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My 5 year old pre-schooler exhibits some behaviors that have my wife & I a little concerned, but we're unsure whether there's a real problem or not.

I'll try to summarize some of his behaviors and/or personality traits (positive & negative), then go over some of it in a little more detail.

  • Destructive behaviors
    • note most of these behaviors occurred between ages 2 - 4; over the last year we've noticed a decline in his destructive tendencies, though he still peals stickers off things, and his toy breakage is roughly on par with his older brother at this age. Furthermore, as we've tried to understand the "why" of this, as best we can tell he does it out of pure curiosity.
    • Peeling stickers, paint, & other decorations off his property, or off the wall in his room (peeling the paint off his room was one we've only recently arrested; he was regularly destroying the paint job in his room).
    • Tearing pages out of books, and tearing other paper things (posters, calendars, etc); these are always his property, I've never seen him destroy someone else's property
    • Breaking his own toys -- usually by playing rough; I don't recollect him destroying / breaking toys just because he was curious.
  • Personality traits
    • He does not have trouble bonding with people -- eg, he does not avoid physical contact (likes hugs/kisses from parents, sometimes hugs/kisses siblings), and enjoys hanging out with parents / siblings.
    • He's very curious and talkative; loves to read, play video games, and especially loves cars and other vehicles (tractors, monster trucks, etc)
    • He doesn't usually understand humor. He often mistakes playful situations for offensive behaviors.
    • Punishments generally don't phase him, except to upset him; we learned a long time ago that taking things away, spankings, etc, do not encourage him to alter his behavior. Furthermore, his lack of interest in "things" (discussed below) negates the possibility of rewarding him with treats, toys, etc; however, rewards such as spending time with mom/dad, or doing other things do seem to motivate him more.
    • He has a very high pain threshold; if someone hurts him (eg, rough-housing), he doesn't cry/scream [typically], he just gets angry.
      • On a related note, there's one particular quirk I've noticed lately that concerns me. My wife and her [biological] brother have a 'tick': they pick at their thumbs to the point of bleeding/cracking. This behavior has been around since they were both young teenagers, and neither one can explain why they do it other than it being a nervous habit. So far as I know, my son has never observed this particular behavior, and now he's started doing it.
    • He's always been very defiant about swallowing his food. When he decides he doesn't want to swallow something, he'll keep it in his mouth for hours if you let him.
      • This defiance extends to other things as well; when he makes up his mind that he does not want to do something, he'll just clamp his mouth shut and ignore you.
    • He does not form attachments to things. I'll talk about this more below.
    • Our pediatrician suspects he may fall in the class of children with Opposition Defiance Disorder.
    • He exhibits ADHD symptoms -- inability to focus / concentrate, etc.

The main thing I want to explore is his lack of concern w/regard to personal property. We're concerned it may grow into something more serious as he gets older.

Recently he got a "slot car" track for his birthday and destroyed it by playing too rough with it (within about a month or two). He helped throw it away without argument, and kept talking about something unrelated.

My wife was helping him organize his bedroom and purge it of old/unused and broken toys. He spoke fondly of many of the toys, but showed no interest in keeping them; it didn't seem to bother him that they'd be gone permanently.

It doesn't matter if it's something he plays with regularly, how long he's had it, who gave it to him, where he got it, etc. He's never attached himself to any one thing (eg, a security blanket). When I've taken things as punishment he'll make a show of being upset, get over it very quickly, and thereafter shows very little interest in getting it back.

He has had trouble getting along with his older brother the past few years, though they've been getting along better the last year or so (we tried having them share rooms a few years ago before they were clashing; we put a stop to that after they destroyed a room (pealed paint, peed on carpet, poop in heater vents, peed in radio, etc) and one of them bit the other). He gets along with his other siblings quite well (for a 5 year old).

In short, we're worried his behavior could grow to encompass more anti-social behaviors. My wife says it almost seems like he's less caring/emotional in general, and is worried he has (or may develop) a similar inability to place value on people or relationships.

What are we dealing with here? What can we do to help him? If he grows into an adult who doesn't particularly value 'things', but is an otherwise well-adjusted person, I'm ok with that. However, if there's something going on I can help him with, I don't want to let him down.

