|What is it?
ODD is a psychiatric disorder that is characterized by two different sets of
problems. These are aggressiveness and a tendency to purposefully bother
and irritate others. It is often the reason that people seek treatment. When
ODD is present with ADHD, depression, tourette's, anxiety disorders, or
other neuropsychiatric disorders, it makes life with that child far more
difficult. For Example, ADHD plus ODD is much worse than ADHD alone,
often enough to make people seek treatment.
The criteria for ODD are:
A pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior lasting at least six months during which four
or more of the following are present:
1. often loses temper
2. often argues with adults
3. often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults' requests or rules
4. often deliberately annoys people
5. often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
6. is often touchy or easily annoyed by others
7. is often angry and resentful
8. is often spiteful and vindictive
The disturbance in behavior causes clinically significant impairment in social, academic, or
How often is "often"?
All of the criteria above include the word "often". But what exactly does that mean? Recent studies
have shown that these behaviors occur to a varying degree in all children. These researchers have
found that the "often" is best solved by the following criteria.
Has occurred at all during the last three months-
8. is spiteful and vindictive
5. blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
Occurs at least twice a week-
6. is touchy or easily annoyed by others
1. loses temper
2. argues with adults
3. actively defies or refuses to comply with adults' requests or rules
Occurs at least four times per week-
7. is angry and resentful
4. deliberately annoys people
What causes it?
Like most psychiatric illnesses, there are three main causes: environment, genetics, and medical
The usual pattern is for problems to begin between ages 1-3. If you think about it, a lot of these
behaviors are normal at age 2, but in this disorder they never go away. It does run in families. If a
parent is alcoholic and has been in trouble with the law, their children are almost three times as likely
to have ODD. That is, 18% of children will have ODD if the parents are alcoholic and the father has
been in trouble with the law.
How can you tell if a child has it?
ODD is diagnosed in the same way as many other psychiatric disorders in children. You need to
examine the child, talk with the child, talk to the parents, and review the medical history. Sometimes
other medical tests are necessary to make sure it is not something else. You always need to check
children out for other psychiatric disorders, as it is common the children with ODD will have other
Diseases that look like ADHD and ODD
There are a number of sleep disorders which can look like ODD or make it worse.
Who gets it?
A lot of children! This is the most common psychiatric problem in children. Over 5% of children have
this. In younger children it is more common in boys than girls, but as they grow older, the rate is
the same in males and females.
ODD rarely travels alone - Comorbidity
It is exceptionally rare for a physician to see a child with only ODD. Usually the child has some other
neuropsychiatric disorder along with ODD. The tendency for disorders in medicine to occur together
is called comorbidity.
Understanding comorbidity in pediatric psychiatry is one of the most important areas of research at
Common patterns of comorbidity:
ODD plus ADHD-
If a child comes to a clinic and is diagnosed
with ADHD, about 30-40% of the time the
child will also have ODD (1). Here are some
examples of how this looks across ages.
Pre School Marianne-
Marianne is now 4 years old. Her parents were
very excited when she turned four that perhaps
that would mean that the terrible twos were
finally over. They were not. Her parents are very
grateful that the Grandparents are nearby. The
grandparents are grateful that Marianne's aunts and uncles live nearby. Marianne's Aunt is grateful
that this is her niece, not her daughter. Why? Marianne requires an incredible combination of
strength, patience, and endurance.
Marianne begins her day by getting up early and making noise. Her father unfortunately has
mentioned how much this bothers him. So she turns on the TV, or if that has been mysteriously
disconnected, bangs things around until her parents come out. Breakfast is the first battleground of
the day. Marianne does not like what is being served once it is placed in front of her. She seems to
be able to sense how hurried her parents are. When they are very rushed, she is more stubborn and
might refuse it altogether. It would be a safe bet that she would tell her Mom that the toast tastes
like poop. This gets her the first “time out” of the day.
In the mornings she goes to pre-school or goes off with her grandmother or over to her aunts.
