What's New at CBH

Parenting the Oppositional and Defiant Child

5/9/2012 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Helen Henrich, LCSW

Parenting a child who disagrees and argues with you is a challenge. Many parents have children and teens who want to do the exact opposite of what they are being asked to do. Sometimes the child or teen will refuse to do anything that you want them to do. Arguments ensue, feelings are bruised, sometimes things get broken, and someone might get hurt. Parents are frustrated and discouraged and wonder what else they can do.

Here are a few facts and things to consider if you find yourself frustrated with a child or teen who is oppositional and defiant:

  • At times, all children and teens will be oppositional to their parents. These behaviors are normal to a point.
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder is a persistent pattern, lasting at least six months, of negative, hostile, disobedient and defiant behaviors. The behaviors have a serious, negative effect on the child's social and academic life.
  • Oppositional and defiant behavior is a common coexisting problem for children with Attention Deficit Disorder.  But not all children who have Oppositional Defiant Disorder are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.
  • Medication may be helpful to reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, but medication does not help correct oppositional problems.
  • Effective parenting is the primary means to correct defiant behavior.
  • In order to be effective parents, select only three problem behaviors at a time to try to change. Start with the least challenging behavior first.
  • Parents must work together and agree about what is the problem and what are the solutions. Parents must agree to stay calm, stop labeling the child, and stop physical punishments.
  • Be clear about the rules to complete tasks. Be clear about the consequences for breaking the rules. Be clear about the rewards for successful completion of the tasks.
  • Engage your child or teen in the discussion of the rules, the consequences, and the rewards. 
  • Be consistent. Do not make empty threats. Refuse to be bullied into an answer. Do not apologize for setting limits.
  • Inconsistent behavior from the parent means that your child will test limits more because he knows you are likely to give in and change your mind.
  • If your child asks for something, give yourself time to think before saying "NO". If you argue with your child and say "NO" ten times, and then give in and say "YES", you teach the child that if they harass, demand, or annoy long enough you will give in. Better to think about it first and choose your battles, rather than give in from exhaustion and defeat.
  • Public tantrums need quick removal and firm verbal disapproval from you. Plan ahead next time and insist on appropriate behavior.
  • Provide rewards for success. Stickers, affection, praise, and earning privileges usually motivate children and teens.
  • Research has shown that teens are more motivated by rewards rather than consequences. Teens are risk-takers and pleasure-seekers. They are willing to risk your disapproval in order to achieve what they want. Give them a path to earn what they want through appropriate social and academic behaviors.
  • Negative reinforcement is canceling rewards, withdrawing affection, or giving time outs. Punishment is assigning chores and writing sentences. Sentences should be worded to state what they should do, not what they should not do.
  • Be sure that you can enforce and supervise each activity.
  • Nothing replaces love and support. Reward attempts and steps along the way toward better behavior. Tell your child often that they are capable of better behavior. Believe that you are too.
  • Family counseling and parenting classes are helpful for families to air grievances. Family counseling helps your family put in place some ground rules of engagement,  helps support your efforts and trouble-shoot setbacks in your progress. Family counseling can also help restore a sense of understanding and family unity.
  • Colonial Behavioral Health provides a full array of services for families, children, and teens. Outpatient counseling, Substance Use services, Case Management services, Intensive In-Home therapy, and Crisis Services are all designed to assist families who are stressed and discouraged.


Feldman, Julie and Kazdin, Alan: Parent Management Training

Grosshans, Beth A.: Beyond Time Outs

Sells, Scott:  Treating the Tough Adolescent

Helen Henrich is a licensed clinical social worker employed as the Children's Services Manager at Colonial Behavioral Health. She is a family therapist with expertise in children's therapy particularly with grief issues and trauma. Helen has a part-time private practice and has served two tours in the Peace Corps. She served as the President of the Virginia Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and volunteers with Comfort Zone Camp, a camp for grieving children.

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