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I say, encourage the curiosity. How about finding some old electronic devices and a screwdriver for him to play with. Taking apart electronics is really funny, (lots of colors and strange things). Just be careful that he do not plug them into an outlet again! –  Paxinum Feb 1 '13 at 23:11
    
I like that idea, except the part about it being electronics; I've debated doing that with all of my kids, and I've decided that's one of those things that should wait until they're able to follow instructions (eg, not argue with dad or try to do stuff behind parents' back, etc) –  Brian Vandenberg Feb 5 '13 at 4:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

As a teacher of twice exceptional kids (Kids with both a "disability" such as ODD, Dyslexia, Aspberger's, Tourette's . . . As well as an extreme Gift or Talent usually expressed with a very high IQ fall into the twice exceptional category) I encountered a fair number of ODD kids (I know, unfortunate acronym for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. They really need to come up with a different name). To answer your question in short, if the pediatrician is right, You are in for quite a ride. This will not be easy, but maybe in the end it will be that much more rewarding - I know with teaching it was. My most favorite students have often wound up being my ODD kids in the end (Shhh. . . don't tell anyone. Yes, teachers have favorites).

I don't know a lot about how ODD gets diagnosed or treated, but I do know what worked best in motivating them in my classroom and that was (believe it or not) to hand over a lot of control to them, avoid "punishing" (I explain more - it does not mean just letting them get away with stuff), and I had to be ready to listen. After my experience with ODD kids, I have actually become a very different kind of parent and found many of the techniques I learned in teaching help with any kind of kid.

In regard to the less caring thing. He probably cares a lot more than you know - deep down, but he doesn't know where his defiance comes from or what to do about it. His need for control is more important than his need for toys or friends or... (on a subconscious level). Therefore, it becomes your job to teach him ways to see himself as in control and to teach him how to be in control. As he learns to do this, he will also build the kind of confidence that will help be successful enough with his "stuff" and with friends to allow himself to build attachments.

What To Do

  • Get Help: Professionals that have dealt with this before will have tools at their disposal including the most up-to-date studies and information, techniques to use with him, and techniques to teach you to help yourselves with the additional stress having one of these kids can create. USE THEM!

Include the older brother in this help. He needs coping mechanisms for dealing with little bro too, and he is likely to either become little brother's biggest ally or worst enemy in the end. If he has help in understanding his little brother and in knowing his feelings and needs are being responded too, you help encourage the "ally" possibility.

  • Use Choices as often as Possible: Kids with ODD are especially prone to fighting for control. If they can get you mad at them, they take it as a sign of being in control of you. The more you try to control any given situation, the harder it will be because your son will dig in that much more. To hand over control, offer choices that are reasonable to you. With homework an example of this would be, "Would you like to do your math first or your spelling first?" The choice is not whether to do homework or not, but which order to do it in. Some kids will say neither (I'll deal with that in a minute), but for many kids this tactic works to help them feel as though they are the ones in the driver's seat.

  • More than any other parent, you will need to develop a relationship with your child that is much more like a mentorship. Your son needs you to listen, listen, listen to whatever it is. Not just with the emotional stuff, but with whatever he is thinking about. Doing this, puts you in the image of teammate, and guide - someone your child can choose to go to when the going gets tough. You really want to be that person so he isn't seeking advice from less trustworthy people. Learn how to paraphrase, summarize and clarify in much the same way a therapist would, before offering up your reactions, thoughts, and ideas or opinions about whatever he brings up for discussion.

  • Learn how to be generally devoid of any emotion other than empathy so he is not able to ruffle your feathers or get you upset. This is really important in maintaining a balance of control.

  • Punishments and Rewards honestly Do Not work with these kids. Some people will argue "A Good Swift Kick in the Pants Is What your kid needs." Don't listen. Many parents of the teens and pre-teens I taught resorted to spanking in desperation when the kids were younger and sincerely regretted it when their kids got bigger. Violence begets violence.

In regard to other punishment/reward systems. These kids simply are not motivated by punishments or rewards, they are motivated by control. This becomes pretty sticky when it comes to motivating kids to do things that none of us really want to do frankly, but, with perseverance and disciplined consistency on your part, it CAN be done with natural consequences.

Let your son fail, and then use that role as "mentor" to discuss why he is facing the consequences that come with failure. When he fails to take care of his books, calendars, toys, clothes etc. and you refuse to replace them, eventually he will run out of "stuff" to destroy. When this happens it will suck for him. Be there not with "I told you so's" but with, "Yeah buddy, I know you want some new toys. I feel bad with you. It must stink not having anything to play with. I can't afford to keep giving you things you break. What are you going to do about it?" Will work wonders.

In school, Now think about this - what happens at work if you don't do your homework? That should be happening for him. "Dad, I want to go to the movies." "Sorry Son, People who don't get their work done, don't have the money to have those kinds of treats and you haven't been getting your work done."

