A naughty, mean child might be hiding a psychological condition

  • Oppositional defiant disorder is a behavioural condition where a child persistently defies authority
  • Such kids also tend to be malicious and unkind, blaming others for their mistakes
  • The condition can be effectively managed if treatment starts early 

Naughty kids are part of life, and every adult remembers having rebelled against authority at least once as a child. 

But excessive naughtiness and meanness could be signs of an underlying mental health condition – like oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).


Children suffering from this condition are at constant odds with parents and authority figures, arguing nonstop, throwing daily tantrums and engaging in behaviour purposefully aimed at annoying others. 

It might sound like any normal child on an off day, but when it doesn't stop and continuously disrupts family, social and school life, it might very well be ODD. 

Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ODD than girls, and the condition tends to crop up after the age of eight but before the start of adolescence. 

READ | Team sports could help traumatised kids grow into healthy adults  

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, these children can also be generally unkind, seek revenge, blame others for their mistakes and are as easily irritated by others as they like to irritate them. 

The condition affects a large portion of children with ADHD, and other cognitive impairment disorders could contribute to the problem.

If this kind of behaviour continues for more than six months, it might be time to see a paediatrician. 

The disorder can also continue into the teen years, and while it's generally limited to childhood, it can persist into early adulthood.


No one really knows what causes ODD, but there are a few theories.

One study of South African HIV-infected children found that these kids had a higher risk for ADHD and ODD disorders. The researchers also believe that these types of behavioural disorders arise due to a combination of factors like strained family situations, poverty, genetic factors and exposure to prenatal drugs that might have caused brain damage.

John Hopkins Medicine also notes that another possible cause of ODD is learned behaviour from parents through negative reinforcement, while another theory posits that it starts when, as a toddler, the child  struggles to learn independence. 

It could also just be a misfiring of brain chemicals. 

READ MORE | Having a family dog could improve your toddler’s social-emotional development 

When they grow up

But what happens to these kids when they reach adulthood?

A psychological study of a group of 24-year-old men, diagnosed with ODD as children, showed persistent symptoms of the disorder, impacting negatively on their adult lives. 

For men their age, they were observed getting along poorly with their peers, not being able to manage romantic and paternal relationships and face fewer job networking prospects.

Adults with ODD also tend to be narcissistic with sociopathic signs – and, interestingly, a psychiatrist diagnosed President Donald Trump with ODD in an article on Medium last year.


The best thing for children with ODD is to get help as early as possible, learning skills on how to cope with their disorder to avoid developing more disruptive behaviours in the future.

Treatment can vary depending on their age and the severity of their condition, but finding the right treatment could take a long time.   

Remedies include cognitive, behavioural, family and peer group therapies – or a combination of these – as well as medication if ADHD is also diagnosed. 

Other options include addressing family situations that could be at the heart of the ODD, and reevaluating parenting styles though programmes and literature. 

Working with the problem, and not ignoring it, is the best approach for a child with ODD in order to avoid further difficulties in adulthood.

READ | Home alone: Will pandemic's changes harm kids' mental health long-term?

Image credit: Getty Images

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