How To Parent: Problem Children ODD Kids Oppositional Defiant Disorder Teens

The Oppositional, Defiant Teen: How James Lehman tackles the toughest behavior disorder (Excerpted from Transform Your Problem Child)

The Oppositional, Defiant Teen: How James Lehman tackles the toughest behavior disorder (Excerpted from Transform Your Problem Child)This week, read about an oppositional, defiant teen in James Lehman’s compelling new book, Transform Your Problem Child. Meet the parents and family of Caleb, who have been dealing with their son’s behavior since he was a young child, and “raising their tolerance for deviance” with each instance of acting out. When Caleb gets physically abusive, his parents go to see James—and are finally given real solutions to his behavior– even if those solutions are not what they expected.

“Nobody understood what it was like to parent a child like Caleb, so she just stopped bringing it up to anyone.” –From “Transform Your Problem Child”

For parents of children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, every day is like living in a war zone. Seemingly simple requests set off “land mines” with these children because they have a marked inability to hear the word “no” and a determination to gain power in the home through constant arguing. The story of Caleb offers insight for parents of any child who is oppositional, whether diagnosed with a disorder or not. In this story, you will learn how to address bullying and physical violence against siblings, refusal to follow rules and take responsibility, stealing, cursing and manipulative and threatening behavior.

When Caleb was an infant, his mom, Monique, would stare at him for hours. She’d go to his crib in the middle of the night and watch his chest rise and fall, making sure he was still breathing. She and her husband, Ben, would talk about their son’s future: Would he like baseball or football better? What would he want to be on his first real Halloween? Would he learn magic tricks or maybe ask for a science kit for his birthday? As he grew, it became painfully obvious that Caleb was going to be a challenge. More than a challenge, in fact. He was downright impossible. From the moment Caleb started preschool, so did the notes and phone calls complaining about his behavior:

“Caleb is disruptive.”
“Caleb refuses to share with other children and is often aggressive.”
“Caleb has angry outbursts when he is with other children in a group.”

Monique thought he needed more socialization practice, so she tried to arrange playdates, but pretty soon the mothers stopped accepting. Once Caleb was big enough to sleep in his own bed, Monique no longer checked on him as he slept. She used the time to collapse on the sofa, exhausted from another unbearable day with him. He argued constantly:

“No! I don’t want to go to bed!”
“No! I don’t want to leave!”
“No! I don’t want to get up!”
“No! I don’t want to! You’re so mean to me!”

Every day was a struggle to get him to school. From the start, Caleb hated the bus, and in the first years of elementary school he’d protest and complain so much that Monique often ended up driving him to school. But on the days she opened the women’s clothing store she owned, she didn’t have the time to do this. Neither did Ben, whose work kept him on the road or in an airport much of the time. So she would beg and plead as they waited at the stop, Caleb declaring that he wouldn’t get on the bus and Monique feeling the stares of the other mothers. When the bus arrived, he wouldn’t budge. Monique’s pleas would turn to demands, still to no avail, and the driver would tap his foot impatiently as she grew more and more flustered. Finally, fighting back tears, she would drag Caleb onto the bus, kicking and screaming. She knew the entire neighborhood was talking behind her back: What is wrong with that kid? What’s wrong with that mother?

By the time Caleb hit third grade, the bus was a moot point—he’d made so much trouble that he got kicked off it indefinitely. Monique adjusted her work schedule so she could drive him to school and back. Dropping him off or picking him up, she avoided meeting anyone’s gaze in the playground. She knew what everyone was thinking. She has to drive her son because he’s so out of control. It was all so humiliating. And lonely. She couldn’t talk to her friends or even her family about it. Every time she brought up his latest behavioral incidents they’d tell her she needed to put her foot down. Nobody understood what it was like to parent a child like Caleb, so she just stopped bringing it up to anyone.

Caleb took great pleasure in embarrassing his sisters. The sibling rivalry increased as he got older. Caleb never knew when to stop. “Why is he so mean to me?” Stephanie asked. Monique wished she knew the answer, but she was just as mystified. The sacrifices they all had to make were enormous. Caleb’s behavior made playdates for the girls impossible. The family was always turning down invitations to the zoo, family outings to the beach, block parties. It wasn’t fair that her two daughters had to miss out on so much, but she didn’t know the solution. She hoped that one day they would forgive her for being such a horrible mother. She hoped one day she’d forgive herself.

At the end of fifth grade, Monique and Ben took Caleb to a social worker, who diagnosed Caleb with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). When they read about the diagnosis, Monique and Ben were overwhelmed. The social worker recommended weekly therapy, but Caleb refused to go. They gave up trying to get him to go, and hoped that eventually, he would grow out of this stage. Or, at the very least, they figured they could manage the
explosions if they gave him what he wanted most of the time.


Now 17, Caleb is more of a terror than ever. He treats everyone in the house as though they are his servants. He often reduces his sisters to tears. And when Monique or Ben scolds him for it, he becomes hostile. “Why are you getting so upset?” he asks. “I was only teasing her. Why doesn’t she grow up and stop being such a baby?” He thinks nothing of going into his sisters’ rooms to take their iPods or their wallets. He still reads Stephanie’s diary (though she’s learned to hide it pretty well), and he often tries to
blackmail her, saying that if she lies for him he’ll grant her “immunity” for a week or so at a time.

