Oppositional Defiant Disorder

It's the hidden disabilities that keep kids out of church

It's the hidden disabilities that keep kids out of church

The study found that the children most likely to be excluded from church are those with autism spectrum disorders and common mental health conditions - anxiety, depression, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder and ADHD.

Is Oppositional Defiant Disorder a description or a diagnosis?

Our current blog series… Dissecting the DSM-5… What it Means for Kids and Families, continues today with an examination of the recently updated diagnostic criteria for Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

Mental health professionals working with kids and families are often asked to intervene when children chronically exhibit angry or disrespectful behavior. The causes of this behavior are often complex, but typically are grounded in two very different biologic predispositions…referred to in the DSM-5 as disinhibition/constraint and negative emotionality.

My problem with the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is that establishing the diagnosis doesn’t tell you anything about what to do to treat it. Consider it a “lite” version of Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder without the severe, protracted tantrums or meltdowns.

In the DSM-5, the eight diagnostic criteria for ODD were regrouped into three categories: Angry/Irritable Mood (loses temper, touchy/easily annoyed, angry/disrespectful), Argumentative/Defiant Behavior (argues with authority figures/adults, defies/refuses to comply with rules/requests from authority figures, deliberately annoys others, blames others) and Vindictiveness. Kids are required to have four or more symptoms for at least six months for an ODD diagnosis, criteria have been included to emphasize that the behavior is beyond the norm for the child’s developmental age and specifiers for severity have been included. In addition, kids with ODD may now be diagnosed with Conduct Disorder as a comorbid condition.

Some kids are disrespectful and defiant because of issues with poor executive functioning. They roughly correspond to the angry/irritable group. One way of understanding their behavior is to view them as impulsively defiant…they argue with parents and authority figures without stopping to think about the issue that upsets them or why they’re upset. It’s not unreasonable to question whether this subtype of kids diagnosed with ODD would be better described as having ADHD, with the defiant behavior representing difficulties with emotional self-regulation caused by the executive functioning deficits central to our understanding of ADHD. In fact, one of the criticisms the folks from Shire Pharmaceuticals faced when they sought FDA approval of Adderall XR for ODD was the question of whether ODD was truly a stand-alone diagnosis-since 79% of the kids in their study were diagnosed with ADHD in addition to ODD.


Other kids are disrespectful and struggle with transitions because of their inability to let go of their mental script of how a given interaction or situation should unfold. They correspond to the argumentative/defiant group in ODD. They perseverate or get “stuck” on a picture in their mind of how things should be and escalate when  adults violate their sense of control. The first subset of kids is defiant because they can’t stop and think. The second subset is defiant because they can’t tolerate the inner frustration when events unfold differently than they’ve pictured in their minds.  We know kids who “ruminate” or perseverate often experience problems with anxiety and/or depression as they get older.

What we do to help is contingent on our conceptualization of the cause of the defiant behavior. If they have difficulties with self-control related to ADHD, we’ll treat the ADHD. If they’re rigid, inflexible and perseverate, we might look at cognitive strategies or behavioral interventions to help. Use of the ODD label adds little to our understanding of how to best help address the behavior that led parents to seek professional help.

Updated January 24, 2016