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

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Understanding the Brain of a Defiant Teenager

Most moms and dads don’t understand why their defiant teens behave in an impulsive, irrational, and sometimes dangerous way. At times, it seems like these young people don’t think things through or fully consider the consequences of their actions. They differ from their "normal" peers in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. There is a biological explanation for this difference.

Researchers have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for instinctual reactions (e.g., fear, aggressive behavior). This region develops early; however, the frontal cortex (i.e., the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act) develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into the early- to mid-twenties.

Other specific changes in the brain during the teenage years include a rapid increase in the connections between the brain cells and pruning (i.e., refinement) of brain pathways. Nerve cells develop myelin (i.e., an insulating layer which helps cells communicate). All these changes are crucial for the development of coordinated thought, action, and behavior.

Pictures of the brain in action show that the brain of a teen diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) functions differently than “normal” teens when it comes to decision-making and problem-solving. The ODD teen’s actions are guided more by the amygdala and less by the frontal cortex. Research has also demonstrated that head trauma and exposure to drugs or alcohol interfere with normal brain development during the teenage years.

Based on the stage of their brain development, ODD teens are more likely to misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, get involved in fights, get suspended or expelled from school, get into accidents of all kinds, engage in dangerous or risky behavior, and act on impulse. These young people are less likely to modify their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors, pause to consider the potential consequences of their actions, or think before they act.

These brain differences don’t mean that ODD teens can’t make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their poor choices. But an awareness of these differences can help moms and dads – and teachers – to understand, anticipate, and manage the behavior of these “special needs” teens. 

Click on the link below for a parent-education program designed specifically for parents of defiant teens:

Parenting Defiant Teens: Help for Parents

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