Caleb has broken the door to his own room so many times Ben took it off its hinges. He has punched holes in his bedroom walls and threatened to key the family car if he wasn’t allowed to drive it. Monique feels she’s on an endless loop of scuffles with him. And he’s got a foul mouth. She tried to reason with him once about why he shouldn’t keep his music on full blast.

“You’re bothering everyone in the house,” she said calmly.
“Yeah, well they bother me,” he replied.
“Caleb, I don’t know why you say that. No one wants to bother you. Everyone
here loves you.”
“That’s bull****—just leave me alone.”
“Don’t speak to me like that! I’m your mother!”
“Screw you, get out of my room. I can say what I want.”
“No you can’t! I deserve at least a little respect around here, don’t I?”
“Get out of my f**king room!”

She had just about given up, deciding that she couldn’t do anything about him, when he went too far with the girls. Monique hated to leave the kids alone in the house, but one day after running late at the store, she came home to find Stephanie and Lauren screaming and crying.

“What happened?” Monique said as she threw her keys on the hallway table.
“Caleb hit me with a sneaker!” Stephanie said, her face beet red from crying.
“He what? Come here, let me see your face,” Monique said. She pulled out a tissue and gently smeared away the dirt mark from the sneaker on Stephanie’s face. “Let’s get you some ice.”
The three of them walked to the kitchen, the girls still crying. “Back up and start from the beginning,” Monique said.
“Caleb’s been hogging the computer for three and a half hours,” Lauren
said. “And Stephanie and I wanted to play something—”
“We’d been asking nicely for an hour if we could have a turn,” interrupted
Stephanie. “But he wouldn’t give it up—”
“He never lets us use it,” said Lauren fiercely.
“So I started yelling at him and he threw his sneaker at my head!”
Leaving Lauren holding the ice to Stephanie’s face, Monique marched into the den.
“Is that true, Caleb? Did you throw a sneaker at your sister?”
Caleb kept his eyes on the computer.
“Caleb, I’m talking to you,” said Monique as she stood in front of the computer
“Be quiet, I can’t concentrate,” said Caleb.
“I asked you a question. Answer me, Caleb.”
“I wasn’t doing anything. I was just using the computer, minding my own business, when they came in and started bothering me. I couldn’t help it. It didn’t hurt her. She’s just acting like a baby so you’ll take her side.”
“That’s it! I’ve had it with you. Go to your room!” Monique yelled.
“And what are you going to do to me if I don’t?” Caleb smirked.

Monique stood frozen. She looked her at her son and burst into tears. “Get to your room!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. “I said get to your room!”
She had no idea what her next move would be if he didn’t obey her, and she prayed that he would.

Caleb stood up and yelled “B****!” as he went off to his room. Monique collapsed onto the couch, shaken from the standoff with her son. Mortified at the thought that her daughters had witnessed her so overtaken. Tired and empty from years of arguing with a kid—now a young man—who lived to defy her every word.

“Don’t cry, Mom,” Stephanie said as she and Lauren crept into the room.
“Everything will be okay,” Lauren added. Monique realized the family roles had somehow been reversed. Her daughters were trying to take care of her, not the other way around. She hugged her girls, not wanting to let them go. I need to protect them, she thought. I can’t let this go on any longer.

Monique and Ben came to see me a few days later. “I am so frustrated,” Monique told me, her back straight as if she were sitting at attention. “I really don’t know what to do about my son. Since before I can remember he’s been impossible to manage. He’s incapable of controlling his temper and I’m really worried that it could get him into real trouble one day. How will he ever get a job? How will he ever live on his own? What is going to happen to him?”

“You’re right, Monique. From what you’ve told me, it seems like Caleb has always been defiant. Kids who grow up like that can have a really tough time as adults. You have a difficult kid on your hands, I can see that.”

Monique’s demeanor began to crumble. “Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe it, James. I love Caleb, really, I do. But….but…I can’t stand being around him. I know that’s a terrible thing to say. What kind of a mother says that she can’t stand being around her child? What is wrong with me?” she sobbed, as Ben put his arm around her.

