Defiance and opposition

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).

More signs

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?


  1. My son had a pretty severe language disorder, and couldn’t communicate outside of echolalia until 4th grade. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t a very kind parent either. I got the notion I just needed to be firmer. It never worked.

    When I started loving him unconditionally, starting each day with a new slate, trying to see things from his eyes, his oppositionality lessened. Strangely, it also became a lot more fun to be a parent. I felt like I had grown up a lot, to give this child who must have felt terribly alone and scared some leeway.

    I read recently that extremely anxious people were not over-sensitive as it seems, but had a very low sensitivity towards social understanding made the world seem an unpredictable place where they could do nothing right. The anxiety came from the unpredictability. Everyone needs a soft place to land.

    Thanks, Peter, for your insight and attempts to understand yourself, and others who have LD’s.

  2. Good for you! Glad my post was helpful

  3. Nevada Advocate says

    Great article. Just saw it because Im a member of Our Children Left Behind and our web guru sent it to us. We are trying to stop kids with these kinds of processing issues from being locked in closets and squished (sometimes to death) by teachers in restraint resulting from anger, not danger by getting S2020 to pass (Keeping all kids Safe Act). Keep it up man!

  4. Are there more ways to help NLD kids with the world’s unpredictability and also create a feeling of greater “safety” for them?

    I guess I was unusual in that I was a people-pleaser and people tended to like me (despite my quirks). But I was afraid of NOT pleasing people….

    Our daughter is kind of the opposite. 🙂 Although, her tendencies right now are arguing and trying to “be right”/”save face” more than defiance….

    Does fatigue contribute?

    Thank you for promoting understanding!!!

  5. Hi Christa

    Good questions!
    I would say that, for the vast majority of humans (NLD or not) fatigue makes almost everything worse.

    On safety, I wrote another post called “A Safe Place” which may help. I think having a place of comfort is vital for many NLD kids. The world can feel like an assault. This safe place will vary depending on your child and the layout of your house. Ideal would probably be her own room.


  6. Good point–fatigue does make almost everything worse! I hadn’t really thought of it that way for some reason.
    Thank you–I’ll look up “A Safe Place”!!

  7. Thank you for this post and also to commenter “usethebrainsgodgiveyou”. My daughter recently had assessments and has a big VIQ>PIQ difference. I wss told by many teachers that I was letting her get away with stuff, letting her get her own way, being a bad parent because she was so ODD. Now I have stepped back and let her be. Life is more peaceful and when we do need to be doing something there is less confrontation. The more I try to understand her, the more everything I am reading explains myself. I have no support network, so thank you for being here.

  8. asheisadora says

    Two questions:
    Do NLD kids become hostile due to pain from being picked on or humiliated as well as trying to process the world

    Can passive aggression be a subset of oppositional defiance disorder?

    Sorry, I’m in left brain splitter mode! Thank you for your wonderful and insightful posts.

  9. Hi Linda

    Glad you like my posts!

    Regarding your first question: Sure, I think that is quite common

    Regarding your second: I guess so, but I don’t really know.


  10. My son has o d d / ADHD we had just started a month some meds had to increase the dose and give a second time of day because he would scream and yell and run they would call me I’m a single mom with no help I can’t leave work to go get him just because he’s acting out and because of that if I don’t go get them they suspend him for a day or two the meds seem to work for a little bit we’ve up the dose giving him a second dose but if this doesn’t work he’s already been suspended 5 days in schools only been in for barely three weeks and he helped our ideas

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