Otherwise Marianne's mother is unable to do anything. Marianne can not entertain herself for more
than a few moments. She likes to spend her time purposefully annoying her mom, at least so it
seems. Marianne will demand over and over that she wants something. For example, playdough. She
knows it must be made first. So her mom finally gives in and makes it. Marianne plays with it about
one minute and says, " Let’s do something". Her mother reminds her that they are doing something,
the very thing that Marianne has been demanding for the last hour. " No, Lets do something else"
So after Marianne's mother screamed so hard she was hoarse when her husband came home,
Marianne gets to go out almost every morning. At preschool she is almost perfect, but will not ever
do exactly what the teacher wants. Only once has she had a tantrum there. Marianne gets along with
the other children as long as she can tell them what to do.
Her grandmother and Aunt all follow the same “time out” plan. This means she goes to a certain
room until she calms down. The room is empty now at Marianne's grandmother. Marianne broke the
toys, and they were removed. She banged the furniture around and it was removed. What sets
Marianne off is not getting to do what Marianne wants. She screams, tells people she hates them,
and swings pretty hard for a four old. After a half hour it is usually over, but not always. Marianne
will usually tell her mom or Grandmother about these tantrums. The story is always twisted a little.
For example, Marianne will tell her Grandmother that her mom locked her in her room because she
was watching TV. Her grandmother used to believe these stories, and Marianne could tell the whole
story of how she was watching this show, and her mom just came in and dragged her to her room.
Now it turns out that Grandma doesn't think much of TV anyways, and so this made a certain
amount of sense to her. This led to more than one heated argument between the Grandma and her
mom. Of course there was almost no truth to this at all. It took the tables being turned for the
Grandma to really believe that her Granddaughter could set up an argument like this.
Marianne came home and told her mom that Grandma let her eat four cookies and an ice cream cone
for a treat and that she was very full. Marianne's mom doesn't think much of treats, and could see
how this might happen and thought she would have to talk to her mom. Finally they both realized
what Marianne was doing.
Most of the afternoon with Marianne is spent chasing her around trying to wear her out. It doesn't
seem to work, but it is worth a try. When she is at her aunts, she tries to wreck her cousin’s stuff.
When is she good? When there are no other cousins around and she has the complete attention of
her Aunt or Grandpa.
Marianne loves the bedtime battle. She also loves to go to the Mall. But she never gets to go there
or hardly anywhere else. She acts up so badly that her family is very embarrassed. Her mother
shops and visits only when Marianne goes to preschool. It is hard to know who is more excited
about Marianne going to school next year, her mother or Marianne!
Elementary School Ryan-
Ryan is 10. Ryan's day usually starts out with arguing about what he can and can not bring to
school. His mother and his teacher have now made out a written list of what these things are. Ryan
was bringing a calculator to school and telling his teacher that his mother said it was alright. At first
his teacher wondered about this, but Ryan seemed so believable. Then Ryan brought a little (Ryan's
words) knife. That lead to a real understanding between the teacher and Ryan's mother.
Ryan does not go to school on the bus. He gets teased and then retaliates immediately. Since it is
impossible to supervise bus rides adequately, his parents and the school gave up and they drive him
to school. It is still hard to get him there on time. As the time to leave approaches, he gets slower
and slower. Now it is not quite as bad because for every minute he is late he loses a dime from his
Once at school, he usually gets into a little pushing with the other kids in those few minutes
between his mother's eyes and the teacher's. The class work does not go that badly now. Between
the daily allowance which is geared to behavior and his medicine, he manages alright. This is good for
everyone. At the beginning of the school year he would flip desks, swear at the teacher, tear up his
work and refuse to do most things. Looking back, the reasons seem so trivial. He was not allowed to
go to the bathroom, so he flipped his desk. He was told to stop tapping his pencil, so he swore at
Recess is still the hardest time. Ryan tells everyone that he has lots of friends, but if you watch what
goes on in the lunch room or on the playground, it is hard to figure out who they are. Some kids
avoid him, but most would give him a chance if he wasn't so bossy. The playground supervisor tries
to get him involved in a field hockey game every day. He isn't bad at it, but he will not pass the ball,
so no one really wants him on his team.
