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Dealing with ODD: It’s Hard, But There is Light at the End of the Tunnel

My oldest son is afflicted with a type of behavior disorder called oppositional defiant disorder, also called ODD. Kids with ODD are typically uncooperative, defiant, hostile, and even vindictive toward peers, parents, and authority figures. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. In my son’s case, his symptoms were severe.

ODD in my son looked like a 5-year-old heaving metal lawn furniture across a patio, putting his foot through an aquarium, and beating my locked bedroom door with a baseball bat while his brother and I cried and clung to each other fearing for our physical safety on the other side.

By the time my son was 10 years old, I was afraid something horrible would happen to all of us if our lives continued this way. I petitioned the court to switch custody to my ex-husband. The change, I thought, would bring healing to our family. I hoped for a better outcome with him parenting our son.

What I didn’t anticipate when the court ordered custody to my ex-husband, was that he’d place our son with his elderly parents a half-hour away. Or that he’d fill our son’s head with a new narrative of me, saying I banished him because I didn’t love him. Or that because of this messaging, my son wouldn’t want me to speak to him or see him for the next four years.

During that time of our separation, my younger son still had contact with his brother, though. Eventually, he told me his brother was doing better, even if he still did things like setting objects inside the house on fire. That last part should have been my warning, but when I heard “he’s doing better,” I held fast to the idea. Memories of all the bad times had already begun to fade.

I loved my son. I missed him.

I regretted what I had missed out on—his growing up from 5th through 8th grades. Next would be high school, then college and adulthood. He could move across the country, or farther. I might lose him forever. By the time he graduated middle school, I wanted to give mothering him a second chance. I wanted him back.

I could do this, I told myself. He’s more mature now. He’s better. I’d negotiate therapy as part of his “release” back to me, assuming I could get him to attend. Surely, he wants his family back. Surely, he misses his mommy. High on the optimism that we could heal as a family and find normalcy where there had been none, I asked my ex-husband to return custody of my son to me. He eagerly granted my request, and in the summer between 8th and 9th grades, my son moved back home.

I may as well have been welcoming a foreign exchange student. When I relinquished custody, he was a prepubescent tween, but now he returned to me as a teenage man-child. We knew nothing about each other, even if there was the innate pull of mother and son.

We quickly slipped into old patterns. He claimed the TV, the DVR, and the den as his own. He refused to share with me and his younger brother. He screamed and hurled cruel insults at us. He harassed his little brother by calling him nasty names, ferociously taunted him for a reaction, randomly hit him, and tried to provoke fights. I often slept with my younger son to protect him from a possible attack from his older brother in the middle of the night. He attempted to punch my fiancé in the face.

Dealing with my Violent Son

There were no indications that my son’s ODD was any better. Rather, it seemed like it was worse. His outbursts were more frequent now that he was a teenager. Plus, he was physically stronger. He didn’t recognize or admit he had a problem. He didn’t act like he wanted a family. It seemed like he wanted total domination of the house and everyone in it. His brother and I were terrified, thinking about what he might do next, when and how he would strike. Every day felt like an episode of a true crime drama waiting to happen. I hid all the knives.

Reasoning with my son was futile, as was negotiation. Talking to him didn’t work. Ignoring him didn’t work. Therapy didn’t work. Disciplining him didn’t work—consequences only made him angrier, more vindictive. His brother and I resorted to the solutions we employed five years earlier, hiding in our rooms or leaving the house for our survival. I was afraid of my son.

I regretted taking him back.

Still, I tried to convince myself that this first summer back was just an adjustment period. Maybe things would be better once he started attending high school? In high school, there’d be structure, which he needed. He’d be gone most of the day, and we could add hours to separation by enrolling his brother in after-school activities.

But all that was just a fantasy. Normalcy wouldn’t prove true. High school, along with his growing body, took my son’s ODD to a whole other level. One that I couldn’t have anticipated. One that I would never have taken on willingly had I known.
High school saw an increase in his abusive verbal and physical behavior. He started vaping and taking drugs, some of which he sold. He failed his classes. He snuck out of the house and sometimes just left home.

Seven months in, I went back to the court to petition for his dad to take him—not his grandparents, his dad. The court granted my request. After giving up custody again, finally, things started to turn around.

Since going to live with his dad, my son has done much better. At first, we again had no contact with each other, but then two years ago, he texted me Happy Mother’s Day and we’re in a good place now. He comes over for holidays. He sends texts, and he calls me. Sometimes we go out together to do things.

This kid, who at one time failed all his classes, is going to college in the fall.

What Is Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

ODD isn’t talked about as openly as general mental health problems are and I wanted to share my story with you to help break the surrounding stigma. Because people often attribute a child’s poor behavior to poor parenting, many of us with ODD kids feel a lot of shame. However, blaming parents of ODD kids for our child’s poor behavior is no solution, especially when we’re trying our very best to parent them right. I urge you to reach out to families who are struggling to parent their children with ODD. Check on them. Offer support with empathy and understanding. No one should have to deal with this all on their own.

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