One Day at a Time

My first child was born two days before Christmas in 2003. He weighed almost nine pounds, was beautiful, absolutely perfect, and healthy. Our hearts burst with joy.

The first time I heard the term “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” was sometime in 2009. Our son, after having trouble following rules and directions in both preschool and kindergarten, was shuffled into the office of a highly respected child psychologist for an evaluation to determine what we could do to foster success in our baby’s school experience. Questionnaires and interviews completed by us and teachers, as well as hours of conversations with our baby all resulted in the same diagnosis: Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). I remember sitting in the psychologist’s office the first time I heard that phrase and my responding, “So you mean bad…he’s just bad?”

After receiving this diagnosis from several prominent child psychiatrists and psychologists, we started reading countless books and implemented numerous “behavior modification” plans. We’ve brought our son to therapy and sought it for ourselves. We have followed every medical suggestion and old wives’ tale we’ve run across with limited success. We have spent years on school speed dials with countless conferences with school and school board officials. We have left work when needed; we sought emergency services when we feared that things had escalated beyond our control. Our ODD child has been suspended more times than I can count and has been expelled twice. We’ve sought council from our pastor and prayers from our peers. We have tried and been unrelenting in our search for an answer. We did everything we could for years before even considering medication.

At this point, you may likely being saying some of the same things we heard often: “he needs his butt tore up” or “he wouldn’t get away with that at my house.” And seriously, God bless the people that make these comments. They’ve never had an ODD or an equally difficult child. There is no disciplining into submission with an ODD child. Their brains work in quite the opposite way. They are so incredibly optimistic that even if they’ve been caught and punished 200 times, the 201st time will be their lucky number. They are also overly patient, beyond anything you can imagine. Our son has gone two years without video games only to get them back and immediately break rules he considered “stupid” (i.e. talking to strangers online) and eventually losing access to video games for good. We are now several years passed removing all gaming systems from our home and he is truly a different kid without them.

But he still asks for them, because he doesn’t give up.

Our child, as with any child who has a disorder, has suffered. He has suffered when we’ve failed to find answers and provide solutions. He’s suffered at the hands of teachers and administrators that have dismissed him as trouble and moved on. He has suffered in ways we still don’t understand because we’ll never truly understand just how his brain works.

He has also, thankfully, excelled under the guidance of teachers and administrators who have fought for him. He has blossomed because of their belief and encouragement when he felt like he was incapable of success.

These same boundary-pushing characteristics are the reason we didn’t allow him to have a cell phone until high school. He had one for about three months before losing it because of his grades and behavior almost seven months ago. He waited us out all year, believing we’d cave and ease the rules. As we approached summer, he spent the last few weeks buckling down and bringing his grades up for the final report card, since we still hadn’t caved.

Here is the kicker: our son is brilliant. He’s had teachers over the years that have recognized this and squeezed it out of him. He’s also had teachers that sent him out of the classroom or punished him from reading because books were all they could find that he cared about. He’s so intelligent that in two weeks he’s brought four Fs up to Bs and Cs. His test grades are mostly As, he just never turns anything else in. He’s as smart as he is academically lazy.

Our son is finishing ninth grade, and this is the first year since kindergarten that we haven’t been called to school for a conference over his behavior. For the most part he is “behaving” at school and we are still learning how to navigate high school with an ODD child. It’s difficult to keep our boundaries pulled so tight at an age where kids are naturally becoming more independent and starting to gain some freedom. We’ll never be able to loosen the reins as much as other’s parents might. Our son requires intense structure to be successful. We are the parents that almost always say no. And over the years this has certainly affected his friendships because he’s spent so much time being grounded and not allowed to attend birthday parties, football games, or other social activities. But we’re talking about a kid that doesn’t connect consequences with actions and who has little to no impulse control.

Dr. Mona Delahooke is a clinical psychologist that I have followed for a few years. Her views on Oppositional Defiant Disorder from a neuroscience perspective have helped me better understand the way my child’s brain works. In a 2017 blog post on her website, Dr. Delahooke wrote “Too often, we assume that what a child or teen needs is better behavioral management, more consistent parenting, or better medication. But current neuroscience shows otherwise: the behaviors we label in ODD are likely ways of responding to stress. They indicate a pattern of underlying emotional dysregulation that regularly sends the child into a fight/flight response.”

Our son has always had trouble regulating his emotions-he is either at 0 or 100, whether happy, sad, angry or excited. His reactions and responses to things are frequently disproportionate to what is going on. He has gotten better over the years at keeping this in check, but at times it still gets away from him.

I spend a lot of time worrying about whether we’re doing too much or not enough. If we’re being too hard or too easy on him. If we’re helping or hurting.

What I know is that he’ll be eighteen in three years, and all of our restrictions and boundaries will no longer carry the same weight. While we’ve seen so much improvement over this last year in terms of his behavior at school, he will always be a boundary pusher. Many doctors have assured us that this will serve him well as an adult-that one day he will be a leader. We hope and pray this turns out to be the case. We hope that one day he’ll find something that he’s so passionate and excited about, these oppositional characteristics will begin to serve and not hinder him.  My prayer for him is always the same. Lord, calm his heart and mind.

As seen in Modern Grace Magazine