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How can I discipline my aggressive, threatening son who has ADHD and ODD?


​I have a 12-year-old son who has been diagnosed with ADHD and ODD. His behavior has become outrageous since Thanksgiving. He's been expelled from school due to making a bomb threat. Right after the new year, he threatened to shoot a child because the child shoved him. He also destroyed mailboxes and damaged people's mail right after Easter. While I have disciplined him by grounding him and taking things away, he has gotten away with the criminal acts because of his ADHD and ODD. He's been aggressive with his brother and sister. Recently, he was placed at the Arnette House in Ocala, FL. While there, he was an outstanding child. He took his medications and did what he supposed to do. I'm trying my best to discipline him the way the Arnette House did and it's not working. What am I doing wrong? He only does these things when his Dad is at work.


mad teen guy

It's great that you reached out today. Parenting is a tough job these days but dealing with your son and his two diagnoses presents even bigger challenges. It must have been hard to hold him accountable if no charges were pressed by law enforcement with the vandalism he did. In one sense he probably feels like, “Hey, I got away with this," which makes chances greater that he will repeat those behaviors. Grounding and removal or privileges are both incentives for him to NOT repeat the behaviors, but if those are not working, these strategies might need to be tweaked or new strategies created.

Remember, what you remove needs to be meaningful to him (or something he loves and that is important to him now, not including his base needs), something you can monitor (so even if you are busy or gone he has no access to it) and is based on behaviors (or a pattern of good behaviors) as opposed to being based on time (e.g., avoid grounding him for one week or no TV for 3 days). Then, when you see him use appropriate behavior, be sure to praise him and give him a small piece of a privilege back – e.g., “I saw you share that game with your sister, so we are going to allow you to go outside and play for an hour today, and then we will talk to see if you can earn more things back."

One interesting point you shared is that he only does this at home when you are with him and his father is gone, which could be due to a number of factors: e.g., your son has gotten away with it in the past, you and his father have different parenting styles, your son knows you have to divide your attention with his other two siblings, his father does not back you up as far as delivering consequences or maybe he has witnessed another child or person treat you like this. Can you pinpoint anything that changed at that time over Thanksgiving? For example, did you move, did he start a new medication, was school changed to remote learning due to COVID, did he lose someone, etc.?  Children his age often express feelings through their behaviors, so if you can think of anything that might have triggered his more aggressive behaviors be sure to consult with a mental health professional.

It sounds like you are trying very hard to implement what the treatment home tried with him which is a good thing. Children need consistency. You may have to pursue this for a month's time before you see any change. Also, ask yourself what it looks like when you respond to him. Sometimes the way a parent reacts to a behavior can dictate what the child's next move is. For example, if you are calm and very matter or fact, yet firm, it may increase the chances of him complying.

You might appreciate some books that has on parenting a youth with ADHD/ODD. You can check these out with our book warehouse. And you can call the Boys Town National Hotline® anytime 24/7 to talk through things with a Crisis Counselor. If you are not doing this already, you should consider finding a therapist who can help. A good therapist can work with you both if you are willing to try that. We do not know the ages of his siblings, but it will also be important that there is a safety plan in place should their brother get aggressive. This could include extra monitoring, not allowing them in a room alone together or a safe room they can go to if their brother has an outburst. 

You are not alone, so please call in whenever you need to. Maybe after talking to a Crisis Counselor and sharing a bit more, together, we can discuss plans going forward or even referrals if you are looking for more intense services.