“Monique, you are the mother of a child with a very difficult personality. It’s tough to feel close to a child whose primary mode of communication is hostility, antagonism, and resistance,” I said.
“So is it hopeless?” Monique asked, reaching for the box of tissues I offered her.
“No, but I won’t lie to you—it’s going to be tough. Caleb’s biggest problem is that he’s facing the difficulties that typical 17-year-olds face, but he doesn’t have the equipment to solve them. So we’re going to have to help teach him the problem-solving techniques he’s avoided learning by being antagonistic and defiant all these years. I can show you how to do that, as well as how to set limits with him, help him develop coping skills, and how to treat people better. The rest will be up to him. After all, he’s 17 and he’s responsible for his behavior. Remember, the things you’ve told me that have been going on are actually choices he’s made. You may feel like he’s out of control, but from where I sit it looks like he’s controlling the whole family and has been for quite awhile. You’re going to have to be strong enough to administer some heavy-duty medicine.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll get to that in a few minutes, but first let’s talk about what you’re doing right now. So far you’ve responded to Caleb’s behavior by negotiating, bargaining, giving in, threatening and screaming. The problem is when you do that, you’re giving power to Caleb’s defiance. I know he was diagnosed with ODD, and that is a tough disorder to live with. Kids with ODD begin to argue the minute they wake up, and they don’t stop until they’re snoring at night. These kids are resistant to anything you propose, and they defy rules and expectations pretty globally. Kids with ODD trust no one, and they think the world is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. They blame everyone else for their problems and are constantly making excuses for their own inability to manage things. They’re easily annoyed and hostile with adults, bossy and pushy with other kids. Their automatic response is to disagree and to argue. Because that’s how they feel calmer. Arguing and yelling gives them a sense of being in control. For some reason, being told what to do sets off a sense of powerlessness in a kid like this, a fear of not being in control, so arguing is the way he tries to wrestle that control back.”

“You’ve pretty much summed up our son,” Ben said, cracking a rueful smile.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of kids with ODD. Believe me, I got their number, Ben. But before we do anything else, we must work on keeping your girls safe, and we must teach them how not to be physical or emotional victims. I don’t think being alone with him is the best thing, but I understand you can’t be there all the time, so you must tell them to stay away from him. Don’t antagonize him. If Caleb wants to use the computer for three hours, let him use the computer for three hours.”
“But that’s not fair,” Ben said. “Why should the girls keep having to suffer because of Caleb? Haven’t they suffered enough?”
“Sure, but right now conflicts with Caleb are putting them in danger, both physically and emotionally, so when you two aren’t home, they have to do things that do not involve conflict with him. So if there’s only one computer in the house, then yes, that’s the way it’s going to have to be for awhile. Because what you’re asking them to do is to deal with this kid that you can’t even deal with. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t respond to common sense, he doesn’t have principles of common decency and sharing. He’s not on that level. So I think it’s a matter of keeping the girls safe, not what’s fair or unfair. They can have the computer for three hours after you get home.”
Ben nodded. “Okay.”
“So from now on, they should wait until you come home to deal with any conflicts. And you need to tell Caleb that getting physical is not allowed in the family. And if he’s going to get physical with his sisters, that’s called domestic violence and you are going to get the police involved.”
“Police?” Monique asked, clearly shocked.
“That’s the kind of heavy-duty medicine I referred to earlier. There’s no fooling around now. You have to develop what’s called a culture of accountability in your home.”


When they got home, Monique and Ben went into Caleb’s room. They sat on his bed and told him they needed to speak with him.
“This is my room, I’ll invite you in when I want you here,” Caleb said.
“No, Caleb, this is our house, and technically it’s our room,” Ben countered.
Caleb looked surprised.
“Whatever,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“No, Caleb, not whatever. We need to have a serious talk. We’re tired of the way you’ve been treating us and your sisters, and we’re not going to sit back and let you walk all over us anymore. We’ve decided to see somebody to help us learn to handle you better, and you need to come with us to our appointment next week.”
“Like hell I’ll go anywhere with you,” Caleb said.
“Well fine, then, you can find somewhere else to live.”
“Yeah right. I’m not going anywhere!”
“Caleb, either you agree to go with us to the therapist next week, or we’re going to call the police and press charges for what you did to your sister.”
“I didn’t do anything to her!”
“Yes you did. You hit her with a sneaker and gave her a black eye. That’s assault.”
“Yeah, right. You wouldn’t call the police. I dare you,” Caleb snickered.
“Don’t test me.”
“Get out of my god**** room!”
“No, Caleb, not until you agree to see the counselor with us.”
“Fine, then. I’ll leave!” Caleb yelled and he walked out of the room. Ben and Monique followed him while Caleb continued to swear. Ben found himself turning up the volume of his own voice to try to drown out the swearing. Caleb screamed, “Leave me alone!” Then he grabbed a bowl off the coffee table and threw it at them.
“That’s it,” Ben said and he went to the phone to call the police. When they arrived a few minutes later, Caleb was screaming at his parents to leave him alone.
“You can’t do anything to me!” he yelled. Ben filled the police in, and the officers took Caleb aside. They told him he had to do what his parents wanted or they could press charges. “Fine, I’ll go to your f**king therapist,” Caleb finally relented. He spent the rest of the night in his room.


