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‘My seven-year-old son is very defiant and oppositional’

Ask the Expert: Managing oppositional behaviour is challenging and it takes time to find responses and routines to cope well


My seven-year-old son is very defiant. It is particularly problematic in extracurricular activities. Initially, I thought it was related to physical activities only, which would be understandable as he has a mild physical disability which results in fatigue. However, he is also defiant with his music teacher and won’t follow the basic rules of class (though he loves music and is very good at it). In addition, he is incredibly defiant in hospital or physiotherapy appointments.

He improves with the more interaction he has with the healthcare provider, but he will not co-operate with the most simple of tasks eg a six-minute walking test – whether I am by his side or not. It is incredibly frustrating. His second-class teacher tells me he is usually well-behaved in class, but sometimes will do things in his own time, which frustrates his teacher also.

He is academically bright, having scored above average in his aptitude tests last year. I am at my wits’ end and find I am constantly giving out and banning him from play dates and screens until behaviour improves. He will then be apologetic and promise he won’t do it again and I will see good behaviour for a couple of days, where he will do what I ask – eg empty dishwasher, feed the dog – without me asking 20 times, which is the usual. Every part of the day is a struggle with him, having to constantly remind him to get dressed, eat breakfast, put on your coat, etc.

Overall, he seems to be defiant in all situations, but worse outside of the home. Could he have ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and if so, what are the recommended therapeutic options?



Though very difficult to manage as a parent, oppositional and defiant behaviour are common in children. Unfortunately, oppositional behaviour can easily become a habit and a frequent pattern of behaviour between child and parent. The parent ends up constantly issuing instructions and the child ends up constantly refusing, resulting in great conflict and stress.

While oppositional behaviour is particularly challenging outside the home (such as during music class), the best place to change this behaviour is in the home where you have more control of how you can organise routines and your response.

Pressing pause

The most important thing you can do is to pause and not react to his behaviour. All types of negative reinforcement such as angrily repeating commands, giving out and shouting only serve to reinforce oppositional behaviour and make it more likely to continue. Before responding to your son, it is important to empathetically understand and “tune in” to where he is coming from. Oppositional children usually have a strong desire to be control and to make their own decisions. They find it distressing when demands are put on them, especially when they are unpredictable or unanticipated. Understandably, your son might find his physio appointments worrying and he manages this by trying to be in control. It is a good sign that he is complying more as he develops a trusting relationship with the professional. Your son needs lots of praise and encouragement to help him trust and comply, rather than criticism and punishment when he doesn’t.

Keep commands to a minimum

Where possible, it is best to give your son choices about what happens. Even providing him with limited options make it more likely for him to comply – “you can either clear the table or help load the dishwasher”. Create good routines in the home that make expectations clear to him in advance and make sure something rewarding happens after the hard bits. For example, a simple routine might be that after dinner, he helps clear the table and once he has done that, he can have 15 minutes on the tablet. Using rewards will help when he finds it hard to comply – “when the table is clear, then you can have your tablet”.

In addition, prepare him in advance for new demanding situations. Explain to his physio how he gets worried about appointments and ask them to explain to him step by step what is happening. You could even do up a visual chart with him about what is happening, followed by a nice reward at the end so he more easily manages this.

Have a plan

When you need to insist on something being done, think through a plan to ensure he complies and that allows you to remain calm and encouraging. Avoid using big consequences, such as “banning play dates”, which can be damaging and instead, use smaller, time-limited consequences, which are more effective

For example, if he refuses to come off the tablet, rather than getting angry, you might:

  1. Give a warning – “Five minutes to go”.
  2. Request once for him to finish in a calm positive voice – “Time to finish”.
  3. Use a choice if he does not comply – “Finish now or you will lose five minutes tomorrow”.
  4. Follow through gently and take away his tablet or turn off the wifi, without getting angry.

In addition, you might be able to avoid many conflicts by planning in advance. For example, you could set a timer on the tablet which means it turns off automatically after 15 minutes without you having to be involved.

Problem solve with your son

Your son sounds like a bright boy who will be able to reflect about his behaviour and learn better solutions over time. You can set aside short problem solving times with him to try to address problem situations. To make this work, make sure to

  1. Pick a relaxed time to talk.
  2. Listen first to him – “How is music class going?”, “How do you feel about it?”
  3. First, explore his ideas about solutions – “How can you make things better in the class?”, “How can you keep the rules for the teacher?” etc.

Managing oppositional behaviour is challenging and it does take time to find responses and routines to cope well. Do reach out for further parenting support if you need it. If you send me your postal address, I will send you a copy of my book Positive Parenting, which provides nine practical steps to manage.

  • John Sharry is Clinical Director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See