After school was the time that made his mom seriously consider foster care. The home work battle
was horrible. He would refuse to do work for an hour, then complain, break pencils and irritate her.
This dragged 30 minutes of work out to two hours. So, now she hires a tutor.
He doesn't try all of this on the tutor, at least so far. With no home work, he is easier to take. But
he still wants to do something with her every minute. Each day he asks her to help him with a model
or play a game at about 4:30. Each day she tells him she can not right now as she is making supper.
Each day he screams out that she doesn't ever do anything with him, slams the door, and goes in
the other room and usually turns the TV on very loud. She comes up, tells him to turn it down three
times. He doesn't and is sent to his room. She calculated that she has made about 1500 suppers
since he was five years old. Could it be that they have gone through this 1500 times? She decides
this is not a good thought to follow through.
After supper Ryan's dad takes over and they play some games together and usually it goes fine for
about an hour. Then it usually ended in screaming. So Ryan's grandmother had the bright idea of
inviting them over for desert at about 8:00 pm most nights. But what about days when there is no
school? Ryan's parents try very hard not to think about that.
High School Tasha-
Tasha is 15. She is in ninth grade and from her marks, you would say there is no big problem. She is
passing everything, but her teachers always comment that she is capable of much more if she tried.
If they gave marks for getting along with others, it would be a different story. Tasha's best friend is
currently doing a 6 month sentence for vandalism and shoplifting.
Tasha and Sylvie have been friends since fall, if you can call it that. Since Tasha has almost no other
friends, she will do anything to be Sylvie’s friend. At least that is what her parents think. Tasha
thinks it is "cool" that Sylvie is at the Shelbourne Youth Centre. One sign of this friendship was that
Tasha almost always gave her lunch money to Sylvie. Why? Because Sylvie wanted it. Tasha thought
that Sylvie was her friend, but everyone could see that Sylvie was just using her. What seemed
saddest to Tasha's parents is that Tasha could not see this at all. But this was nothing new. She
would make a friend, smother them with attention, and that would be the end of it. Or, the friend
would not do exactly what Tasha wanted and there would be a big fight, and it would be over. But
mostly Tasha complained that everyone bugged her.
What seemed to save Tasha was the nursing home. Somewhere along the way Tasha got involved
working there. To hear the staff there talk about her, you would never guess it was the same girl.
Helpful, kind, thoughtful - they couldn't say enough good about her. In fact her parents joked that
maybe if they all moved to the nursing home, it would stop the fighting at home. They figured it out
when another teenager volunteered to help one of the same afternoons as Tasha. Unfortunately the
"other" Tasha came out. She was tattling, annoying, disrespectful and hard to get along with. Tasha
could get along with any one, as long as they weren't her age, a teacher, or a relative!
These examples stress some of the common features of this comorbid combination. Extremely
major social problems with relatively little academic problems are common. Recent research suggests
that all things being equal, girls with ODD plus ADHD have significantly worse social problems than
boys with ODD plus ADHD (2). Tasha in the above example illustrates this.
ODD plus Depression/Anxiety-
This is the other common combination with ODD. If you look at children with ODD, probably 15-20%
will have problems with their mood and even more are anxious. (1) Here are some examples of how
this can present:
Arriane is 4. She has not been an easy child. Her mom does not like to compare children, but it is
hard not to! Her brother is easy to get along with, excited, and energetic. She expected to have
arguments with Arriane about doing a chore or task, but she ends up having an argument with
Arriane about doing something fun!
Arriane's first response to almost any activity is "No, I don't want to". Her mother has learned that
if she can get Arrianne out the door and to pre-school, for example, she does quite well once she
is there. That is, as long as everything is going her way. It does not take much of a problem for
Arriane to lose her temper. Two days ago she was called to preschool when another boy bumped
Arriane and she dropped her cheese and cracker on the carpet. Arriane belted the child and
screamed "I hate you, I hate this place, I hate it!" until her mother came. Of course the next day
she was back again and things were going alright.
