It's About Them

Young People … Our Greatest Resource

ODD, Gifted … and Difficult

WHY IS THIS? Here’s an interesting question that came by email:

My 13-year-old daughter is both ODD and gifted. She was failing math in school. We made a deal that, if she would bring up the math grades, I would buy her a certain jacket she is crazy about. Bottom line: she failed. I don’t understand it. She WANTED that jacket.


This is a common problem. I call it a “dynamic” issue because a lot is going on below the surface. We’re assuming that the jacket is a sufficient goal for the girl, and that she really wants it. If both of those conditions are met, why does she keep failing when she clearly can do better? Consider two reasons:

1. Tangibles don’t necessarily outweigh intangibles. The jacket is a tangible. You can see it, touch it, and wear it. But the visible frustration on the faces and the escalating blood pressure of the parents is a powerful payoff also. The message from the girl could be: “I’ll lose the jacket, but I’ll win this battle.” Another payoff is she doesn’t have to do any math. I’ve seen youngsters offered money (a lot of it) and even a four-wheeler if they’d bring grades up to passing, yet they deliberately failed. This “Gotcha Game” has high stakes.

2. Defiant behavior has an addictive quality. I honestly believe many youngsters are drawn into defiant behavior because of the “rush” they get from the outcomes, especially when those outcomes reinforce the behaviors. Just about every child and adolescent will tell you they don’t like having their parents upset with them, but that doesn’t mean the defiant behaviors are going to stop.

Okay, so how do we use incentives and make them work for us?

1. Make certain you don’t flinch. The youngster is expecting the adult to get upset when they are again defiant, or when their behavior causes them to lose an incentive the parents really wanted them to have. No parent wants to see a plan fail, but it’s important that their frustration doesn’t register with the youngster. Bottom line: Be as upset as you need to be, but not in front of, or in earshot, of the child.

2. Don’t talk too much. Most young people believe adults talk non-stop. After a point, they tune it out.

3. Let the youngster write up the “deal.” If you set up an incentive as a reward for specific accomplishment (such as better grades), have the child put all the particulars down in her own handwriting. Everyone signs it and gets a copy.

4. Have incremental action items for the youngster. Using the example shared in the mother’s comments, let’s say there’s three weeks until the end of the reporting period for grades. The girl will present her parents with a “coupon” for the jacket at the successful conclusion of three weeks. At the end of the first week of the incentive she receives one third of the coupon from her parents, but she has to show documented effort at bringing up the grades, and she has to ask for it. The same goes for the second and third piece of the jacket coupon. When she can tape together the three pieces and give the coupon to her parents, the jacket is hers. If she doesn’t ask for any of the pieces, NOTHING is said about it. She’ll learn quickly enough.

James Sutton, Psychologist

This post comes from the April, 2009 edition of the free online publication, the ODD Management Digest.  To subscribe for free, CLICK HERE.


April 6, 2009 Posted by | Difficult Child, family, Parents | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment