Raising a child with oppositional defiant disorder can be extremely frustrating because you feel like everything is a constant battle. You just want your child to do his homework, pick up his toys, get dressed for school, etc. and you are constantly faced with refusal.
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As a behavior specialist and school psychologist I have had many parents and teachers ask for advice on how to handle this kind of defiant behavior. In my training I learned a lot about positive behavior support strategies and have used them with my clients and students for the past 18 years, and now with my own son. I can tell you first hand that these strategies are extremely effective. They work when I use them and when I teach others how to use them with their children or students. People often think that positive behavior support is simply giving rewards for good behavior, and when that doesn’t work they think that the system doesn’t work. I have repeatedly heard that positive behavior support does not work from people who were not using it correctly. While a piece of positive behavior support is allowing children to earn privileges rather than taking them away, it is so much more than just that. It is a way of speaking, acting, and responding to behavior.
Related Article: How to Use Natural and Logical Consequences to Improve Children’s Behavior
Here I have summarized my top 10 tips:
FYI: These tips are effective for all kids, not just those diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder.
1. Set up expectations ahead of time and allow your child to earn privileges for following those expectations. This is much more effective for encouraging compliance than punishing your child or taking away privileges when they don’t do what you want them to do. This is not the same as bribery or rewards. This is practical, real-to-life earning that can apply to anyone. First you complete what is required, then you can do x, y, z. Adults can apply this strategy to their own life to set an example for their children (first rake the yard, then go out with friends for lunch).
Let your child have a say in what they want to work for. Allowing children to earn privileges puts the ball in their court. They know what is expected and they know what they have to do to earn the things they enjoy. They also feel a sense of pride when they earn what they worked for.
When your child starts getting off track, remind him of what he is working towards rather than telling him what you will take away if he doesn’t listen. Research shows that children and adolescents are much more likely do what is expected when they have the power to earn something, than when being threatened that you will take something from them. Want to read more about this research? Check out the following research studies:
Computational Development of Reinforcement Learning during Adolescence and a Summary of the Effects of Reward Contingencies on Interest and Performance.
Related Article: 25 Privileges You Can Let Your Child Earn for Good Behavior
2. Use transition warnings to let your child know what is coming next. Here is an example, “In ten minutes it is time to turn off your video games and come eat dinner” or “After this show it is time for homework.” Give some more reminders as the time is winding down (e.g., in two minutes it’s time for dinner). A timer or visual timer can be helpful for children who don’t have a concept of time.
Related Article: 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion
3. Use empathetic statements to show your child you understand how he/she feels. Imagine how you would feel if someone came into your room and said “get off the computer and go to bed.” Although they are kids and are expected to follow adults’ rules, they still have the same feelings you would have in that type of situation. You can show them you understand how they feel with a statement such as “I know you are really enjoying your computer time and you don’t want to turn it off, but you need to get rest for school tomorrow. You can have some time on the computer again tomorrow.”
4. Phrase directives in the positive and remove the word “can.” For example, instead of “stop jumping on the furniture” or “can you stop jumping on the furniture?” try something like “sit down” or “come down off the couch” in a calm, but confident tone. If possible provide an alternative activity or redirect them to something they like to do like “let’s do jumping jacks together” or “here are some puzzles/blocks to play with.” Children respond much better when you tell them “what to do” rather than “what not to do.” Anything you want your child to stop, you can phrase in the positive by giving them a clear direction of what you want them to do. Giving an explanation such as “you can fall” or “that can damage the couch” is often helpful as well.
Related Article: 17 Ways to Get Your Kids to Listen to You and Show You Respect
5. Use specific praise when your child follows your expectations or listens to your directions. Some examples include “excellent job picking up your toys,” “you were so focused during homework tonight,” “nice job listening to directions” etc. Specific praise or acknowledgement of healthy behaviors reminds the child what behaviors you are looking for and reinforces them.
6. Pick your battles. If your five year old is playing in the dirt and you find it disgusting, let him. As long as he is safe, not hurting or disrespecting himself or anyone else, and not damaging anything, try to give him as much freedom as possible.
7. Give your child choices whenever possible. Examples include, “Do you want to wear the green or red shirt?” “Do you want to do your math or reading homework first?” “Do you want to set the table or take out the garbage?”
8. Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you tell your child that he needs to pick up his toys before he can play outside, make sure you follow through on your rule and honor your end of the bargain. Stay away from empty threats (punishments that you will never follow through on). Your child will come to learn the value of your words. If you don’t mean what you say, he/she won’t take you seriously.
9. If possible, utilize a schedule with your child that builds in chores, homework (if applicable), self-help tasks (shower, brush teeth, etc,), and fun activities. Have your child participate in creating the schedule. Embed the fun activities into the schedule so that your child alternates between preferred and non-preferred activities. One part of the schedule needs to be complete before moving on to the next part. Also, keep in mind that children with idle time on their hands are looking for things to do, so structuring their time can alleviate some impulsive behaviors like running/jumping in the house.
Related Article: How to Use Schedules to Promote Positive Behavior in Children
10. Avoid arguing, long lectures, or sarcastic remarks about your child’s behavior.
Stick to your rules and don’t negotiate, go back and forth, or argue with your child. If your child starts to argue or tantrum after you have stated the rule and shown empathy, let him/her know that you are not going to discuss it anymore. Do not give attention to a temper tantrum. Once the tantrum is over, you can praise your child for calming down, provide empathy again if needed, and listen if your child wants to talk about his/her feelings. Then direct your child back to the task he/she is expected to do.
If your child is acting unsafe, protect him/her and others from harm but do not try to negotiate with your child or give in to the tantrum in order to make it stop. This will only lead to more tantrums in the future. If you are ever concerned for the safety of your child or anyone else, contact the crisis center or emergency number in your area.
While there is no one method that works for every single child, these are the methods that are backed by research, and personal experience has proven just how well they work.
Related Article: How to Prevent and Handle Temper Tantrums
Research suggests that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder who display impulsive behaviors (e.g., acting without thinking), show improvement when positive behavior support strategies such as the ones discussed in this article are used in conjunction with strategies that teach pro-social behaviors (e.g., how to conduct oneself in different situations, how to identify problems and brainstorm solutions, how to recognize which behaviors may be undesirable in certain situations and why). For more on these research studies see 6 Research-Based Interventions for the Treatment of ADHD in Children and 5 Research-Based Strategies for Treating Youth with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. For strategies to decrease impulsive behaviors check out 9 Practical Strategies for Decreasing Impulsive Behavior in Children. Impulsive behaviors may include hitting, yelling, blurting something out, taking something without asking, breaking something, etc.
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them.