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

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

Diagnosing Behavior Problems in Younger Defiant Children

The best way to diagnose a behavioral problem in a young defiant child (ages 3 to 6) is by consistent observation over several weeks – or even months. By observing your defiant youngster over a lengthy period of time, it becomes easier to identify patterns of behavior, and therefore discern potential triggers for problem behaviors. Observing and recording your youngster's problematic behavior can provide clues about his or her strengths and weaknesses, and help you gain valuable information about how your youngster thinks, feels, learns and reacts in a variety of situations and environments. 

Here’s how to conduct an investigation:
  1. Develop some investigation questions. What are you trying to discover about your youngster? Write down some questions that you hope to answer through observation (e.g., "Why does my son get very angry, agitated, and sometimes physically aggressive when playing board games with his siblings?").
  2. Divide a piece of paper into 3 sections to create a note sheet. Label the first column "Time," the second "Observation," and the third "Comments."
  3. Find a spot to sit in proximity to your youngster. Get close enough so you can hear what he's saying, but not so close that you interfere with the natural course of events.
  4. Note the time that you are observing your youngster in the Time column.
  5. Write a few sentences about the context of the situation in the Observation column. What is he saying and/or doing? Capture as much detail as possible. Write in note form and abbreviations in order to record quickly as the action happens. Also, write in present tense.
  6. Write down any comments you have about what is happening in the Comments column. If, for example, you recorded that your youngster keeps yelling at his sister every time she appears to be winning, you could comment that “my son seems very concerned that he is going to lose.” You can add comments after you have recorded all observations.
  7. After you have finished recording and commenting, try to find clues in your notes along the following 5 areas: (a) your youngster’s physical presence, (b) his disposition and temperament, (c) his connections with siblings, (d) his interests and preferences, and (e) his modes of thinking and learning.
  8. Next, assign a color to each category and color-code your notes with colored pencils to underline different words and/or phrases associated with each area.
  9. Then split all your color-coded evidence into the 5 areas and look for patterns of behavior. For example, review all your red underlined sections and see if you notice a repeated behavior (e.g., frequent yelling) that might suggest a certain habit (e.g., quick temper).
  10. Lastly, organize your notes and formulate answers to your investigation questions. You may have to do several observations to gather enough data to analyze. One conclusion could be: "My son tends to act-out verbally and physically during board games because he fears losing. He needs to learn how to be a graceful loser."

Armed with this information, you can begin to take the steps necessary in helping your defiant child to be a graceful loser. For example:
  • Choose an activity that requires cooperation as well as competition (e.g., freeze tag, red rover, duck duck goose, etc.).
  • If your youngster fails at something, emphasize those aspects of the endeavor in which he is getting better. Keep track of improvement and personal bests (e.g., farthest throw, most hits in a row, etc.) – not final scores.
  • If your youngster loses a game, quickly offer to play again and remind him that the winner has to say "Good game" to the loser.
  • Once in a while, before you play a game, agree on a prize for the loser (e.g., picking the dessert that evening).
  • Play games of chance (e.g., war) and explain that winning sometimes depends on luck, not on skill.
  • Play games that last forever (e.g., Monopoly) in which your youngster and his siblings will run out of steam before anybody wins or loses. 

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