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Managing the Unmanageable: Oppositional Defiant Disorder


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“Get out of my face.”
“Stop talking to me.”
“I hate you.”
“I wish you were dead.”
“Ahhh. I’m not going to stop screaming until I get what I want.”

I often write about Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) because it is a pervasive and problematic issue in our community today. Recent surveys suggest that ODD affects between two and sixteen percent of children. Children with ODD are often classified as “explosive” because of their severe and sudden outbreaks.

“Explosive” children erupt in temper outbursts or verbal or physical aggression, which includes kicking, screaming or tantrums when certain things don’t go their way. They are inflexible and have extremely low tolerance for frustration. They are very difficult to live with. Things can really get ugly.

There are various ways to deal with children like this, but I believe strongly in the method proposed by Professor Ross W. Greene in his classic parenting guide, The Explosive Child. Greene first describes the issues that confront the children themselves thereby giving us more insight into why these children act the way they do.

The problem with “explosive” children is that they are misunderstood. When your son is screaming and kicking in shul or your daughter is throwing a tantrum in the pizza shop it’s easy to get angry and think that the child is being manipulative and controlling. He knows you’re embarrassed to pieces. She realizes that you hate having all those people staring at you. And so your child uses this to his or her advantage in order to get what they want.

“You want another slice of pizza? Sure, anything you say.”
“You want to go out and play with your friends during leining? Go already.”
“You want to skip your homework tonight? Okay, whatever.”

Anything to maintain the equilibrium and keep the child from creating a scene.

Dr. Ross asks us to look at this scenario from a different perspective. Sure you hate it when your child explodes. But so does he or she. And just like you’re a little bit (okay, a lot) scared of these explosions, rest assured that the child is also terrified of them. He doesn’t want it to happen. He just doesn’t know how to stop it.

According to Dr. Ross, “These children have wonderful qualities and tremendous potential. Yet their inflexibility often obscures their more positive traits and causes them and those around them enormous pain. There is no other group of children who are so misunderstood.”

The important thing to consider is that these children can’t help themselves. Just like a child with a reading difficulty cannot help himself. Just like a child who is born with a disability cannot help herself. Explosive children are simply delayed in their ability to process the skills necessary for flexibility and frustration tolerance. They’re not doing it for attention or so that they can get even with you. They’re doing it because they can’t handle conflict or disappointment any other way.

Most children learn quickly how to compromise, how to adapt when they have to, and how to accept failure and disappointment. But some kids haven’t developed the skills or the ability to do so. I’m not making excuses for them. I’m just stating the facts. And I’m offering a program that can help you walk the children through these circumstances so that they will eventually develop the proper responses. Dr. Greene calls it Plan B.

Plan A is the usual approach, where parents refuse the child’s wishes, the conflict inevitably escalates, and – voila – you have an explosion on your hands. Plan C is when you consider the alternatives, and then allow the child to have his way. You eliminate the explosion but you’re left with a kid who gets whatever he wants.

Now let’s consider Plan B. In Plan B, we walk the child through the mental process of considering his alternatives. We show empathy and understanding. And we offer solutions that could save everyone a lot of grief and aggravation.

Let’s take Yossi, for instance. Yossi likes to go on trips but he just found out that the class visit to the park was cancelled. Yossi is disappointed and frustrated and is about to explode. Yossi’s Rebbe is already experienced with Yossi’s outbursts and deals with them by using Plan B.

Here’s what develops:

Yossi: (loud and angry) “It’s not fair! We’re supposed to be going on a trip and we should be leaving already! I’m sick and tired of this Yeshiva!”

Rebbe: (displaying empathy) “Yossi, I know how you feel. It’s really disappointing that we aren’t going on the trip. I’m really sad about it too. I was so much hoping to have a good time.”

Yossi: (still angry, but paying attention) “Yeah, me too.”

Rebbe: (offering solutions) You know what? I’m just wondering if maybe we can do something else instead. Something that will also be fun.”

Yossi: “I don’t know…”

Rebbe: “ Maybe we can order pizza for the class. Or play ball outdoors.”

Yossi: “You think the pizza store is open?”

Rebbe: “Let’s call up and find out, okay?”

Yossi’s attention was successfully diverted into seeking alternate plans. More importantly, Yossi learned that he could resolve a conflict without an explosion. He learned that there’s such a thing as compromise.

If you’re skeptical, I don’t really blame you. I was skeptical myself at first. But I’ve tried this program with my own clients and students many times and I can assure you that it works well. Again, it’s not easy. When you see that explosion about to erupt, the panic inevitably builds up inside of you. You want to climb under a rock and hide. The last thing you want to do is think about implementing Plan B.

That’s why many parents have to be walked through this scenario with a professional before feeling confident enough to pursue it alone. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t be an instant solution. But it certainly has the potential to put you on the right track.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@gmail.com.


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