"But DAAAaad!?!"

"I know it really sucks. I wish you'd gotten your work done too"

"Dad you're an *@*hole!"

"You sound angry, if you want to talk about it, I will speak to you when you are ready to use polite language."

Let him scream and be angry and completely ignore it. If you get upset - he is in control of the situation and being rewarded for his bad choices and behavior (albeit in a strange way, but it works for him).

  • Find ways to have some fun together on his terms - when he is being polite and in control of himself. When he has an accomplishment, go out for a special father/son event of his choosing. Do these things less for him, and more to remind yourself why you love him and of all his good qualities too - He does have them.

Some Resources you may find helpful:

Solutions to Oppositional Defiance Disorder - Especially helpful are probably the strategies for avoiding conflict as well as the background as to why this is so important with oppositional kids. It goes into a lot more depth on this issue than my answer does here.

Empowering Parents - This online newsletter has a number of relevant articles with helpful ideas. This particular link will take you to an article about what not to do when your child is angry.

Daily Strength - I don't know that this is the right support group for you, but it is one online support group option for other parents with kids with ODD. You will also find other disorder questions there because ODD often occurs alongside other disorders such as Tourette's and ADHD.

I thought you might also like a few more examples of "natural consequences." This link will take you to another one of my answers regarding a defiant five-year-old.

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Thank you ... that actually makes a lot of sense. I've modified my original question to include two other pieces of information I forgot to add: he picks at his thumb just like his mom & uncle (this is a recent development), and as you said: [most] rewards, as well as punishments, just don't work on him. –  Brian Vandenberg Jan 30 '13 at 17:55
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You didn't mention what ODD actually means so I added that. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Feb 1 '13 at 8:42
    
Is twice exceptional kids a specific term? What does it mean? –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Feb 2 '13 at 21:43

First of all I'm coming at this from personal experience. I have no refs to cite, just my own experience with myself and my own kids.

I'm a child of the 70s. Had they been doing it then, I probably would have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Hard to tell if I'd have been medicated, but looking back on my parochial school years, I see that I had those tendancies. It affected me thru college and my first marriage. With the commodity of home computers helping me organize, I've learned to deal with it and have become a productive member of society. (even tho my first wife may disagree (= )

I first read about Oppositional Defiance Disorder a couple of years ago. Boy would I have been diagnosed with that. One of you pros will have to explain the difference, but I was always one of loud defiance. Looking back on my parochial school years, someone would probably have tried to plop that label on me. My dad (who went to the same school as a kid) was up there on a monthly basis from 1st thru 3rd grade trying to deal with it. I was constantly in the principles office because I just wouldn't 'fall in line'.

Again... The staff at St. Blabla's Academy / The [City] Church of Christ couldn't understand why I was always so defiant in class with the Sisters. Solution? Public school. Behaviour problems disappeared. At 7 yrs old (I was a bit young in school), clearly, I just didn't want to be molded into something I didn't want to be. (And I won't even begin to talk about my punk years in the 80s.)

My personal opinion is that Oppositional Defiance Disorder would probably have been something that the King of England would have tried to apply to Hancock and Jefferson. If a person doesn't want to "fall in line" and then they get angry as you continue to try to make them do so, I have a hard time believing that it's a "disorder" as opposed to the individuals personality. Is it irrational stubbornness? Or is it "stop trying to make me what you want me to be!"

If everything else seems normal(ish), but he's not adhering to your expectations of what a child should be thinking or feeling, then you might consider that maybe it's not a "problem" (in the classic sense) and that he's just wired a little differently with feelings that he can't quite explain.

Logical Thinker?

My 9 yr old is very logical. If I take the time to coherently explain why something is the way it is, he accepts it and moves on. Very quickly. ("That's true.") OTOH, my 11 yr old is very bohemian. I can explain the same thing, but she just can't let it go. It hurts her, bothers her and she may be reduced to tears for a bit.

9 gets something taken away for punishment, he doesn't like it but he deals... and then he does what he needs to do to get it back. If the 11 gets something taken away, she's distraught, can't think, destroyed emotionally, and then by the next day completely forgets what it was that she needed to do.

When the wiff and I decided that we were going to move all the bedrooms around, one of the factors was that we were going to thin out all the toys to 1 bin per kid. they were 9 (now 11), 7 (now 9) and 5 at the time. The bohemian 9 yo was trying hard to hold it together as we explained how we would let them pick the toys to go to the Salvation Army. The logical 7 yo gave the first positive example "I'll keep Bunnie and we'll give away [whatever it was] so some other kid can have fun with it. That's cooool," he said. And it set the mood for the rest of the conversation. He couldn't have cared less about the stuffed animals that the wiff sewed, or the blankets that grammy gave him.

