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Oppositional Defiance – are wondering why your child’s behaviour is so difficult?

Going through separation/divorce is so very hard on the adults involved, so we can only imagine the kind of impact is it going to have on our children and of course, it is very much with them in mind that we make the next decisions.   Very often we stay together to avoid the heartache the children are bound to feel at ‘losing, missing and loving’ a parent who is no longer living with them on a full time basis. Whilst we are feeling free and no longer bound by the difficulties of being in a loveless, difficult or unworkable  (or in my case, violent) marriage, our children have a separate relationship with their parents and our gain (I speak for myself!)  is very much their loss and our feelings and our children’s feelings can be polar opposites

It sounds so obvious that the massive changes that take place during a breakup of a relationship are bound to have an affect but I know when I was so busy dealing with the fall out of my marriage and all the practical things like money and finding somewhere to live, I just had to ‘manage’ the children as best as I could and inevitably I got it wrong with them, they got to see my anger, sadness, tears and fears, I had little time or energy left to deal with their feelings especially my nearly 3 year old whom I had had to leave with his dad.

One of my reasons for  leaving my marriage was that I didn’t want my children to grow up with my marriage becoming an example of how to do relationships, I wanted to break the chain.  They were being damaged by our constant arguing and horrible fights,   however, the children especially T, could not express his feelings verbally and so it came out in his behaviour instead.  Seeing T behaving badly was just another  reason for me to think I was the bad mother my ex had told me I was for so long, that old cliche – and I believed him (stupidly).  I was so busy blaming myself, beating myself up that I was a terrible mum, that I had ‘asked for it’.  My self worth was so low, my guilt was massive and I was completely over responsible for all that went wrong, taking all the blame for the mess I had made of my life and my 2 older children (who were from a previous marriage).  It was T that came off worst.

When things started to settle down a little and we have moved and settled (around 6 months or so) T started to behave in increasingly more difficult ways.  He would refuse to do anything I asked from doing his seat belt up to drinking his juice at the table.  He point blank refused to take any responsibility for anything he did, which to me, was the  most terrible pointer of what was to come.  He would bang his head against things, he would have angry outburst at any given moment and when we were out and he didn’t want to do something, he would lie on the floor and scream blue murder.  He was strong and hard to manage whilst wriggling on the ground and there were so many times when I was trying to hide my tears whilst he shed his.  There were times when he would bite me (aged around 5 or 6) and kick me or scratch me, he was so spiteful, it felt like I had swopped my abusive ex for my son. I made him a large cushion and covered it in cow material and told T when he was angry he could go and punch the cushion and there were so many times when I found him asleep on the cushion having exhausted himself from his tantrums.

I am ashamed to admit it that there were times when I was relieved when T went back to his dad (we had shared care at this point).  I knew that his behaviour was just an expression of what he was feeling, children cannot verbalise what they are feeling, lets face it, adults don’t even have great emotional language.  But how do you cope with this, where is the advice, support and help ? It felt especially hard because I was covered in shame for being a mum who had left my youngest child.   What should I do with these out bursts? I made the mistake of asking my ex if T was playing up for him, ‘no’ he said ‘he is only doing it with you, it must be you’, and stupidly, I believed him, so gullible was I.

I was working as a counsellor at a drug and alcohol centre at the time and consulted with my colleagues, we had all worked with adults who were still living with the consequences of divorce be it their own or their parents.   To my mind, and there is no research to back it up as far as I know,  I believe the difficulties stemming from divorce are mostly unresolved in adult life, how many commitment phobs do you know, how many trust issues, how many people have affairs or just go from relationship to relationship?  I barely had a client who did not still have some deeply unresolved feelings around their parents if they were separated or divorced, the attitude towards their own relationships later in life and how they went on to relate to people were all damaged in some way and it seemed to stem from the moments before and during a break down not just when a parent left.  It was evident that I needed to take some time with T and work out how to deal with his behaviour.  I looked on the internet, this was 9 years or so ago so the information was not as easy to come across as now and I had no idea of what I was actually looking for, I just wanted some help for T, it was heartbreaking to see him in such distress and I needed to understand what it was that I was doing wrong so I could address my own issues.

When I came across Oppositional Defiance Disorder, I was absolutely thrilled that I had found something that summed up T’s behaviour.  The Wikipedia definition of Oppositional Defiance Disorders describes the symptoms;

Actively refuses to comply with majority’s request or consensus support rules.

Excessive anger, often persistent.

Frequent temper tantrums

Disregard for authority.

Resentful of others.

Blames others for his mistakes.

Few or no friends.

Trouble at school.

Spiteful or seeks revenge.


And the causes commonly child of alcoholic parents, father may have been in trouble with the law and ultimately, the child is influenced by the behaviour of the parents.

I was thrilled to have found this explanation, it meant that someone else had experienced what I was going through, I was not a freak or a terrible parent.  And most importantly there may be some expert who could help us.  Eventually, I discovered Parental Alienation on my travels through the internet and the penny finally dropped, I cried out of sheer relief because it wasn’t just about me, it was a known set of behaviours that my ex was actually doing in order to alienated me from T.

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