Caleb came to see me the next week. When children with ODD are confronted with a problem they can’t solve, they react emotionally and that’s when the trouble starts. So one of my goals was to show Caleb that his solution wasn’t working to solve the problem. We talked about what happened with his sister. “She was being a brat,” he told me.
“Well sure she’s a brat. All little sisters are brats. But hitting her with a sneaker almost got you locked up.”
“So the next time you think your sister’s a brat, instead of hitting her with a sneaker, what are some other ways you can deal with that problem so you don’t get locked up?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to get off the computer.”
“Well you may have to, at least until your parents get home.”
“I could call her names. She usually goes back to her room after I do that,”
Caleb smirked.
“Sure, but that won’t solve your problem. That just keeps it going. So what’s something that you can do that really solves this problem so you don’t get deeper into trouble?”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t even want to be here.”
“Caleb, let’s finish with what you can do differently because if you don’t, you’re going to wind up in the youth detention center. That’s where teens go who aren’t safe at home. Do you want to wind up there because you wouldn’t come up with a better plan?”
“Okay. S***. I could leave the room.”
“Great. And when you leave the room, where would you go?”
“To my bedroom.”
“Great Caleb, or you could take a walk outside. Just get out of that situation that’s upsetting, because it’s only going to lead to you getting into deeper trouble. So let’s try that then. For the next week, when you feel like your sister’s really pissing you off, go to your room and chill for 15 minutes and listen to music. Let’s see if you can do that because you know, Caleb, if you can’t, you’re going to wind up in trouble with the police.”


Monique, Ben, and Caleb continued to see me for six more months and put in six months of hard work. They began a reward system that allowed Caleb to earn extras for making the right choices. Eventually he earned his own computer in his room. Caleb is about to graduate from high school (just barely), and he’s planning to look for a job and get a car. Monique and Ben have told him that if he continues on the right track, he can stay in the house. Monique realizes that Caleb is still a challenge and probably will always be, but these days, she feels like she’s up to it. Although she knows the war is not over, she hopes it is at a cease-fire.

Read how James helps Caleb and his parents in Transform Your Problem Child. In the book, James shares stories based on thirty years of working with parents to manage behaviors ranging from back talk and lying to outbursts caused by ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Known for his no-nonsense, practical approach, James Lehman shows you step-by-step ways to manage seemingly unmanageable child behaviors and bring peace and sanity back to your home. Transform Your Problem Child is available through Empowering Parents at

The Oppositional, Defiant Teen: How James Lehman tackles the toughest behavior disorder (Excerpted from Transform Your Problem Child) reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: Dealing With Know It All Teenages Arrogant Kids

“I’m Right and You’re Wrong!” Is Your Child a Know-it-all?

Im Right and Youre Wrong! Is Your Child a Know-it-all?Does your child always insist that they’re right and everyone else is wrong? Some kids have a bad habit of asserting their opinions by drowning out everyone else in the room—regardless of whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Understandably, this overbearing behavior can be very annoying and frustrating for both parents and family members alike.

“If you want a child to be a real pain in the neck—if you want to strengthen some behavior or characteristic—just argue with them. It will serve to exercise that muscle and make your child feel more powerful.”

Before I give you ideas for dealing with this behavior, I want to make one thing clear: As kids grow, they need to develop their interests and ideas, and they need to learn how to express them. They also have to learn where they end emotionally and where their parents begin—what we call “emotional boundaries.” At different developmental periods, kids go through a process called separation and individuation. Sometimes this process is not very noticeable at all, and sometimes it occurs very intensively. As an older child or teen, they continue that process by learning how to form their own opinions. So realize that some of the behavior you’re experiencing with your teen or pre-teen is very normal for this stage in life.

I also can’t stress enough the importance of listening to your child once. I know they can be obnoxious and irritating—but just remember that sometimes they might be stating an opinion about something you really need to know about. It might be something the teacher is doing that may be inappropriate, a dangerous thing the bus driver is doing, or a risky behavior on the part of your child’s friends. It’s important that you listen to your kids with an open mind, because when something important does come along, you want to make sure they feel free to bring it to you.

Saying that, if your child’s need to assert their opinions crosses the line and becomes obnoxious, there are things you can do to help curtail that behavior and teach them more socially appropriate ways of behaving, both inside and outside of the family.

  • Don’t Be Frightened by Your Child’s Opinions

Do not be frightened by kids’ opinions—just respond to them honestly. I think it’s much more effective to judge your child by their behavior rather than by their opinions, thoughts or ideas. Often their ideas are based on peer conversations at school, rumors, cultural events, or something they’ve seen or heard in the media. When your child or teen is talking to you, they’re often trying to shape their own opinions. It’s better to hear your child out, state your opinion honestly, let them respond, and then respectfully disengage from the conversation. That way, nobody gets their feelings hurt and you’ve avoided an argument.

So don’t be threatened by your child’s opinions and assertions, even if they’re wrong. The more you ignore these kinds of statements, the sooner they will go away. In fact, if you want a child to be a real pain in the neck—if you want to strengthen some behavior or characteristic—just argue with them. It will serve to exercise that muscle and make your child feel more powerful.

  • Don’t Keep the Argument Going

If your child is trying to start an argument with you, don’t keep it going. Parents often feel like they have to get the last word in to be in control, which in reality only serves to further the child’s urge to argue with you. If you disagree with your adolescent child, they often think it’s because you don’t understand what they’re saying, so they’ll keep trying to put it another way. This is because people who are immature in their communication styles aren’t always able to see that you don’t agree with their position. They think that if they could just explain it a little better, you’d understand and accept it. This is another reason why arguments with kids can keep going even after you’ve explained your point of view.

