Oppositional Defiant Disorder

What is oppositional defiant disorder?

Oppositional defiant disorder is a pattern of being repeatedly disobedient and hostile for 6 months or more. The problem behaviors happen more and are worse than other children of the same age and sex.

If a child’s behavior has gotten to the point of dangerous anger or violence, destroying property, and stealing and has been this way for a year or more, the problem may be a more serious condition called conduct disorder. Some children with oppositional defiant disorder develop conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder as they grow up.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of this disorder is not known. It tends to run in families, but it is not known if this is due to being born with the disorder, or if it is due to parenting. The disorder is more common in children with a parent who:

  • Has a history of conduct disorder, substance abuse problems, or mood problems like depression
  • Has marriage troubles
  • Uses harsh discipline
  • Does not set predictable rules or limits for children
  • Pays little attention to the children

Children with this disorder may have been fussy or colicky as infants. It is not known if this is in response to, or a result of their parents’ caregiving style. Children are also at greater risk if they have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), speech and language problems, or a learning disability.

The disorder usually starts by age 8, but it may start as early as the preschool years. In young children, this disorder is more common in boys. In teens, it is equally common in boys and girls.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Defying rules and authority at home and at school far more than what is usual for children of their age and sex
  • Being angry, easily upset, and resentful
  • Often trying to annoy adults and peers
  • Blaming others for his mistakes
  • Throwing severe temper tantrums and arguing with adults

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider or a mental health therapist will ask about your child’s symptoms, medical and family history, and any medicines your child is taking. He will make sure that your child does not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms. Your child may have tests or scans to help make a diagnosis.

How is it treated?

The best treatment is firm limits with clear rules, consistent results, and immediate rewards for good behavior. Be calm during discipline. Since children with this disorder seek to annoy, if you get angry and yell, it may increase how often they misbehave. Severe punishments may make your child’s behavior worse.

Therapy may also be helpful.

  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a way to help your child identify and change views he has of himself, the world, and the future. CBT can make your child aware of unhealthy ways of thinking. It can also help your child learn new ways to think and act.
  • Behavior therapy helps your child recognize that the way he acts affects others. This can help your child change problem behaviors.
  • Family therapy is often very helpful. Family therapy treats all members of the family rather than working with just your child. It helps the whole family to make changes.

Medicines are not used to treat this disorder.

What can I do to help my child?

  • Be consistent. Set clear rules and tell your child what you expect. Notice your child’s efforts to behave and reward good behaviors. Do not use anger or yell when you discipline your child.
  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach children and teens to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks. Help your child learn to handle conflicts and cooperate with others.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets enough sleep and exercise every day. Teach children and teens to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse.

Get emergency care if a loved one has serious thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-08-28
Last reviewed: 2013-05-06
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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