Oppositional Defiant Disorder Symptoms & Causes


About oppositional defiant disorder

Children with ODD are prone to persistent angry outbursts, arguments and disobedience and usually direct their behavior at authority figures, like parents and teachers. They may also target their behavior at siblings, classmates and other children.


The exact cause of ODD is not known, but both developmental and learned factors are believed to play a possible role in the disorder.

Developmental factors

One theory suggests that children with ODD:

  • may have underlying “temperamental” challenges that make them quick to anger and slow to calm, making them vulnerable
  • begin to experience problems in their toddler years
  • may have had an unusually hard time separating from parents (“standing on their own two feet") while younger
  • did not resolve their normal development issues in their younger years, leading to later behavioral problems

Learned factors

Another theory suggests that children with oppositional defiant disorder:

  • developed unusually strong levels of negativity and pessimism (two main traits of ODD) because of a parent or other authority figure who meted out excessive punishment or other forms of negative reinforcement
  • began to associate the parent or authority figure’s negative reinforcement with getting more attention, time and concern
  • started a pattern of acting out in order to obtain more of this perceived “extra attention”

Other possible factors

Other possible factors in the development of ODD may include:

  • permissive parenting, when a parent too often and too easily gives in to the child’s demands
  • strong will in the child, which can be caused by any or all of the following:
    • ingrained personality characteristics
    • the mother’s exposure to certain harmful agents (such as cigarette smoke) while pregnant
    • lack of positive attachment to a parent
    • significant stress or a lack of predictable structure in the home or community environment

Signs and symptoms

What are the symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder, and when do they begin to develop?

Children with ODD usually begin showing symptoms around 6 to 8, although the disorder can emerge in younger children, too. Symptoms can last throughout the teen years. Your child may be diagnosed with ODD if these symptoms are persistent and continue for at least six months. 

Warning signs of ODD to look out for include:

  • frequent temper tantrums
  • excessive arguments with adults
  • refusing to comply with adult requests
  • always questioning rules
  • refusing to follow rules
  • behavior intended to annoy or upset others
  • blaming others for misbehavior or mistakes
  • becoming easily annoyed with others
  • frequently demonstrating an angry attitude
  • speaking harshly or unkindly to others

How can I distinguish signs of ODD from the typical “challenging” behavior all children sometimes display?

Determining whether your child might have ODD can be difficult, since most children will exhibit some of the symptoms every now and then (especially when they're tired, hungry or upset).

A child with oppositional defiant disorder, however, will:

  • display these symptoms much more often than other children
  • consistently demonstrate behavioral issues for a period of at least six months
  • often have problems with school and friendships as a direct result of the behavior 
  • have their overall functioning appreciably compromised by their challenging behaviors

Will my child outgrow this behavior?

In order to outgrow the oppositional behavior, your child would need to realize the behavior is inappropriate and make a conscious decision to change. While this natural resolution might be possible, there’s always a risk in leaving any behavioral issue untreated. Therapy with a licensed professional ensures that your child's behavior is addressed at the root cause, and helps her learn new strategies for healthier, appropriate behavior.

Does having ODD put my child at greater risk of developing more serious problems as a teen or adult?

The likelihood of a child with ODD experiencing greater difficulty in late adolescence and adulthood depends upon his individual circumstances. Generally, they are at greater risk for problems with depression and substance abuse, and this is particularly true if their childhood ODD was accompanied by other common co-morbid disorders (ADHD, depression, learning disabilities). In some cases, the diagnosis may change from ODD—which involves behavior that is problematic, annoying and hostile, but not violent or extremely aggressive—to a much more serious type of disruptive behavior disorder called conduct disorder.

People with conduct disorder are likely to engage in:

  • serious law-breaking behavior
  • destruction of property
  • cruelty to animals and people

A child diagnosed with ODD is not automatically going to develop conduct disorder. It is important, however, for parents to closely monitor the behavior of their child and to seek treatment from a credentialed professional as early in the child's life as possible.