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

  11. The two videos I’ve seen that helped me understand ODD the most was Russel Barkley’s “my parents caused my adhd” which is his account based on research how the development of odd starts young and is a bidirectional cause where the kid can have 1 or both a emotional regulation vulnerability and or a social conflict vulnerability. I like every other adhd person mainly had the emotional vulnerability. I think the social conflict part wasn’t neccesarily in me. I’m disagreeable, but not sure if that’s the odd upbringing or maybe that we don’t always have the best empathy and yet I can be present with people especially if I know too be. To me that just means unlike an aggreeable person I can challenge someone without risking pain. Which isn’t a bad thing , don’t get me wrong, abandonment still screws with me as everybody. According to Barkley odd develops often because the parents also often have adhd , it’s 75% genetic, and or because the partner they settled down with I don’t doubt has a higher risk of having attatchment and possibly intergenerational stuff too like we likley do. Essentially parents are inconsistent, in some way, that causes the odd, and once the behavior starts, the arguments with the kid + some inconsistency, teach the kid that the louder and quicker I am to anger 😡 the more likley I can make you back off. At same time if you as a parent haven’t roughly learned to coach executive function skills as part of parenting, your def going to read a lot of what these kids do as defiant and it’s not always purposeful. I’ve had moments as an adult where I some how am dating a girl who has insane jealousy at times and one trigger is me being on my phone. In the evening during low dopamine, sometimes that’s just going to happen. I always try to teach them how to ask me nicely and to give me a hug and look me in eye or be polyvagal voice gentle and I agree, treat me like this , you get that. She had trouble with that I think due to her attatchment issues, but I was in the car one night and she starts activating about me being on my phone because of the meaning she makes up on her head about it. (Jealousy is nuts, It can just invent girls that don’t exist) I’ve done lots of healing and worked on triggers in many conflicts, so I tend to typically have a calm straight face when this happens, but the thing that really triggered me was being pressured and blamed in a moment that was not seeing that I’m prob low dopamine kinda addicted and having trouble switching at the moment. Like if one can see that I know how to handle the situation, but she couldn’t, and the fact that I was getting blamed and yelled at while knowing I was just having a bit of trouble switching caused me to lash out in anger a bit. And I reflected on that as I get the sense a lot of odd moments growing up are like a parent just not seeing the executive functions at play and not knowing how to coach them you would just be projecting your own control needs or trauma on a kid that just isn’t going to be able to have it when you want. So you get “RAAAA” 😡. The other video I watched was by Tim fletcher called “what’s your relationship with authority” and it’s about odd. It was helpful as after a job loss and relationship stuff I reached out to my mom (not adhd) for support, and was trying to learn EQ and had to wake up to another traumatic experience as I woke up to various realities, and eventually ended up in the hospital getting dx with complex trauma. The adhd odd complex trauma combo is common to my understanding. We’ll waking up to all this as an adult, especially after the sort of traumatic experiences that brought other stuff up that kinda sent me in a tail spin once I saw it. Like I was just trying to “fix my self” so I didn’t get fired again, and woke up to all this. And I will say, if your kid grew out of odd as he grew older, and you aren’t able to have hard discussions and be present yet able to allow them the space to think out loud with difficult things maybe even ask for things or table them till the ask can be more defined, like you just got to make space emotionally and cognitively for the messiness of figuring out that stuff. And the odd thing, I wasn’t even angry at my parents that I woke up with complex trauma, I was angry they couldn’t just see and learn with me. And it’s hard to talk about because it kinda shatters a parents ego identity, which honestly, is why I even just realized, like I will try my hardest but of course I’m going to screw up my kid, as that way I’m not taking offense when they get activated and come at me when older if they do. It’s possible to do this without being too accommodating and without be ignoring and dismissing. It’s a coaching and relating mindset. But also just openess to what is their experience. None the less seeing the description of Tim fletcher helped me to see where the odd mindsets and behavior that got reawaken up in me, especially the more I learned about people and the world without anyone close with me to do it with. The thing he pointed out to me was how some of us even commit suercide out of a desire and perception that that’s the only way we can gain control. and I def have a part of me that has been frustrated with regular therapy that this part hasn’t gotten better. (Complex trauma is still new and not as common of a therapist specialty) Tim fletcher on YouTube has been a godsend , he gets at so much of it. And honestly helped me see that part a bit better. And there is something else I realized too, looking at the description and symptoms of male depression syndrome and listening to an evolutionary psychologist and a few other things I pieced together. Like in many ways, the purpose from an evolutionary slant of male depression syndrome (angry irritable, depressed(but not outward sad per se), other symptoms of great risk taking and workaholism). When I look at that, and I’ve fallen down in life, like that suercidal part is really a part of me that wants to go take a great meaningful risk in life but feels blocked and thwarted. Cuz if suercidal its is anything, it’s that you need to take a big risk. That honestly rang more true to me than you would know. It’s just waking up in from the mountains of research and interactions with many others and feeling sources of saftey disappear, hostile world, it’s like yeah, here I am muddling through everything. Cuz that point of that male depression sysndrome as depression is often the minds perception of you being down in the status hierarchy (failure depression) so how else to rectify that than to go challenge the top. Cuz for example: if the fight the “alpha” you may die, but sometimes you win. And the way that works evolutionary that risk taking is not always good for the individual, but it’s good and adaptive for the group. (It’s why we don’t have kings any more for example). None the less, this impulse is in us and isn’t satisfied by just falling in line especially when we kinda realized how everything in this messy monkey world is a bit screwed up and not what it seems to be, as humans live in a symbolic imaginary projected order. Just not satisfying it when motivated by that self preservation instinct, isn’t going to satisfy it or help the depression much in my mind,(depression drugs are also just distress tolerance drugs they don’t fix depression, especially when the issue tech isn’t innately chemical, but more the shit life syndrome cause) So basically just know if you run into this situation with a kid, your identity as a parent is useless as far as you helping solve that problem, nor are you expected to be perfect, we aren’t, it’s just expect a certain amount of trauma in adhd from attatchment trauma to fear of failure and RSD and often complex trauma. And I don’t think your innately a failed parent if the kid has some trauma. Our brains are also just more sensative and also we get 20,000 extra negative comments by 18 or something(like no wonder we we’re odd). None the less, def look at tim fletcher as far as complex trauma videos on YouTube. Def amazing as he seems to describe so much of it spot on. And then there is the barkley side of the reinforcement early on. And then I just in long winded way pointed out how it can reawaken as one gets older again under certain life stress and conflict situations.

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