Creating a Token Economy for a Child With O.D.D.

O.D.D. can be incredibly challenging for parents of children with the disorder.

Posted Jan 06, 2018

O.D.D. stands for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It is characterized consistent symptoms of anger, irritability, argumentative behavior, defiance or even malicious or vindictive behavior toward parents and/or other authority figures. O.D.D. can be incredibly challenging for parents of children with this disorder. How do I know? I am one of those parents. I am the mother of a 9-year-old son who was diagnosed with O.D.D. It has been a rough road for us and there were times where I wasn't sure what to do. I was trying to stay calm as my son sat down on the sidewalk and refused to move because he didn't want to go for a walk at the nature center. I held his hand as he intentionally made his body go limp and I had to physically lift him up so he could stand on his own two feet. I felt like a terrible parent and I was extremely overwhelmed. I love my son so much, he is bright, kind, warm and generous. Yet, when he is being oppositional and calling me names, he seems like he doesn't care about anyone or anything. He loves his family, he gives great hugs and he snuggles with our cats, but you'd never know that that boy is in there when he is yelling at me that I'm a terrible mom. I understand that he's saying those things out of anger. He doesn't actually mean those words, but he doesn't know how to cope with his social anxiety, GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), ADHD and now O.D.D. 

People who don't have kids with O.D.D. might now understand what I'm talking about. They might judge my parenting and blame me for not setting boundaries. That's because they've never had a kid with O.D.D. and they don't get it. It's extremely challenging and these sorts of children are extraordinarily bright and strong-willed, my son included. I spoke to my own therapist about my son and she told me about a behavioral modification plan that helps kids with O.D.D. called a "token economy. In a token economy, you create a system where the child is rewarded with marbles for listening and following instructions. This is an essential skill that kids with O.D.D. have problems with. When told to do something, they will usually say "no." This is a model to help them learn to say "yes," and do the thing they were asked to do.

Supplies you will need:

  1. A Mason jar (more than one if there's another child in the house)
  2. Labels
  3. A permanent marker
  4. Packing tape
  5. Construction paper
  6. A couple sheets of white paper
  7. 500 marbles

The first thing to do is create a list of rules to follow.

A list of house rules, for example:

  • No physical violence i.e. hitting, punching, kicking etc.
  • Mom and/or dad only has to give instructions once
  • No name calling
  • No damaging property
  • Mom and/or dad decide how many marbles kids get for good behavior

Explaining the rules and creating the jars

After the list of rules is made, sit down with the kids and show them the rules. Then have the kids put the rules on the refrigerator where they can always see them. Explain that they will only be asked to do something once. If they do it, they get a marble. Show them the mason jars and labels. Explain that they will each have their own jar where the marbles go. Together you will tape the labels with their names onto the jars. 

Introducing rewards

Create a sheet with rewards on it. Explain that when a child gets a certain number of marbles in their jar, they get a reward. Sample rewards include 30 minutes of TV, time on the iPad, or playing on a computer or laptop. These rewards might happen when the child gets 15 marbles, for example. Bigger rewards happen when the child gets more marbles. For example, 100 marbles might result in the child getting a toy.

Don't take away marbles, remove rewards

When a child listens and does something immediately after being asked, for example, gets his shoes on to go outside, he gets a marble. If he is then later asked to take his plate off the table and he refuses, he does not get a marble removed from the jar. Every marble earned is a marble kept. If he refuses to do something, then one of the potential rewards on the list is not an option for that day. For example, refusal to take his plate off the table means that he cannot earn iPad time. He can still get another reward on the list, but not that one. 

Everything fun has to be earned

Even playing with his toys is something a child must earn in the token economy system. The goal of this concept is for the child to learn to follow directions. When he listens and does what he is told, he is rewarded with marbles (tokens) and the positive behavior of listening to authority figures is reinforced.

O.D.D. doesn't have to be stressful when you have a token economy

When you first start the token economy, be prepared for your child's behavior to get worse before it gets better. They will likely say that the system is "stupid," or criticize because they don't have control over how things are run in the household anymore. Ignore any negative comments that they make about the token economy and reward their positive behavior. Once your child learns that they will get rewards if they follow instructions, soon their behavior will improve. The most important thing is that you (as the parent) remain calm and composed even when your child is saying rude things about the system you've created. If they break any of the rules on the list, there should immediately be a consequence of a reward removed. 

Istock 2017
Source: Istock 2017

You can do this

O.D.D. is a challenging diagnosis for the child and the caregiver(s). Remember that it's important to work with a mental health professional whether it's a family therapist or a child psychologist to make sure that your child is receiving the proper care for his mental health issue. Stay strong, and you will get through this transitional period with your strong-willed kid. Parenting is never easy, but hopefully, the token economy will provide a much-needed structure for you and your child so they can learn to follow the rules. This can make for a happier life for both of you.