Kalamazoo Gazette

Expert Discusses Strategies for Defiant Children

by Barbara Walters

(The following article appeared in the Metro section of the Kalamazoo Gazette when Dr. Sutton presented his training, “The Oppositional and Defiant Child” for Western Michigan University.)

It was a sign of the times—or of human nature.

There wasn’t a seat to be had at the conference on The Oppositional and Defiant Child at Western Michigan University earlier this week. Hundreds of teachers, counselors and a few parents from small towns and cities throughout western Michigan corwded the auditorium at the Fetzer Center.

“These are kids who are capable, but who aren’t doing their work,” explained one of the participants, a teacher from Three Rivers.

“They hide in the bathroom. They don’t turn in their homework. They cause problems at home. There is so much anger: They are so capable. But they just shut down.

Several other professionals standing around her nodded at the familiar scenarios.

These are not the children pictured on the nightly news who shoot others and make headlines, explained James Sutton, the Texas psychologist and author who was leading the seminar. These are the “good kids”—who, unlike children with critical conditions such as “conduct disorder,” are socially functional, have academic skills that range from normal to gifted, and act out of frustration instead of desperation.

They are not mentally ill or criminal, but can create chaos at home and add gray hairs to the most patient of parents and teachers, Sutton said.

They pout and procrastinate. They argue and annoy. Above all, they know how to press the hot button of adults who have any authority over them. In fact, that is their problem: dealing with authority.

Their impact on American schools is “overwhelming, reaching the point of fracture,” because one child with the behavior can disrupt a classroom or school, Sutton said.

“An ODD (that’s professional shorthand for oppositional defiant disorder) child drives people crazy at home and school,” said Sutton, whose humorous ancedotes included ones about his own children and even their suspiciously “ODD” dalmation who greets the family with friendly licks—and sprinkles on their legs.

“They hold parents hostage by threatening to withold their love,” he said. An unhealthy dependency develops in which the parent takes away all the responsibilities and risks from the child in an attempt to protect and control him, or her. (ODD children in adolescence are about equally distributed between boys and girls. In children, they tend to be boys.)

One of the causes is “toxic expectations,” Sutton said. These are expectations, in the home or classroom, that are not closely enough tied to relationships. It’s easy for busy parents to give loving approval to children only for good behavior, or not even then. It’s easy for schools, presured by an increasing emphasis on achievement test scores, to make students feel simply like monkeys jumping through rings.

But don’t look to ODD as just another label that can be used to get federal money or quelled with medication. It’s more complicated than that and there are no easy ways out, though there are common sense ways out, according to Sutton.

Those solutions do not include ignoring, pleading, bargaining, assisting, threatening or anger, all of which only make the problem worse, he said.

The worst approaches reward the child for the defiant behavior by paying attention to that behavior, even angry attention.

One of the best deterrents for defiant classroom behavior, therefore, is putting the child somewhere alone for a long time where they face their anathema—boredom.

The solutions lie with improving relationships. Some may involve pre-planned elimination of conflict and easy excuses that the child makes, such as an “Important Things to Remember Board” at home. But the most important point is to make the relationship close, he said.

The idea is to give positive attention for the cooperative behavior, and plenty of patient guidance in how to be compliant. Sutton said children should be taught to show gratitude and thanks to others, which benefits everybody concerned. They should be taught to set goals, and helped to understand planning and how to express appreciation.

In short, things that take time and intimacy with a child—factors that are still the basis ingredients for raising a healthy and happy child.