Arriane's mother has some unusual memories, or at least she thinks so. She remembers last fall
when they took Arriane horseback riding for the first time. Arriane's face showed true joy for a
whole hour. Her mother did not know whether to cry or not, as she could not remember such an
expression on her child's face before for more than a few moments. That memory makes her hopeful
that somehow she can bring that joy back to Arriane.
It is not an easy task. The combination of being irritable and oppositional tests everyone's patience.
She did not realize how stressful it was until she started bringing Arriane to a babysitter so she
could go out and visit her friends. Finally she did not have to be thinking about how to keep Arriane
from losing it every minute. She is finally coming to the decision that try as she might, she can not
make Arriane's life as smooth as Arriane wants it.
Elementary School Rick-
Ricky is 11 years old. Ricky spends a lot of time in his room doing legos and making models. Then,
all of a sudden there is a scream and stuff gets thrown around. If his parents are so unwise as to go
up there, they will get to hear Ricky say that he hates this world, hates legos, and hates this stupid
model. Then he will usually look up and say something awful to his parents. That is why they just
leave him up there. He comes home from school crabby and throws his homework down and goes
up plays in his room. His parents realize that he needs to get out and do something, but the only
thing they can ever get him to do is go lift weights at the YMCA. Ricky's father has absolutely no
interest in lifting weights, but he has done a pretty good job of convincing Ricky that he likes to go.
That gets him out of the house about three times a week.
As far as playing with other kids, unless his cousins come over, he won't play with anyone. His
parents used to ask why and the answer was because no one likes me. Sad to say, it is not hard
to figure out why Ricky would have that idea. When a friend comes over, he is so demanding and
insists that the child do things just the way Ricky wants. Usually Ricky ends up sulking part of the
time when he doesn't get his way. So now, his mom invites friends over for Ricky, but she plays
right along side of the friend and Ricky. At least they aren't scared off that way. At school, it is even
Everyone seems to know how easy it is to get Ricky to loose his temper. It happens almost every
day. He bangs the desk, takes a swing at someone, swears, or kicks them. He is usually caught,
and since he is so irritable anyway, the teachers hear a fair amount of defiance. Amazingly, he does
pretty well in school once he gets going on something. This year he has changed classes. His old
teacher was humble enough to admit that Ricky had pushed her too far and she could not take it
any longer. She said she just could not remain professional. Ricky's mom knows how that could
Sometimes she just takes off for a walk when Ricky is driving her nuts. She knows she shouldn't
leave him alone at home, but she figures if she doesn't go out in the woods for a walk there would
be far greater dangers awaiting Ricky at home than if he was there alone. Ricky mostly wishes people
would just stop bugging him. Once in awhile, right before bed, Ricky will ask him mom if it hurts to
die or what it is like to be dead. She can't tell if he means it or is just saying that to bug her. She is
afraid to even think about it.
High School Justin-
Justin is now 18. Things are going great for Justin this year. He is back in school, off drugs, and
actually is getting along with his parents. In fact, he actually missed them when they went away. He
has been helping his Dad put up dry wall after school. Both he and his parents are grateful for his
recovery, but they wished they could have picked it up earlier, like when he was 12 or 13. That's
when things really started to get worse. Justin had always had a hot temper and still does, but then
it was unreal. At age 12 his parents would not let him go to a dance. He broke all the windows in
their car. He lasted two months in 8th grade before he was suspended for fighting.
Justin lost the few friends he had by getting kicked off the hockey team. He swore at a judge during
a probation hearing and got two months in the Youth Centre which was extended to six months
after he tried to attack a guard. All the while he was so irritable and never happy. When he came
home from the Youth centre he wanted to be able to drive. They said no, and he decided that was it
and went out to hang himself in the barn. His parents still remember those words, "You'll all be f-ing
better off without me and if you come after me I'll f-ing kill you, too".
That horrible day was the turning point. It took five mounties to get him to go to the hospital. It
took a careful evaluation to figure out that he wasn't just oppositional , stubborn, and hot headed.
