By Dr. Micaela Wexler
No one wants to hear this about their child, and when they do, the message parents hear is: I’ve failed! The name has a very negative connotation, with three strong words, one after the other. Oppositional. Defiant. Disorder. It is painful to hear those words said about your child. It doesn’t help that society puts a great deal of pressure on parents to “control” their children, and that the media gives a disproportionate amount of attention to children who are “out of control.” When parents hear this about their child, they experience one or more of the following: anxiety, guilt, fear, anger, helplessness, sadness, or all of these feelings at once. It is easy for them to become overwhelmed with negative feelings about their children, and forget that the American spirit has traditionally celebrated individuality, and that many of our great leaders have been defiant by nature. It is the defiant, non-conformist that changes the world for the better.
As a child psychiatrist, my first advice is to take a deep breath. Remember, you are your child’s number one advocate, but in order to act as one, you have to be calm.
The next thing is to ask yourself, is this really true? Who did you get the diagnoses from? The teacher? A doctor? A therapist? A psychiatrist? What was it based on? How long has the person giving the assessment known your child? What was the assessment based on? If your child responds to limits on his or her behavior with extreme anger, chances are the diagnoses is true. Other more subtle clues include: arguing with adults, constantly getting in trouble at school, being easily annoyed, trouble keeping friends, losing her temper over trivial things, being spiteful or vengeful. If you are in doubt, get a second opinion from a mental health provider with experience treating children. Make sure your child is also evaluated for other disorders, like depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.
If you feel that the diagnoses is true, it is time to do an inventory. First, start with yourself. Do you have problems with your temper? What were you like as a child? Do you have difficulty keeping friends? Do you have difficulty sleeping, relaxing? Do you feel depressed, anxious? Are you having a conflict with an important person in your life (significant other, best friend, sibling, parent, co-worker, boss)? These are all things that can affect your relationship with your child, as well as contribute to his or her behavior. Children are very sensitive, and react to even the smallest stress in their environment. If you find that you are anxious or depressed, getting treatment for yourself from a psychiatrist will go a long way in helping you cope with and heal your child.
How do you feel about your child? Does your child feel loved and accepted by you? Or, does your child feel you are disappointed in their behavior? It is normal to feel overwhelmed by these children, and to get caught up in the trap of responding to their behavior with negative feedback. Examine your reactions to your child: are they mostly positive or negative? Do you find yourself reacting to the behavior? Do you mostly feel frustrated or angry? If you discover during your inventory that this has happened to you, then know that this will be a good place to start and change things.
Next, take an inventory of the family. Who are the people in the family that your child relates to the best? The worst? Is there someone your child is finding especially challenging to cope with? Have there been many changes in the family structure or living structure? Who does your child feel supported by? Is there someone in his or her life who the child feels acceptance, gratitude, and love from? Is there someone in the family who requires a great deal of attention, or has special needs?
Look at the physical structure of your child’s life. What is the diet they are on? Do they have a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts (for those not allergic)? Is there a routine in the home? Do you have a regular “alone” time with your child, a time when the child can expect NOT to be disciplined? Is there a sleep routine? Does your child have a “safe space” in the house, a place he or she can go to de-escalate? Does the family eat at least one daily meal together?
Taking this inventory will be time-consuming, but it will help you get started on a positive road toward healing your child. More importantly, it will put you in the position to advocate for your child in a positive manner. It is very likely you will need support in taking this inventory. Be sure you turn to people who have a positive attitude toward children, and your child in particular. If you find the need to turn to professional help, find practitioners who have experience treating children. And, remember, your child is a complex, interesting human being who has much to contribute to your family.
By Dr. Micaela Wexler