If your child tends to be argumentative and you stay in the argument with them, it makes them feel more powerful and in control. Don’t forget: kids only have the power you give them. Some of the power they need to have is very important; it helps them develop their personal and social lives. In fact, it’s very important that they gain increasing access to power as they grow older and individuate more. On the other hand, when it comes to discussing house rules or consequences or privileges, I think that after they state their opinion, you say, “I understand, but this is the way it is,” and then leave. If you stand there, they think it’s OK to keep talking. When you get out of the situation, it takes the power out of the room.

One of the most powerful things you can do with kids who are know-it-alls is not respond to them when they try to drag you into an argument. Be respectful but disengage, because each time you respond, they feel compelled to answer back—and as you know, the discussion will just keep going and going.

When your child has come up with some erroneous statement in an attempt to prove their point, the best thing you can do is state your opinion honestly. When they state their counter opinion, you can say, “That’s really interesting. I have to go downstairs now.” If what they are saying has to do with health or safety: then you should correct it and walk away.

  • Don’t Let One Child Ruin It for Everybody

If family members are having dinner, watching TV or a movie together at home, don’t let one child dominate the conversation in such a way that it blocks everyone else from expressing their opinions. It’s very important to understand that while everyone’s opinion is valued, it’s usually valued once. After that, it becomes harassment. If one of your children doesn’t like what you’re having for dinner or doesn’t care for the movie choice, give them their options and don’t let them sit there and continue to annoy everyone with their negativity. Always have a back-up plan. This usually includes having them go to their room until they can let go of the topic or complaint they’re stuck on. This does not have to be a punishment or consequence. It’s just a time out for your child in his or her room, until they can get off the subject. Often, when kids are over-stimulated, anxious or frustrated, it’s hard for them to switch thoughts on their own. A change of scenery and a few minutes away from the stimulation can be very helpful.

Many parents of children who act in an overbearing way find it effective to come up with a cuing system with their child to signal that they’re “doing it again.” You and your child should agree on a signal, just like a cue in a movie or play. The gesture means, “Really stop it now. You’ve stated your opinion and you need to let it go. If you go further, there are going to be consequences.” Many parents find this a very effective, non-verbal tool for helping their child curtail inappropriate behavior without embarrassing them in front of others.

If your child won’t let his siblings express themselves, or will not listen to their opinions, what I would recommend is that you say “Jack, you aren’t listening to others. How can you keep arguing your position when you won’t even listen to your sister’s answer? Why don’t you give her a second and hear what she’s saying?” That way, you provide an example to your other kids so they can learn to say, “You’re not listening.”

If your kids won’t stop arguing back and forth, you can also say, “I’m tired of this bickering. This conversation has 60 more seconds, and if you don’t stop, you’re going to your rooms.” At first, the child who’s the know-it-all might get more obnoxious, but just follow through with the consequences so he learns how to stop. Give them the responsibility that the argument has to stop in 60 seconds and when it doesn’t, you hold them accountable. In this way they learn to meet the responsibility of stopping the argument, as well as a more socially appropriate way of behaving.

Remember, as a parent, you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to; you can make choices. Although it is very important that kids feel like they’re being heard and responded to, it does not mean they get to go on endlessly. We can all debate about a lot of things, but we’re responsible to a structure in our home. The truth is, we all have varied opinions about our jobs, our supervisors, or our teachers, but as we mature, we have to learn to deal with our thoughts and feelings independently and keep our opinions separate from our functioning at school or work, as well.

This is very important for kids to understand: There’s a difference between his or her opinion about things and the way the family structure—and the world—operates.

“I’m Right and You’re Wrong!” Is Your Child a Know-it-all? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

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How To Parent: When Kids Behavior Gets Out Of Hand

Disrespectful Child Behavior: Where Do You Draw the Line?

Disrespectful Child Behavior: Where Do You Draw the Line?As a parent, how do you know for sure if your child’s behavior has crossed the line and become truly disrespectful? I believe the distinction between mild rebelliousness and disrespect has to be drawn very clearly. And here’s how you determine whether or not your child has gone too far: when he is being rude or complaining that something isn’t fair, ask yourself, “Is my child expressing general frustration about the injustices or challenges of life, or is he being deliberately hurtful, condescending or abusive?”

I believe that when kids engage in mildly rebellious expressions of frustration, it’s a sign that you clearly have the authority.

I look at it this way: when your child rolls his eyes and stomps up the stairs, it’s fairly harmless. It’s very different from saying, “You’re a jerk. You can’t make me. I don’t care what the rules are, I’m not doing it!” Make no mistake, there is a distinction between eye-rolling and your child shouting, “You’re stupid.” I think parents need to really understand this difference at a core level.

Many parents I’ve worked with through the years didn’t know where to draw the line when it came to their child’s disrespectful behavior. When their teen or pre-teen expressed themselves in mildly rebellious ways, it frightened them. They would sit in my office and say, “If I don’t stop my teen’s eye-rolling, next she’ll be calling me a jerk.” I’d usually reply, “Well, the question is, did she ever call you a jerk in the past? If she didn’t, don’t worry about it. And if she does in the future, hold her accountable.” It’s as simple as that.

