological father. His mother and I have been separated for 9 years. I get him and his brother, who is my biological son, three times a week. I have had this visitation arrangement with their mother for the entire 9 years.

I met the boy when he was 8 months old, and he really has no idea I am not his biological father.

That said, the boy treats me with no respect, gets into trouble and generally makes the time I have with him and his brother a nightmare. I could go on, but I am sure you can imagine what I have been going through.

My question-- Should I tell him that I am not his biological father? I really want to tell him because I do not think he appreciates exactly how good I have been to him. I spend a lot of time being angry at him and I think if he knew the real situation he might have a little more gratitude.

Please let me know what your professional opinion is.

Thank you so much for your help and your program.

Sincerely,

B.

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Yes! You should definitely tell him, but out of a sense of keeping the relationship on an honest level – not out of a need to apply your own hidden agenda (e.g., to lay a guilt-trip on him for how he has been treating you). Also, break the news to him at a time when things are calm – not after a heated argument or during conflict.

For all intents and purposes, he is your son – and as such, you should use all the disciplinary strategies in the eBook exactly as they are outlined. Some stepparents try to deal with the daunting task of being stepdad by taking the approach of "I won't interfere with your life." Unfortunately, this approach says to the stepchild: "I don't care that much about what happens to you." Stepchildren may resist involvement, but they will benefit far more -- and form a better relationship -- with an involved stepparent who applies both nurturing and discipline.

Give your stepson the gift of limits. Children need limits for healthy development. If they don't learn in the home that there are limits on their behavior, they'll have a harder time functioning in the outside world. If they resist limits -- and they will -- it will be easier for you to deal with it if you remind yourself that children do the same thing with their biological parents.

Use clear and explicit rules to establish limits. "You never told me that" may be a legitimate objection when you try to punish a child for breaking a limit. Limits should be clear, consistent, and invariably enforced. And there should be clearly understood consequences for following or disobeying them. Don't overwhelm your stepchildren with rules, but have enough of them to create a moral order in your home.

Let stepchildren participate in making the rules. Have regular family meetings. Use them for sharing positive experiences, openly airing grievances and concerns, and formulating rules. Children should not have the final say in establishing each rule. But they should know that they have been heard. It's a basic principle that people are much more likely to conform when they have participated in the decision-making process.

Encourage openness about feelings. "I hate you. You're not my father." It's tempting to reprove the child and forbid such language. But that teaches stepchildren to suppress their feelings. Instead, tell the child why this kind of statement hurts and how it makes you feel. Then explore with the child why he feels this way, reminding him that you still want to be his father. Be honest with your stepchildren about your own feelings, and encourage them to be honest about theirs.

Plan special times and experiences with your stepson. Shared experiences build intimacy. Spend time alone with him. Do something that the child considers special (e.g., going hunting or fishing).

Maintain your sense of humor. Humor helps keep matters in perspective. It helps relieve tension. It builds intimacy when you laugh with someone else. Sometimes you can use humor to resolve a problem with a stepchild. Humor won't cure all problems, but a lack of humor can kill the relationship.

Other than these items above, use the techniques outlined in the eBook.

Good luck,

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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