Fortunately for us, the logical one was my 4th, so we had prior examples of different personalities. But suddenly, when our 2 yr old sorted M&M's by color and lined them up in as straight of lines as he could manage, we realized we had an ordered mind on our hands. It sounds as if you haven't had such an ephiphany.

Therefore, when it's time to give up certain things, it sounds like he understands why. It makes sense and it's tidy. It sounds like it's more important to him for things to make sense than it is for them to feel good.

All my anecdotal crap is just to give you a bit of understanding of my background. It's why I don't necessarily buy-in to the ODD solution or the potentially problematic outlook.

So I think what I'm hearing here, at the core, is that he may simply be a markedly different personality from your others, and you haven't quite yet gotten a grasp on who he is going to be and his personality. (this may come off as offensive, if it does I apologize.) At 5, his core personality is just now starting to take effect on him outwardly. That doesn't mean it's bad or wrong, it may just mean that you the parents may have to adjust.

IOW, it may not be a problem, per se, just acclimation. You'll just have to watch and go along with him for the ride. I mean let's face it. . . how many kids aren't attached to junk that their grammy gave them? Apparently, at least 2.

Now . . . I'm not saying that you should eschew advice to get testing or to seek professional opinion. Just be prepared that the results may come back as "normal" (so-called) and you'll have a completely unfamiliar personality to deal with.

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I'm unsure whether there's a problem, but from my own childhood experiences I know this: if I try to force him into the same mold his older siblings have made for themselves, it will cause him serious if not irrepairable harm. Like you, I don't subscribe to the notion that ODD, or ADHD are disorders; it more or less means they are wired differently and therefore they need a different approach to parenting -- which might involve drugs if necessary, though I think that happens much too often. (cont) –  Brian Vandenberg Jan 31 '13 at 18:14
    
I hope it's as simple as him just being more logical about it, but to do best by him I need to prepare by learning what to look for and how / what to teach him. –  Brian Vandenberg Jan 31 '13 at 18:15
    
"but to do best by him I need to prepare by learning what to look for and how / what to teach him." << Precisely. That's the challenge. But once you learn to ride that bike... –  monsto Jan 31 '13 at 20:28

Balanced Mama covered the Oppositional Defiance Disorder aspect pretty thoroughly, but since your son hasn't yet been officially diagnosed, I'd like to talk about the other aspects of your question.

Peeling stickers, paint, & other decorations off his property, or off the wall in his room (peeling the paint off his room was one we've only recently arrested; he was regularly destroying the paint job in his room).

I have to admit that this is not something I have direct experience with, but it doesn't sound like much cause for concern to me. I remember that when I was a kid, I had (what was in retrospect) a pretty nice wardrobe in my room. I "ruined" it by covering it with my Garbage Pail Kid sticker collection. Remember: a kid's perspective on what looks good is very different than an adult's. He may just like the way it looks, or, more likely, finds it interesting/fun to peel that stuff off, and simply gives no thought to the way it will look when he's done.

Tearing pages out of books, and tearing other paper things (posters, calendars, etc); these are always his property, I've never seen him destroy someone else's property

Again, I don't see this as that unusual at that age.

Breaking his own toys -- usually by playing rough; I don't recollect him destroying / breaking toys just because he was curious.

This still seems perfectly normal and age-appropriate. Kids just don't necessarily equate smashing toys into things == broken toys. My son, who is 28 months old, still prefers to "play cars" by slamming his Hot Wheels into each other repeatedly, sometimes very forcefully. He breaks most toys that are breakable (the trick is to not give him stuff that breaks easily).

He does not have trouble bonding with people -- eg, he does not avoid physical contact (likes hugs/kisses from parents, sometimes hugs/kisses siblings), and enjoys hanging out with parents / siblings.

and

He's very curious and talkative; loves to read, play video games, and especially loves cars and other vehicles (tractors, monster trucks, etc)

Those are both certainly very positive signs. More indication to me that perhaps there's not so much to worry about. The curiosity may also account for some of the other behavior (peeling paint, breaking toys, etc.).

He doesn't usually understand humor. He often mistakes playful situations for offensive behaviors.

