How to Tell If Your Child Has Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Defiant children can be warm and sensitive but also intensely difficult.

Posted Mar 16, 2016

All kids display defiant behavior from time to time, but it’s possible that your child has a condition called oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Don’t be intimidated by the term ODD, which may sound ominous and clinical to parents. ODD symptoms include chronic anger, blaming others for mistakes, being touchy, or easily annoyed and vindictive.

To qualify for an ODD diagnosis, your child must do things like talk back, refuse to do chores, use bad language, and say things like “You can’t make me” or “You’re never fair” nearly every day for at least six months. In other words, kids with ODD have oppositional attitudes and behaviors that are more of a pattern than an exception to the rule. The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes this list of three subgrouped behavior clusters that a child diagnosed with ODD would exhibit:

Angry/Irritable Mood

  • Often loses his temper
  • Is often touchy or easily annoyed by others
  • Is often angry and resentful

Argumentative/Defiant Behavior

  • Often argues with authority figures or, for children and adolescents, with adults
  • Often actively defies or refuses to comply with requests from authority figures or with rules
  • Often deliberately annoys others
  • Often blames others for her mistakes or misbehavior

Vindictiveness

  • Has been spiteful or vindictive at least twice within the past six months 

As you can see, the eight diagnostic symptoms for ODD listed above are grouped into: angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, and vindictiveness, reflecting that this disorder includes both emotional and behavioral symptoms. Children and teens are required to have four or more symptoms for at least six months to meet the diagnostic criteria for ODD.

With children who have ODD, the behavior is beyond the norm for the child’s developmental age. In some cases, kids with ODD can also be diagnosed with conduct disorder (a more extreme form of ODD described in the introduction) as a coexisting condition. Other co-existing conditions can be anxiety, depression, and most commonly, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

It’s important to realize that even if your child displays only one or two behaviors on the list above, or these behaviors are not that frequent, you still need to learn how to keep the situation from getting worse. The expression “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” could not be more relevant than when parenting defiant children. I have counseled many children who met the ODD diagnostic criteria, and I have also worked with lots of defiant children who fall short of meeting the criteria. A child with any level of defiance can create big problems for himself, his family, and others around him. 

In upcoming posts, I will describe my Calm, Firm, and Non-Controlling approach that quickly lowers children's and teen's defiant behavior. Stay tuned.

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist specializing in child, teen, and family therapy in the greater Philadelphia area. He has been on the Today Show, radio, and has written four popular books, including the highly popular, recently released, 2nd edition of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child.