Related: Learn how to create a culture of accountability in your home.

By the way, I understand that parents are often afraid things are going to get more difficult with their adolescents. If you’re parenting a teen or pre-teen, you’re probably living with the fear that things can get worse; as we all know, kids in that age group can be very moody and stubborn. It’s such a delicate balance during adolescence: while it’s important to allow for the natural “breaking away” process that comes during the teen years, parents also have to be sure to identify and challenge any truly disrespectful child behavior that is hurtful, rude or demeaning to others.

Don’t Take it Personally
Respect, disrespect and compliance are often issues that become entangled between parents and kids. Here’s how I see it: parents have a right to expect compliance from all the children who are living in their house, even if that child is 22 years old. Often, the friction is caused by an adolescent’s legitimate need to become more independent as he develops. This is precisely where parents and teens come into conflict: the parent wants compliance and the adolescent wants independence. Now let’s take it one step further: When the adolescent doesn’t comply, the parent feels disrespected—and they make the mistake of personalizing that feeling.

I think that teens have to learn to solve the problem of compliance in healthy ways. But parents also need to understand that many times, their child’s small acts of rebelliousness come from the fact that they want to be independent—it has nothing to do with disrespect.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a teenager is late for curfew. The parent says, “Why are you late?” The kid gives them some excuse, and the parent asks, “Well, why didn’t you call?” The adolescent replies, “Well, I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of my friends.” The parent comes back with, “Well, you’re not going out Friday night as a result; you have to take more responsibility to be on time and to call if you’re going to be late.” While giving the child this consequence is fair, if the parent then says, “You have no right to disrespect me that way” and they take it personally, they’re on the wrong track.

One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is to take their child’s behavior personally. The truth is, you should never fall into that trap because the teenager next door is doing the same thing to his parents, and your cousin’s daughter is doing the same thing to her parents. Your role is to just deal with your child’s behavior as objectively as possible. When parents don’t have effective ways to deal with these kinds of things, they may feel out of control and get scared—and often overreact or under react to the situation. When they overreact, they become too rigid, and when they under react, they ignore the behavior or tell themselves it’s “just a phase.” Either way, it won’t help your child learn to manage his thoughts or emotions more effectively, and be more respectful.

Disrespectful Things Parents Can—and Should—Ignore
Generally, I recommend that parents ignore the mildly disrespectful things that their kids do. We’ve talked about eye rolling and stomping up the stairs, but I would also include things like muttering about how life isn’t fair, sighing dramatically or even slamming their bedroom door on occasion.

When my son was a teen-ager, there were times when we’d tell him to do something and he’d walk up the stairs to his room mumbling, “Man, I hate this garbage.” We allowed that display of emotion because we weren’t threatened by it. My wife and I would simply look at each other and chuckle after he’d left and say, “Yeah, yeah, whatever—just go do your homework.” I personally think that kids need to be able to express their frustration about living within a family and following its rules. So I advise parents to tolerate that type of behavior. After all, your adolescent needs to learn how to have feelings and opinions of his own, and he has to have a safe place in which he can express his frustration—and sometimes you’ll see him do this in very immature ways.

Related: Learn how to manage your disrespectful child.

By the way, there were parents with whom I’ve worked who didn’t have the tolerance to allow that kind of behavior. They felt that it was a threat to their authority, and they ended up challenging it at every turn. But I believe that if your teenager is otherwise managing his life—getting good enough grades, being a good enough kid, not doing criminal or anti-social things, not doing high risk things—that type of behavior isn’t a threat to the parents’ authority at all. Rather, I believe that when kids engage in mildly rebellious expressions of frustration, it’s a sign that you clearly have the authority. Think of it this way: it’s not a challenge to your authority, it’s an expression of frustration about your authority. That means the ball is in your court. There’s no reason to throw it to your child and give power to their annoying—but harmless—behavior.

Disrespectful Child Behavior Parents Should NOT Ignore
Make no mistake, when true disrespect is directed toward a specific parent or sibling and it’s demeaning and rude, it has to be dealt with immediately. If your child doesn’t see where that line between disrespect and mild rebelliousness is, sit down with them when things are going well and say, “Listen, if you want to stomp up the stairs because you’re frustrated and you think things aren’t fair, that’s okay with me. But if you start calling people names and being rude to family members, you’re going to be held accountable for that behavior. So, don’t go too far.”

If you’ve noticed that your child has already crossed the line and is behaving in an increasingly disrespectful manner, you can say, “Look, there’s a line that I think you’re crossing when you talk to us. If you want to roll your eyes and say “Whatever,” that’s fine with me. I don’t want to fight with you about that. But name calling, blaming, and yelling are not acceptable. You are responsible not to do those things.” Always put these ideas together for your kids: responsibility, accountability, and consequences. What that looks like is, “You’re responsible to behave a certain way. I’m going to hold you accountable for that behavior, and there will be consequences if you don’t take responsibility for it.” Just complete that circle for your child so they can see the relationship between these three important ideas.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your teenage son has called his sister a rude or hurtful name, and you’ve sent him to his room. When things have calmed down, sit down with him and say, “You know, I’ve been hearing you say disrespectful things to your sister. And I just want to remind you that if you’re rude or hurtful to her, it’s as bad as being disrespectful to me. And the consequence for that kind of behavior is…” And let him know what is going to happen.

