When You Can’t Trust Your Elders: Understanding Oppositional Defiant Disorder

I was an extremely difficult kid.

You can chalk most of it up to genetics, since I can’t really recall a time when I was calm. I struggled with sleeping until I was in my mid twenties. I couldn’t tolerate rejection until my thirties. And I still can’t stand making minor mistakes. With that said, I always believed I had good reasons for distrusting authority figures; I always saw through the bullshit. Oppositional Defiant Disorder is the most common diagnosis, outside of ADHD, given to adolescent and teenage boys. It’s defined by vindictiveness, a strong distrust of authority figures, persistent irritability, the chronic pattern of arguing with adults, refusing to comply with rules, and failing to take accountability for one’s own actions. Many people struggle to understand why these kids act against their own interest.

In school, I hated most of my teachers and peers. And, at home, I hated most of my family members. In a tragic way, with that foundation, there was no way for me to have cultivated and maintained healthy relationships. But here’s the thing: no one ever offered to help, at least in a legitimate way. It wasn’t that I was refusing it. While I had a relatively positive relationship with my mom, I grew up with a verbally abusive stepfather, whose punishments never made sense. I was punished for my mother’s actions and for, otherwise, normal behavior. He banned me from watching professional wrestling (which I loved more than anything else), even though he never actually cared how it affected me. It wasn’t because I was getting in trouble for fighting in school; it happened whenever I disobeyed him. And my refusal to go to school? He didn’t care about that, either; he just wanted me out of the house. So, I learned early on that authority was essentially arbitrary; it followed its own, fairly incomprehensible, rules. Learning them was a lost cause. But, I certainly tried.

When dealing with an OD (Oppositional-Defiant) kid, it’s easy to take their behaviors toward you personally, wondering why your attempts are in vain. Teachers experience this constantly, and some even retaliate subsequently. That was school in the 90s. At this point, I don’t question why most of my teachers disliked me; I was narcissistic as fuck. But the ones who retaliated should have never been teaching. Throwing a child out of your classroom is one thing, but implying he’s ugly is another entirely. With so many in my life, it always felt as though I had to adapt to them to win them over, with a few exceptions. So, I not only opposed their rigid rules, I also opposed their version of bestowing love, my having to earn it.

However, my desires were always in flux, vacillating between the extremes of defiance and over-compliance. On some days, I wanted to burn down the entire enterprise; on others, I just wanted its comforts. It was like this everywhere, which I’m sure confused my teachers. If you peeked at my report cards, they never made sense. During some semesters, I shined; during others, I faltered. And every oppositional kid I’ve ever worked with was exactly like this. Their defiance was juxtaposed with an irresistible sweetness. These kids were awful but wonderful. They were grateful and cruel. Incredible friends but terrible enemies. And, the authority figures who focused more so on my good side were the ones who broke through.

When dealing with these kids, it’s important to highlight their potential, whom they could become. Rather than scalding me, which just reminded me of inconsistent parenting, a teacher sitting me down and explaining how I was ruining my life was the balm which I needed. In those moments, I truly believed that consequences made sense, that they didn’t merely exist to satisfy one’s sadistic nature. And many of my formerly OD adult patients attest to this. Their lives turned around when adults began to express authentic concern, when it seemed like they cared.

Fortunately, it only takes one caring person to change a life. And many of us on the poor side of town were surrounded by adults who were hyper-focused on surviving each day. They often believed they were acting in our best interests, but, just as frequently, they avoided taking on the responsibility of nurturing us. I’ve known people who were having sex and doing drugs at early ages, cutting school and selling narcotics. At bottom, I was encapsulated in one relentless tragedy. But, again, it only took one individual to change my trajectory. And, luckily, I had a few.


  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Interesting but it is also worth considering, and you might agree there are some types of authoritarianism against which it can be positive to oppose. I am thinking particularly of the work in this area by the eminent psychoanalyst, David Mitchell.

    Liked by 2 people

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