Living With a Pathologically Disobedient Kid

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“This is a journey no family would choose, and the outcome is unclear even under the best of circumstances. Here is one boy’s story.

Before Oscar* got kicked out of his first preschool, he was upset about lunch. Not long into the school year, the 4-year-old expressed his displeasure with the midday meal by dousing his tray with milk. When his teacher brought him to the director’s office to be disciplined, Oscar was unrepentant. He reached his tiny arm across the director’s desk and swiped its contents onto the floor.

It was already clear to his mother, Sarah, that something was off. Oscar’s tantrums were nuclear; his disobedience was beyond correction. And he was so impulsive that when someone else’s child climbed into a gorilla cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, Sarah was seized by terror—and sympathy. Given the number of times Oscar had broken free from her at the zoo and run off in search of adventure, it was sheer luck that he hadn’t ever landed in a cage himself.

Now 14, Oscar has been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He still throws tantrums when he doesn’t like what’s on the lunch menu. But when he runs off now, he sometimes comes home in a police car. His behavior is more self-destructive than criminal, but it tends to attract attention.

Once, when Sarah took her kids—Oscar and his older brother plus their two younger sisters—grocery shopping, Oscar decided he’d had enough before Sarah had gotten through her list. She urged him to be patient. Instead, he ran to a nearby dollar store, where he raged to a clerk that he was going to kill himself by drinking bleach. The clerk called the police, and Oscar ended up in a children’s hospital, where he was involuntarily committed as a suicide risk.

Kids like Oscar are regulars in hospital mental-health wings. They’re also overrepresented in after-school detention halls and juvenile justice centers—and, when they grow up, in jails and prisons. We see them on the news when they do something dramatically reckless, like climbing into a gorilla’s cage—or when they commit an act of violence. The recent wave of school shootings has brought aggressive, impulsive young offenders to the forefront of public consciousness.

So how do we keep explosive kids from becoming destructive, dangerous teens and adults? Armchair parenting experts tend to promote harsh punishment, arguing that even the most challenging kids will straighten up if given significant consequences for their actions: a good long grounding, say, or a strategic spanking. Many of us shake our heads at the overly indulgent parents who, we believe, allow their kids’ behavior to escalate unchecked.

But research reveals that, contrary to conventional wisdom, harsh discipline backfires when it comes to pathologically disobedient kids. The best way to keep them from ending up on the nightly news is, instead, a skill-building, problem-solving approach grounded in compassion.

Experts in the so-called disruptive behavior disorders—which include ODD and conduct disorder, and which often accompany ADHD—say that instead of doling out punishment, we need to help these kids develop the coping skills and impulse control that aren’t innate to them.

“It’s only counterintuitive if you haven’t been paying attention to the research that’s accumulated over the last 40 to 50 years,” says child psychologist Ross Greene, who founded the nonprofit Lives in the Balance, which advocates for changing the way we treat behaviorally challenging kids. “And that research is pretty compelling.”

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