He was very depressed, too. Now after 6 months of medical and non-medical interventions, he is
100% better. Justin admits that if he had to go back to living the way he was, he'd start thinking
These examples show how very difficult the combination of ODD and depression can be for the
family and the child. Often the depression gets mixed in the midst of dealing with the aggression and
defiance. I commonly run across children like Justin who have been oppositional and depressed but
no one ever notices the depression until they make a suicide attempt. Looking for depression in ODD
youth is very important, (see treatment section).
What happens to children who have this when they grow up?
There are four main paths that a child will take:
First, there will be some lucky children who outgrow this. About half of children who have ODD as
preschoolers will have no psychiatric problems at all by age 8.
Second, ODD may turn into something else. About 5-10 % of preschoolers with ODD will eventually
end up with ADHD and no signs of ODD at all. (19) Other times ODD turns into conduct disorder
(CD). This usually happens fairly early. That is, after a 3-4 years of ODD, if it hasn't turned into CD,
it won't ever. What predicts a child with ODD getting CD? A history of a biologic parent who was a
career criminal, and very severe ODD.
Third, the child may continue to have ODD without any thing else. However, by the time pre-
schoolers with ODD are 8 years old, only 5% have ODD and nothing else.
Fourth, they continue to have ODD but add on comorbid anxiety disorders, comorbid ADHD,
or comorbid Depressive Disorders. By the time these children are in the end of elementary school,
about 25% will have mood or anxiety problems which are disabling. That means that it is very
important to watch for signs of mood disorder and anxiety as children with ODD grow older.
Will children with ODD end up as criminals?
Probably not unless they develop conduct disorder (see below) Even then many will grow out of
it. Life may not be easy. People with ODD who are grown up often do best if they can work for
themselves and stay away from alcohol. However their tendency to irritate others often leads to
a lonely life.
What is the difference between ODD and ADHD?
ODD is characterized by aggressiveness, but not impulsiveness. In ODD people annoy you
purposefully, While it is usually not so purposeful in ADHD. ODD signs and symptoms are much
more difficult to live with than ADHD. Children with ODD can sit still.
What difference does it make if you have ADHD or ADHD plus ODD?
A lot! Children and adolescents with ADHD alone do things without thinking, but not necessarily
oppositional things. An ADHD child may impulsively push someone too hard on a swing and knock
the child down on the ground. She would likely be sorry she did this afterward. A child with ODD plus
ADHD might push the kid out of the swing and say she didn't do it.
My child has been diagnosed with ODD. I don't like to say this, but no one can stand him. Is this
Unfortunately, it is quite common. In comparison to ADHD alone, children and adolescents
with ODD plus ADHD or just ODD are much more difficult to be with. The destructiveness and
disagreeableness are purposeful. They like to see you get mad. Every request can end up as a
power struggle. Lying becomes a way of life, and getting a reaction out of others is the chief hobby.
Perhaps hardest of all to bear, they rarely are truly sorry and often believe nothing is their fault.
After a huge blow up, the child with ODD is often calm and collected. It is the parents who look as
they are going to lose it, not the child. This is understandable. The parents have probably just been
tricked, bullied, lied to or have witnessed temper tantrums which know no limits.
My father in law says the whole problem is my husband and I. My daughter convinced him that she
is a victim of uncaring parents. How often does this happen?
Too often! Children and adolescents with ODD produce strong feelings in people. They are trying to
get a reaction out of people, and they are often successful. Common ones are: inciting spouses to
fight with each other and not focus on the child, making outsiders believe that all the fault lies with
the parents, making certain susceptible people believe that they can "save" the child by doing
everything the child wants, setting parents against grandparents, setting teachers against parents,
and inciting the parents to abuse the child. I frequently see children with ODD in which teachers and
parents and sometimes others are all fighting amongst each other rather
than with the child who is causing all the turmoil in the first place.
ODD is one bad problem. There is no one thing that will probably fix it. Make sure you are not
prematurely ruling out any of the possible interventions above. If you are not careful, it can destroy
you long before it ruins the kid. If nothing is done, the outcome can be dismal. It is absolutely key to
keep working to do everything you can to keep this problem from devastating your life and your
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