2 Comments | 1 year, 11 months ago

Dealing with Oppositional Defiance

Parenting a child who is Oppositional Defiant can be a true test of a foster parent's mettle–and we all have to deal with it at one point or another.

When I first learned about Oppositional Defiance, I kind of chuckled to myself. Sounds like normal belligerent behavior, right? If you've already dealt with this, you know how naive I was. 

Many of our kids over the years have been mildly OD, but my 5 year old son has been our most extreme case by a country mile. When he is being defiant, he takes it to a place that truly tests the limits of my patience, and makes me temporarily question why I became his parent in the first place. It's that bad.

As an example: since the first week that he arrived, he has regularly peed all over his floor. We're talking at least once a week for more than a year. This is typically as a reaction to a consequence, but can also be a "just because" type thing. He's also explored screaming for hours on end, biting, kicking, punching, death threats, repeatedly unbuckling himself in a moving car, punching through and coloring on walls, holding his breath to the point of near unconsciousness–the list goes on and on.

Scary, right?

Step 1: Understand

In order to deal with it, it's important first to understand what Oppositional Defiance even is. It's not as simple as a child behaving badly. It's not even about anger or frustration. Oppositional Defiance is all about control.

When a child is removed from their home and placed into foster care, this is by nature a traumatic event. It can make the child feel like they are completely powerless over anything in their life. Even the simple act of behaving themselves can feel like they're simply giving up and surrendering any control they have. Choosing to act out in a way that provokes a response from parents, teachers or social workers can give them the sense that they are back in control of something. It actually makes them feel more secure. 

Step 2: Respond

Because dealing with extreme behaviors can bring you to a pretty bad place yourself, be sure that you've taken a breather before if you need to. Anger can often trigger a defensive reaction in foster children. This is also a great time to tag a spouse in if it needs to be addressed immediately.

Punishments are very tricky with an oppostionally defiant child. If you make them feel less in control, you can actually trigger more acting out. So rather than punishing the behavior immediately, you need to first address the insecurity. Make sure that they know that you're not going anywhere, and that you care very much about them. You also need to allow them to be in control of something - so have the conversation while you're doing an activity that they get to choose. Physical activities like basketball, playing catch or doing a craft are great choices, as they also help to work out anger and frustration.

Once you feel like a calm place has been reached, then you need to have a discussion about consequences. It's important to frame them as 'natural' consequences, rather than something that you're inflicting on them, as this will make it seem less like you attempting to control them and more like a logical result of their behavior. If it feels like they're slipping back into their previous behavior, take a break for a few minutes.

Step 3: Reinforce

When you deal with this type of behavior, consistency is the most important thing of all. The child needs to know that you will always react the same way to their behavior, be it good or bad. Once they see this played out over time, they will likely feel like they are back in control of their environment, and begin to act out far less. It's also important to include any therapists or teachers in this process.

Please don't feel like you're alone in dealing with this. Fellow foster parents are great resources, for advice, for an ear, or for moral support. Matthew's Child is also here for you. Take advantage of one of our Parent's Night Out events to destress, attend one of our trainings, or swing by and just visit. 

There are 2 comments. Add your voice!

  1. Brian Dec 18, 2016 at 11:12 AM

    Amazing. This is super valuable for us first time foster parents.

    1. Jesse Jan 10, 2017 at 10:18 AM

      Thanks, Brian! Glad to help in any way I can.