Managing Oppositional and Defiant Behaviour

Author: Kelly Stewart (Completed a psychology internship with Colby in 2014)

“No, I will not come in for dinner….No, I will not stop playing the X-Box…..No, I will not change the channel on the TV.

Anyone recognise these words? Is your child generally unco-operative? Perhaps you can remember them saying something similar at times? Or perhaps it seems like everything your child says is a challenge or opposition?

For many children, being compliant, listening to requests and being co-operative are the norm. However, for some children, they have a tendency towards being oppositional or defiant; refusing to listen, acknowledge and co-operate.

If this is the situation you find yourself in, you will undoubtedly find parenting that child to be extremely stressful. At times you may have wondered why your child shows this behaviour? Or what you can do about it?


In this short article, the issue of managing oppositional or defiant behaviour will be addressed. Read on to find some simple strategies that you can implement to reduce the power struggle in your house.

What is oppositional or defiant behaviour?

 Have you ever heard the name Steve Jobs? Steve is now deceased but he was one of the founding members of the Apple Corporation. You know that multi million dollar company responsible for the iphone, ipad and numerous other technological advances.

As a child, Steve Jobs was diagnosed with ODD, which is an abbreviation for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. According to the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV-TR), “oppositional defiant disorder can cause clinical impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning, and is characterized by a recurrent pattern of negativistic, defiant, disobedient and hostile behaviour toward authority figures which persists for a period of at least six months”.

However, not all children who show defiant or oppositional behaviour would be classified as having ODD. Since children pass through many developmental stages as they mature,  it is important to understand the differences between normal childhood attempts to defy authority and symptoms of full-blown oppositional defiant disorder.

Oppositional defiant children share many of the following characteristics:

  • They possess a strong need for control, and will do just about anything to gain power. 
  • They typically deny responsibility for their misbehaviour and have little insight into how they impact others.
  • The ODD child is socially exploitive and very quick to notice how others respond.  He then uses these responses to his advantage in family or social environments, or both.
  • These children tolerate a great deal of negativity – in fact they seem to thrive on large amounts of conflict, anger and negativity from others, and are frequently the winners in escalating battles of negativity.

So, although some oppositional behaviour is at times very common and part of normal development, if your child shows these signs, it might be useful to have an assessment by a qualified mental health practitioner such as a Psychologist or Psychiatrist.

Some simple hints for managing oppositional behaviour

1. Get to the root of the problem:

It can be important to understand what may trigger your child or young person. For example, do they tend to be more defiant when they are tired, or when they don’t understand what to do or think that they cannot do it? Understanding what can lead to the behaviour can help you manage such situations better in the future. For instance, if you ask a child who is not yet able to tidy their bedroom to do so, they may refuse. However, pacing this in an age appropriate way might help (e.g. asking them to help you put their toys in a box).

2. Treat your child like you want to be treated:

It’s important to set a good example to your child for how to express an opinion, disagree or resolve conflict. By showing how to do this in a respectful manner, you are modelling to your child an important skill that they can go on to emulate. It can also be helpful to remember that we all have bad days and to make allowances for your child at times. For instance, there are times when we snap when tired or stressed. Recognising that your child is also vulnerable to influence by their situation and mood can help us gain a helpful perspective on our expectations of their behaviour.

3. Be clear and consistent, but compromise when appropriate:

Research has shown that ODD may be more common in households where there is too much flexibility or the opposite, where there are too many rules, control and micromanaging.

It’s important to be fair and consistent. If you show that you are likely to change your mind through a bit of added pushing, your child will quickly pick up on this and try to push to get they’re own way. Stay firm on important issues and have all members of the household upholding the same values and rules. In saying this, remember to pick your battles. It’s not important to ‘win’ all the time. You can say ‘that’s not how I remember it, but none the less….’ ‘None the less’ and ‘regardless’ are both phrases that can come in very useful when you have a child who can be quite oppositional!

You might want to consider how you communicate your wishes to you child. For example, when you ask your oppositional child to perform some task or other (e.g. ‘we’re crossing a busy road now; can you hold my hand, please?’), your child essentially considers that they have a choice whether to comply or not. However, forced options might be more successful (e.g. ‘ we’re crossing a busy road and you can hold my left hand or my right hand; it’s your choice?’). Such ways of phrasing things tend to encourage compliance but also give the child the sense that they have some control in the situation. And, given that most arguments with children that have become oppositional are about power and control, helping them to take appropriate amounts of control over the situation can be helpful. Remember, when we are parenting children, the aim is not to have full compliance at all times, but instead to raise thinking, caring individuals who are able to navigate their lives successfully.

4. Try not to lose your cool and help them find theirs

When you lose your cool, you are showing your child that you have lost control. For the oppositional child, this may give them the sense that they have ‘won’. If your child is feeling distressed about a situation, it can be helpful to nurture and soothe them to help them calm down. This might be resisted by an oppositional child, but in the long run it may help to remind them that they are the child and that your role is to help and protect them. Give them a hug when appropriate, put a blanket round their shoulders or rub their arm. Show support when you can.

5. Work on the other relationships in the house

Children who are living in environments where there is a lot of conflict tend to show more oppositional behaviour. So, if there is conflict in the relationship between the parents in the home, this may exacerbate the problem. It might therefore be worth considering engaging in couples counselling to address any issues outstanding.


Although this list is by no means exhaustive, some of these basic hints may be helpful in managing oppositional behaviour that you see at home. For additional tips for surviving school holiday periods, see our article here, or click the image below.

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