Understanding the Symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)


While it’s normal for children to have a few tantrums and for young adolescents to act out, invasive and persistently defiant behavior may be a sign of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). 

ODD is often misunderstood and simply seen as a result of bad parenting or a flawed personality trait. Here, we’ll shed light on oppositional defiant disorder, the kind of treatments available, and what parents can do to remedy their child’s behavior.

What Is Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is a type of behavior disorder that is diagnosed in childhood and is particularly common amongst younger children. Many children with ODD display disruptive behavior and are defiant and uncooperative toward authority figures (ie. teachers and parents) and their peers.

Looking from the outside in, family members and friends might find it difficult to understand ODD and empathise with those who are struggling with the disorder.

However, it’s important to remember that oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is a very real condition that can affect all aspects of a child’s life from school and performance to how they form relationships.

ODD Symptoms

It can be difficult to draw the line between a poorly-behaved child and one with oppositional defiant disorder. Both will act out and both will display defiant behavior towards peers and authority figures. According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), ODD can be identified by the length of time in which symptoms persist. If a child’s behavior problems last longer than six months and meet specific criteria, then an ODD diagnosis will be given.

Some of the most common symptoms of ODD include:

  • Frequent emotional outbursts
  • Frequent temper tantrums 
  • Impulse control problems
  • Getting easily annoyed at small things
  • Persistently angry and irritable mood
  • Arguing with authority figures and peers
  • Deliberately annoying or upsetting peers
  • Spitefulness and vindictiveness
  • Inability to follow rules
  • Disruptive behaviors

Many children with ODD will display this combination of behavioral and emotional symptoms, all of which can vary in severity.

Mild Symptoms: Symptoms are considered ‘mild’ if they occur in one setting (for example, at home or at school).

Moderate Symptoms: Symptoms are considered ‘moderate’ if they occur in at least two settings.

Severe Symptoms: Symptoms are considered ‘severe’ if they occur in three or more settings.

If you believe that your child’s behavior fits these criteria, it’s best to get help and advice as soon as possible. This will ensure your child gets the treatment and support they need to overcome their disorder and temper their negative behaviors.

Causes of Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Though there’s no set cause of oppositional defiant disorder, it is believed that a combination of environmental factors and genetics can play a role in the development of ODD.

Environmental Factors: Parenting that has involved little to no supervision or set boundaries, or parenting that involves inconsistent discipline or child abuse and neglect.

Genetic Factors: Neurobiological differences in the brain’s structure may play a part in why some develop ODD and others don’t. 

odd symptoms_
odd symptoms_

Risk Factors for Oppositional Defiant Disorder

There are a few risks that increase the likelihood that someone might develop ODD, including:

Environmental Factors: Inconsistent discipline from authority figures like teachers can all contribute to the development of ODD.

Parenting: Living with family members who have a substance abuse disorder or mental health condition can also act as a risk factor for ODD.

Biological Factors: Children are more likely to develop behavior disorders like oppositional defiant disorder if they have a family history of ODD or other mental health conditions or personality disorders.

Underlying Mental Health Conditions: Children with mood disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or anxiety disorders are more likely to develop oppositional defiant disorder.

Peers: Attention from peers – such as children at school – can reinforce negative behaviors (especially if that attention is encouraging a child or adolescent to act out against other authority figures).

When Should You See a Doctor?

Children aren’t likely to see their defiant behavior as a problem, so you’ve got to look out for signs of ODD. If they’re in a constantly angry and irritable mood or continue to mimic ODD behaviors, it’s best to seek help from a qualified mental health professional or child psychiatrist.

How Is Oppositional Defiant Disorder Diagnosed?

If you suspect that your child has ODD, it’s best to get a proper diagnosis from a mental health professional. An ODD diagnosis will be performed by using interviews and assessment tools to evaluate a child’s symptoms and determine whether they’re simply responding to a stressful situation or have a behavioral disorder. Doctors will also examine how these disruptive and defiant behaviors are impacting a child’s life.

Mental health professionals will also be able to determine whether the child is suffering from any underlying mental health conditions (ie. anxiety disorders). Treatment will depend on a child’s age and the severity of their symptoms. The sooner you treat mental illnesses like ODD, the sooner a child can work towards recovery and replace their negative and disruptive behaviors with positive ones.

What Age is ODD Diagnosed?

Oppositional defiant disorder typically develops at the age of eight and is often more common in boys than in girls.

How Is Oppositional Defiant Disorder Treated?

ODD can be treated through therapy and medication. Let’s take a closer look at each of the treatment options available.


Medication is rarely recommended – especially for very young children – and is usually only prescribed if the child is suffering from another condition such as ADHD or depression. In these cases, medication can help improve ODD symptoms by making it easier to manage the co-existing condition.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is a great way to air your issues and share your concerns with one another while taking onboard your child’s feelings. You may be introduced to a specialised therapy technique known as parent management training (PMT) that is used to help family members develop new parenting methods designed to positively influence a child’s behavior. Behavior management plans can also be drawn up to help improve family interactions and relationships.

Cognitive-behavioral Therapy

A type of psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy is a kind of talk therapy designed to help children with ODD develop healthy coping mechanisms and replace their problematic behaviors with positive ones. 

What Happens if Oppositional Defiant Disorder Is Left Untreated?

Left untreated or unaddressed, ODD can make everyday activities particularly challenging. Children with undiagnosed ODD might find it more difficult to perform well at school and form proper relationships with their peers. As children get older, they may develop depression or suicidal tendencies as a result of their ODD and the impact it’s having on their life.

In some cases, undiagnosed ODD can go on to develop into a more serious behavioral disorder known as conduct disorder. This is similar to oppositional defiant disorder but symptoms tend to be more aggressive and volatile. If a child goes into adulthood without treatment, they’re also at a higher risk of developing antisocial personality disorder. This is a serious personality disorder that can result in a lack of empathy for others and a tendency to ignore the rights and wrongs of society.

Early treatment is key to keeping your child’s ODD under wraps and ensuring that they’re supported with the best level of care possible to go about work, school, and daily life with minimal distraction from their condition.

Tips for Living With Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Alongside therapy and other treatment approaches, there are a few things you can do to help support children with ODD. This includes:

  • Using predictable and consistent discipline
  • Modelling good behavior
  • Reducing environmental and situational triggers (overstimulation, poor sleep, and changes to routine)
  • Providing consequences for bad behavior
  • Rewarding good behavior and showing positive reinforcements

How to Prevent Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

There’s no set way to prevent any kind of mental disorder. The only thing you can do as a parent is to take measures to set boundaries, practice consistent discipline, and work with your child to develop healthy behaviors. Children tend to act out and display disruptive behavior from time to time, but it’s key that you seek help if you believe that they are developing ODD. Early treatment can help your child understand his or her behavior and start making positive changes.

ODD Outlook

Oppositional defiant disorder is easily treated but early care and treatment are usually most effective. This will ensure that your child better understands their condition – and that it’s not entirely their fault – and that they can start implementing positive behaviors in school and at home.

Empathetic Mental Health Care Treatment at The Wave

Here at The Wave, we specialise in treating young adolescents. We understand just how challenging it can be to live with ODD or conduct disorder, and will never judge anyone who walks through our doors. Our goal is to help everyone and arm them with the tools and resources to leave our facility with a renewed sense of confidence and hope for the future. We treat a wide range of mental illnesses alongside ODD and will always work with you to draw up a personalised treatment plan that suits your needs exactly.

There’s no need to suffer in silence. Get the help and support you need today. If you’d like more information, get in touch with our care team. They’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you may have and will walk you through the admissions process.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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