A concerned father contacted me recently for advice regarding his son diagnosed with ODD. From the details of the situation it was clear once again that what the neuroscience has to say on the subject is most important to understanding how to intervene (read the work of Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D. for more). The brain, as well as the behavior the brain mediates, develops in response to experience. That means that how we, as parents and educators, interact with children is what makes the difference. Adults are the ones with fully developed brains who are better equipped neurally to do things differently. If we can be that safe base for our children by not getting pulled into what some call the “trauma vortex” of the problem, then situations deescalate and the development of negative neural circuitry is prevented.

Based on Dr. Perry’s work and other neuroscientists who study the developing brain, we need to reconsider the diagnosis of ODD. We too often pathologize our children for having natural responses to the confusing, stressful, sometimes terrifying events of their lives. The behaviors associated with ODD, although extremely challenging at times, are simply revealing a physiological state, one that is the natural result of particular kinds of experiences. According to Dr. Perry, the physiological state of children and adolescents with so-called ODD is a freeze response. When any one of us feels threatened or terrified by something, we instinctively go into fight, flight, or freeze. For many children, because they are so dependent and vulnerable, a freeze response is often the choice their brain makes at such a time, building neural connections for that freeze to become a more likely response any time the child feels stressed or scared in the future.

We don’t yet appreciate how pressured, stressed, scared, even terrified many of our children and adolescents feel in today’s world. We don’t yet know how the experience of these feelings changes the brain and nervous system. Once we do, however, I know we will reconsider every diagnosis we make of children and adolescents, not just ODD, but ADHD, Bipolar, Depression, Anxiety Disorders, even Autism. Learn more about the effects of stress and trauma on the brain, learning, and behavior by reading “Why Students Underachieve: What Educators and Parents Can Do about It” and “You Can Heal Your Child: A Guide for Parents of Misdiagnosed, Stressed, Traumatized, and Otherwise Misunderstood Children.”