Ask An Expert / Behavior and Conduct Disorders

My daughter only acts out with my ex. Could it be oppositional defiant disorder?

Understanding why a child of divorce has behavior issues isn't easy by any stretch

Alan Ravitz, MD, MS

My 10-year-old daughter was diagnosed almost two years ago with oppositional defiant disorder. Her mother and I are divorced and we disagree on whether or not this is a valid diagnosis. My ex-wife and my daughter are both very "strong willed" people. I often get phone calls from my ex asking for me to come get my daughter or to talk to her because they are fighting and she has reached the end of her patience. But my daughter isn't rebellious in school or with caregivers, or with her stepmother and me. In public she rarely acts out, even when she is disappointed or angry. Can a child have ODD if she is defiant only with one key authority figure?

The short answer to this question is yes: ODD can be diagnosed even if the defiant behavior occurs only in interactions with a select few, or even one person, if it seriously interferes with the child’s functioning.

But ODD, as you make clear, is not an uncontroversial diagnosis, and it takes a skilled clinician with direct access to the child, both parents, siblings, peers, and other adult caregivers to make it. So I will not pretend to diagnose — or undiagnose — your daughter, but will lay out a few options that her behavior and your family dynamic might suggest.

First, it is not uncommon in divorcing families that a child behaves better with one parent than the other. Kids are less liable to act out with noncustodial parents than custodial parents. Custodial parents, after all, are the ones who set more rules, make kids do homework and get to bed on time. The non-custodial parent gets to engage in more fun, less stressful activity.

Second, a child weathering parental divorce has many conflicting emotions to deal with. Your daughter’s oppositional behavior could stem from what we call a “loyalty bind”: she may want to avoid upsetting you, and feel as though getting along with mom would do precisely that. So she acts out at home with mom. You want to make sure you’re not encouraging or reinforcing that defiance.

Third, your child may indeed have ODD, even if you feel that all is well when she’s with you. In which case you and your spouse should be working together to get her the treatment she needs. And if you are ambivalent about the diagnosis, your daughter should be reevaluated by a competent child and adolescent mental health professional who has access to both parents, and who is not involved in any way with custody arrangements. A treatment plan might involve behavioral therapy with your child, with you and your ex participating as well. Her mother might learn how to manage her interactions with your daughter, and you might focus on how to maintain behavioral gains made in the other household.


Whatever the base cause of these problems, you have to be part of the solution. And remember — your daughter being oppositional and defiant isn’t just your ex’s problem; it’s also your daughter’s. And she’ll be a happier, healthier kid if you — all of you, together — help her overcome it.