Again, what kids find funny, and how they perceive humor, is often very different from adults. Does he attempt humor on his own? I think that's a better litmus test than finding other people's humor funny. Even if his jokes are crude, or silly, if he laughs at his own jokes, that would be another positive sign. If he doesn't make his own jokes, I still wouldn't necessarily worry about it. I know plenty of adults who have almost no sense of humor, too.

He has a very high pain threshold; if someone hurts him (eg, rough-housing), he doesn't cry/scream [typically], he just gets angry.

I'm still not seeing a problem here.

He's always been very defiant about swallowing his food. When he decides he doesn't want to swallow something, he'll keep it in his mouth for hours if you let him. This defiance extends to other things as well; when he makes up his mind that he does not want to do something, he'll just clamp his mouth shut and ignore you.

My son, who is generally very polite, tractable (within reason for a 2-year-old), and sociable, does exactly the same thing for us (although not for his daycare provider!). He once woke up from a nap, at which point we found out he still had carrots stuffed in his cheeks from the meal served about 30 minutes before he fell asleep.

However, if the pediatrician feels that he may have ODD, it is worth following up on. Just be sure to get the diagnosis from a specialist, and not the pediatrician. Don't get me wrong; pediatricians know a lot, and are a great early-warning system, but they are still, by nature, largely generalists, and many of them only know the warning signs of behavioral issues, without being SME's (Subject Matter Experts) in the actual disorders.

Finally, what seems to be your biggest concern:

He does not form attachments to things. I'll talk about this more below.

Children at that age tend to be very focused on the moment. There are, of course, exceptions to that, but the tendency is for them to be most interested in the toys they see, or are prompted to think of for some other, specific reason at that particular time. The toy they need to play with may be the one that the other kid is playing with, or that is a favorite character from a show he just thought of, even if he's never actually had that toy before.

Some kids have favorite toys, or other objects that they've formed an attachment to, like a security blanket, but not every child does this.

Not being upset about broken toys being thrown away may simply be that he knows that he can't play with the toy (because its broken), and therefore it just isn't triggering that "I need to play with that toy right now!" response. This also matches your description of the toys you take away from him for punishment: it may not be a "show" of being very upset; he may be genuinely upset, but simply move on to something else very quickly. My son does this sometimes when we tell him he can't play with something, although not always.

All in all, most of what you're saying simply doesn't sound that outrageous or unusual to me taken separately.

I think the next step for you is to follow up with a specialist, and find out what a professional thinks. The fact that your pediatrician sees signs of ODD is grounds enough to do so. However, I should point out that "lack of attachment to objects" is not part of the DSM IV criteria for ODD. That doesn't mean you shouldn't follow up on your pediatrician's recommendation; rather, it means that the behavior may be unrelated, and may not really be an issue at all (hopefully!).

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I'm torn between the two seemingly extreme possibilities. If it's just a sign that he's more mature [in some respects] than other kids his age, I won't mind a bit. However, I don't want to ignore possible warning signs when I still have an opportunity to help him before it becomes serious. –  Brian Vandenberg Jan 30 '13 at 20:26
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@BrianVandenberg You definitely shouldn't ignore warning signs; that's why I suggest you contact a specialist. However, I think perhaps you are interpreting some perfectly normal, age-appropriate behavior as warning signs (in addition to other behaviors that are maybe more concerning). The main thing you ask about, the apparent lack of concern for personal property, is not something I would consider a warning sign, or even atypical. –  Beofett Jan 30 '13 at 20:31
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Actually, by 5 years old, a lot of these examples should be things he is outgrowing - such as tearing up books, not understanding how not to break all his toys and by now, he definitely should not be peeing and pooping anywhere but the toilet unless extenuating circumstances (such as feeling ill or having to wait way too long because of travel time or something). He should also be showing signs he is developing a sense of rudimentary humor (although very rudimentary) or I'd probably have said the same thing. –  balanced mama Jan 30 '13 at 23:28
    
@balancedmama The OP states: "note most of these behaviors occurred between ages 2 - 4; over the last year we've noticed a decline in his destructive tendencies". About the humor, that's why I asked if he was making jokes of his own. "He mistakes playful humor for offensive behavior" doesn't necessarily indicate he isn't showing signs of developing humor; merely that he's not grokking other people's humor. Whether or not he makes jokes himself is more telling, imo. –  Beofett Jan 31 '13 at 0:11
    
@balancedmama Re: the peeing and pooping problems... the OP didn't actually make clear who was doing that. He merely states "they [the two boys] destroyed a room". Without knowing any details of how/when/who did that, its impossible to judge whether that is a component to this question without making some assumptions. –  Beofett Jan 31 '13 at 13:04

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