Let’s see how that conversation might go:

You: “You know the consequences for disrespectful behavior in this house. I’m taking your phone away until you’re not disrespectful for four hours. You’ve got a chance to get it back a half hour before bedtime, so don’t blow it.”

Your child: “Whatever. I’m going to bed anyway.”

You: “OK, that’s fine with me. We can start the clock when you wake up.”

Your child: “That’s not fair! I need my phone tomorrow.”

You: “That’s not my problem. My problem is, how do I get you to stop talking to your sister that way? And your problem is, why are you using disrespect as a way to deal with your negative feelings? And believe me, calling your sister names doesn’t solve that problem in an effective way. That’s not acceptable in this home.”

Note that the parent here took her son’s phone away for a relatively short period of time—four hours. I believe that’s better than taking it for a day or two because now, the parent has the child working to get it back. The teen has to focus on the new behavior of being respectful—or at least not being rude and disrespectful—in order to earn back his cell phone. In doing this, you’re creating a pathway for better behavior, and you’re working toward a culture of accountability and respect in your home.

A Final Word: Respect Begins at Home
Respect begins at home. If you want your children to be respectful, you have to be respectful, too. Let’s make no bones about that. If you call your kids names, if you yell at others in a condescending way, if you make derogatory remarks to your spouse, don’t be surprised if your child behaves the same way. You’re modeling that behavior for him. Parents who tell their children, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say,” are just creating the kind of double standard that breeds negativity and resentment. Let’s face it, if you’re doing something yourself, it gets very complicated when you ask your child to stop. Believe me, kids know hypocrisy when they see it.

An ineffective parent is a person who expects their kids to do things that they’re not willing to do themselves. You have to live your values. If you value respect, then you’ve got to behave respectfully.

Disrespectful Child Behavior: Where Do You Draw the Line? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

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How To Parent: Trouble Controlling ODD Children

Power Struggles Part I: Are You at War with a Defiant Child?

Power Struggles Part I: Are You at War with a Defiant Child?Do you ever feel as if your relationship with your child has become one long, drawn-out (and exhausting) power struggle? If you’re in this situation, it probably seems like you simply progress from nagging your child over dirty laundry on the floor in the morning to arguing over bedtime at night. As they get older, power struggles get more entrenched as your child pushes against the rules: they start asking for things like the keys to the car and permission to go to all-night parties, “because all their friends’ parents said ‘yes.’” In Part I of this two-part series by James Lehman, MSW, you’ll see why the struggle for power is an inherent part of growing up, and learn how to tell if the resistance you’re getting from your child is normal or if it’s crossed the line into defiance and needs to be addressed. (And stay tuned for Part II, where James will give you hands-on advice about how to defuse defiant power struggles!)

“Here’s the bottom line: kids have to learn how to have power struggles with their parents in a way that is not a fight.”

Power is one of the strategies people use to get their needs and wants met. As children grow, you will see them trying to gain power in order to get more autonomy and control over their lives. When your child was an infant, you had almost all the power. He communicated that he was hungry or uncomfortable by crying; that was the only power he had. As your child grew older, he took on more responsibility—and with more responsibility came more power. He learned to pick up after himself, and he also learned that refusing to do chores gave him some power. He learned to do his homework—and refusing to do it also gave him power. Remember, there is no such thing as positive or negative power: it’s simply power with positive or negative ends.

There are many things in life that are empowering. Certainly information, knowledge and communication skills are empowering in a constructive way. And also sadly, violence, abuse, and threats can be empowering in a destructive way. If kids learn the latter lesson at any point in their development, they can become entrenched in a way of behaving where they use acting out, threats and verbal abuse to get what they want. I personally believe this is a dangerous path for kids to start heading down, and encourage parents to take this behavior very seriously when it first develops.

You vs. Your Child: Perception is Everything
Know that when kids engage in power struggles with you, although it may feel like they’re trying to control you, generally they don’t think of it this way. They just feel like whatever is going on isn’t fair—or that it’s not their fault. In fact, they probably aren’t even aware they’re testing your power. They see it as, “I don’t want to clean my room now. I just want to watch T.V.” Or “You’re old fashioned, you just don’t understand.”

And that’s their actual perception—most of the time they’re really seeing it that way. Most children and teens don’t perceive life the same way their adult parents do. As adults, we often mistakenly think kids see the same picture we do, so we might wonder “What’s the problem?” when they start arguing with us. But most kids don’t have the adult ability to perceive the totality of what’s going on. And not only are they developmentally immature, but there are certain obstacles that can block them from developing that awareness in an age-appropriate manner. There may be diagnosed (or undiagnosed) learning disabilities, which cause distortions in their thinking. The end result is that they become willing to fight everyone and everything in order to get their way.

Teenagers especially see the world very differently than parents. While parents are concerned about safety and want their kids to avoid doing high risk things, teens may feel as if they’re being held back from doing things that appear reasonable and legitimate to them. This becomes even more complex when kids discover that some of their peers are allowed to do the things they are not.

