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Try These Top 10 Behavior Strategies for Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder

behavior strategies for a child with oppositional defiant disorder or related symptoms

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Raising a child with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) can be extremely frustrating because you feel like everything is a constant battle. You just want your child to do their homework, pick up their toys, get dressed for school, etc. and you are constantly faced with refusal.

As a behavior specialist and school psychologist, I have had many parents and teachers ask for behavior strategies to help a child with oppositional defiant disorder or behavioral challenges.

Recommended Book: The Explosive Child:  New Approach For Understanding And Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children

In my training, I learned a lot about positive behavior support strategies and have used them with my clients and students for the past 21 years, and now with my own children (ages 7 and 3).

I can tell you firsthand 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.

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 scientific way of speaking, acting, and responding to behavior.

Related Article: How to Use Natural and Logical Consequences to Improve Children’s Behavior

Top Ten Behavior Strategies to Help a Child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder:

FYI: These tips are effective for all kids, not just those diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder.

1. Set up expectations ahead of time.

Your child should know what you expect of them each day. This can be communicated through a checklist, visual schedule, video recording, etc.

Your child will want to do things that are fun and instantly gratifying. Boundaries are important when enforcing expectations. “Yes, you can do that! But you also need to do this.”

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.

Let your child have a say in what they want to work for. Allowing children to earn privileges by following their expectations (e.g., self-care, kindness) puts the ball in their court.

They know what is expected of them 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.

behavior strategies for a child with oppositional defiant disorder or related symptoms

When your child starts getting off track, remind them of what they are working towards rather than telling them what you will take away if they don’t listen. 

Research shows that children and adolescents are much more likely to 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:

Related Article: Do Rewards Make Sense? What Can Your Children Earn?

2. Use transition warnings to let your child know what is coming next.

Here are examples of transition warnings, “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 they feel.

treatment strategies for a child with oppositional defiant disorder or related symptoms

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.”

Recommended: Become a Certified Self-Esteem Coach for Children

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 of specific praise include “excellent job picking up your toys,” “you were so focused during homework tonight,” “nice job listening to directions” etc. Specific praise or acknowledgment of healthy behaviors reminds the child of what behaviors you are looking for and reinforces those behaviors.

6. Pick your battles.

If your five-year-old is playing in the dirt and you find it disgusting, let them. As long as they are safe, not hurting or disrespecting themselves or anyone else, and not damaging anything, try to give them as much freedom as possible.

7. Give your child choices when possible.

Research indicates that providing children with choices leads to improvement in behavior. 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, they won’t take you seriously. The National Association of Child Development is with us on this one!

And research indicates the need for consistency when implementing positive parenting practices. Consistency includes integrity, honesty, and respect.

treatment strategies for a child with oppositional defiant disorder or related symptoms

9. If possible, utilize a schedule with your child.

You can build 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.

Recommended: Study: Daily Routines Impact Childhood Development

Some children benefit from mini-schedules, which is a shortened variation of a typical schedule. Mini-scedules can include as few as two or three steps.

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.

treatment strategies for a child with oppositional defiant disorder or related symptoms

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.

treatment strategies for a child with oppositional defiant disorder or related symptoms

Stick to your rules and don’t negotiate, go back and forth, or argue with your child. However, also consider your own rules and whether they are appropriate for your child. For instance, you wouldn’t expect a three-year old to “never jump in the house” because jumping, and movement, in general, are developmentally appropriate for a three-year-old.

Once your rules are in place and your child is aware of them, state them as needed. If your child starts to argue or tantrum after you have stated the rule and given empathy, let them know that you are not going to discuss it anymore. Do not give in to a temper tantrum.

Recommended: How to Handle Temper Tantrums

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.

Additional Information on Oppositional Defiant Disorder

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.

We offer a free five-minute behavior consultation via text for parents, educators, or other interested parties. Please text 484 201 3815 or email rachelwise@educationandbehavior.com for more information.

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