There is a disorder called oppositional and defiant disorder. The American Academy of Child and Oppositional Psychiatry says this about it
In children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), there is an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with the youngster’s day to day functioning. Symptoms of ODD may include:
- Frequent temper tantrums
- Excessive arguing with adults
- Often questioning rules
- Active defiance and refusal to comply with adult requests and rules
- Deliberate attempts to annoy or upset people
- Blaming others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
- Often being touchy or easily annoyed by others
- Frequent anger and resentment
- Mean and hateful talking when upset
- Spiteful attitude and revenge seeking
I was such a child, although I never got a formal diagnosis of ODD. I had all of the traits listed to one degree or another.
Why would a child act this way? Why did I?
There can be many reasons, including neurological problems. But in my case, at least, I think a lot of the defiance and opposition was an attempt to define myself in a hostile world and to organize the overwhelming flood of information that I was unable to process the way neurotypical children do. I still use it to organize knowledge.
Let me look at each in turn.
Define myself in a hostile world.
There is a scene in the movie “The Paper” in which one character (Henry) asks “When did you start getting so paranoid?” and the other (Michael McDougal) replies “When everyone started plotting against me”. And this is how the world can seem to us LD people, especially when we are kids. Kids, and especially kids in the autism ballpark, are not that great at distinguishing active hostility from the failed attempts of some well-meaning people to “get us”. And, so, for me, the world was largely made up of people who were against me. If you experience everyone else as hostile and oppositional, then reacting with hostility and opposition isn’t a disorder, it’s adaptive.
Organize the overwhelming flood of information that I was unable to process
Many LD children (and adults!) have difficulty processing information, or particular types of information. I never really learned to take notes. But I was always very facile and quick at figuring out opposing points of view (in high school, I once had a debate with myself!). This is a way of organizing information. In order to figure out why what the teacher is saying is wrong, you have to understand what the teacher is saying. Once you’ve understood it, it’s a lot easier to remember. (this doesn’t work well with facts, of course, but it works well with more abstract ideas).
Look at your child when he or she is being oppositional or defiant. Is he enjoying himself? Is he happy? Is she having a good time? If the honest answers are yes, then something else is going on. But when I see kids like this, the answer is usually a very clear “no”. So, if your child isn’t enjoying a behavior, why does she keep engaging in it? It must be something else; it must be that the alternative feels worse.
What to do?
During an episode of defiance, it may be very hard to step back. Parents aren’t perfect creatures! But when things are calm, try thinking about what the child is so strongly defending himself against. Why isn’t she seeing whatever it is the way you are seeing it? What’s going wrong? Because, again, if your child doesn’t enjoy being defiant, then he must be being defiant because the alternative seems worse. Why does it?