So teens can develop a way of looking at some of their parents’ decisions as unfair. That perception fuels their willingness to fight, argue, and engage in defiant power struggles with you. For example, you decide you don’t want your teen to go to a party if there’s no adult supervision. Your teenager just wants to go to the same party her friends are attending—she doesn’t have any thoughts at all about adult supervision or risk. When you bring it up, she thinks you’re old fashioned or out of touch—and the conflict starts there.

For the most part, this is healthy. It may be annoying (in fact, you’ll probably feel you’re saying the same things over and over) but kids need to find ways to challenge adult authority appropriately. And by appropriately I mean not cursing, verbally abusing or personally attacking you. By the way, if the challenge is appropriate, parents need to learn how to respond with an open mind.

Not What You Might Think: The Goal is not to Take Power Struggles Away
It surprises many parents when I say that we don’t want to take all power struggles away. Rather, we want to take the defiance out of the power struggle. This is because as kids go through their developmental stages, they need to challenge their parents appropriately in order to get more autonomy. And parents, in turn, need to teach their kids that with autonomy comes responsibility and accountability. Children are looking to be more independent and make more decisions, but they should not be allowed to argue in an abusive, hurtful or obnoxious way. Here’s the bottom line: kids have to learn how to have power struggles with their parents in a way that is not a personal attack.

Look at it this way: when a police officer pulls you over, if you don’t agree that you’ve made a mistake in traffic, you might find yourself in a power struggle with him. If you get out of your car and start screaming, that won’t get you anywhere. Instead, you try the tactic of calmly and respectfully explain your position. Whether or not he still gives you a ticket, you’ve been able to present your viewpoint in a way that doesn’t get you into more trouble, and might in fact solve your problem. In the same way, ultimately we want kids to learn how to advocate for themselves by engaging in actions and conversations which increase their autonomy—without getting them into more trouble.

So know that it’s normal for kids, and especially teens, to get into power struggles. That testing, pushing and challenging of your authority, no matter how difficult to deal with at times, is your child’s job. As he matures, his goal is to separate and individuate from you—to form his own opinions and feelings about things. Part of that process includes the desire for more power and control over his life; your goal is to make sure he tests those boundaries without being abusive or threatening.

Often, parents don’t want to expand a child’s circle of control over his own life as fast as the child would like. At the same time, kids want more control. So parents are constantly pushing against that wall to hold it steady, while the child is pushing back from the other side. Certainly, by the time kids are 13, 14, 15 or 16, they’re questioning the rules you’ve set for them. They’re pounding on that wall with a sledgehammer, asking, “Why can’t I go to the concert? Why can’t I wear make-up? Why can’t I borrow the car tonight?” Their confrontation of your limits becomes stronger and stronger as they get older. So defiant power struggles can increase in frequency and intensity unless parents know how to manage them.

Why It’s a Mistake to Give in to Defiant Power Struggles
Almost all kids become increasingly resistant to parental authority as they grow older. For many kids, that resistance is acted out in socially acceptable ways. But some kids really get entrenched in power struggles. They become defiant, not just resistant. Their most common answer is “No, I’m not going to do it.” When you tell them there will be consequences, they’ll tell you they don’t care.

For those kids who learn that defiance helps them get their way, you’ll see their urge to become defiant grow stronger and stronger. A typical trap many parents fall into is developing a pattern of giving in as the child wears them down. After that, any time the parents resist, the kid thinks, “Well, if I push a little more, then they’ll give in.” And so the child can escalate forever. In effect, the child is confronting the boundaries you’ve created, and will keep confronting them until they no longer exist…
The truth is, you really can’t win with somebody who’s got nothing to lose—you’ll just end up losing more and more of your own power. For parents in the situation where things have gotten to a point where the child is abusive and aggressive, I recommend that they seek some professional help. Because that pattern can be stopped and it can be changed. You don’t have to be stuck in that forever, you just need to learn how to deal with it. In my opinion, what these kids really need to learn is that defiance doesn’t solve their problem; defiance doesn’t get them what they want in the first place. And if parents don’t teach them this lesson when they’re young, these kids will certainly find out later when they’re dealing with the school system, their employer, the police or their spouse.

Let me be clear: both the child who is mildly resistant to authority and the defiant, acting out child need to be empowered with problem solving skills to learn how to communicate effectively in the many situations life presents. I think that this particular training for adult life should start very early. Believe me, you can’t walk into your boss’s office and say, “This stinks, I’m not going to do it, you’re a jerk,” and expect to have your needs met. Kids need to learn how to negotiate and advocate for themselves in order to gain power, and they need to do it in an appropriate way—a way which doesn’t get them into trouble and doesn’t make the problem worse.

In next week’s EP, James will explain in Part II of this series what parents can do when they find themselves trapped in a defiant power struggle with their child—and how to defuse an argument instead of letting it escalate.

Power Struggles Part I: Are You at War with a Defiant Child? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

Posted in How To Parent | Parenting Help | Parent Guide Education | Comments Off on How To Parent: Trouble Controlling ODD Children