The ODD thing about oppositional defiant disorder

Before my oldest son started elementary school we had the best father-son relationship imaginable. We read books together, went for walks together, which we called “missions” and often played imaginary games during those missions. This all changed with schooling. He became defiant and withdrawn. Doing homework was a nightmare as he refused to do most of it. He would rather cry for an hour than do homework he could have done in less than five minutes.

My son never developed full-fledged ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). However, he displayed a lot of symptoms typical for ODD. Among them:

  • Refusal to do any schoolwork
  • Lying and cheating
  • Refusing to comply with requests from authority figures (his teacher)
  • Not paying attention during classes
  • Being touchy and easily annoyed
  • Being angry and resentful
  • Running away from home

This behaviour just seemed irrational to me, until I started to hear similar stories from my students who have the same or a similar personality type (NP in MBTI) as my son. I was working on the idea that NP types preserve much of the original hunter-gatherer minds on many levels, among them having a different kind of focus (intermittent attention with hyperfocus on objects of interest) than “farmer minds” (constant focus on rote tasks) and a different kind of sociality (higher level of egalitarianism). These two factors may account a lot regarding the roots of ODD — difficulties in school (easily bored and learning difficulties due to loss of focus) as well as feeling treated as not “equal”. Douglas A. Riley writes in his book The Defiant Child (1997) that children with ODD “believe themselves to be equal to their paren t” (or teacher). That is indeed odd, how can children have such an assumption when everybody knows that children and parents/teachers clearly have an asymmetrical relationship. I hypothesise that children with ODD have an inborn instinct that makes them behave as if they were equal and to defy behaviour that would denigrate their equal status.

If that is true then egalitarian and kind behaviour should lessen the symptoms of ODD much more than the opposite strict and authoritarian behaviour. And indeed it helped me connect again with my son. Our relationship is more often much more like friendship, even though I occasionally have to remind him that as a parent I am at least partially responsible for his academic success as well.

Are there any other indications that children with ODD have hunter-gatherer minds? Children with ODD have in more than 50% of all cases an ADHD (ADD in the case of my son) comorbidity. Conversely, ODD is highly prevalent in children with ADHD. Thom Hartmann has famously established a connection between ADHD and “hunter-minds”. ADHD comorbidities include:

One has to bear in mind that children with ODD (passive-aggressive) aren’t usually callous like children with conduct disorder (active-aggressive). On the contrary, children with ODD are much more sensitive and vulnerable and suicide is a frequent outcome. “Waging a war” against a child with ODD is therefore the wrong strategy, the child will more likely run away from home than comply.

Originally published at on October 24, 2020.