ODD: Disability Or Excuse?

Christopher tries to bite his mother.
CBS
Christopher Dufault looks like your all-American second grader: He's bright, great at math, even a little mischievous.

But to his mother, Christine, this 8-year-old is part boy and part monster. Every day, a simple task turns into all-out war.

Christopher has been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), a medical condition often diagnosed in children who violently disobey their parents and other adults. Some people say it's just a made-up problem, reports CBS News correspondent Mika Brzezinski.

"He's broken windows and doors," says Christine Dufault. "And he's so strong, I can't control this 8-year-old." Right alongside attention deficit disorder (ADD), ODD is part of the alphabet soup of labels stamped on 1 in 25 schoolchildren. Christine says kids diagnosed with ODD and their parents "need to deal with it, just as if it was a kid with a wheelchair or a physical handicap."

Anyone who has to live with the child for even a day would know, she said.

But teacher Ellen Gabor says ODD is an attempt to hang a medical term on students who refuse to behave themselves. Though she 's not Christopher's teacher, she has spent 32 years in the classroom and says she has seen it all.

When ODD came her way, she says, that's where education took a back seat to labels.

Dr. Ross Greene, a child psychologist and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of "The Explosive Child," says debates about whether these kids exist or not misses the point.

"What we have here is a family and a kid who are in a great deal of pain," he says in an interview on "The Early Show.". "So pretending that it doesn't exist doesn't do them a great deal of good."

First of all, he says, care givers must stop referring to these children as disobedient or bad kids. "Because right after bad kid comes bad parents," he says. "And in my opinion the minute you start going there, you end up with bad treatment."

The preferred treatment, Greene says, is to understand why a child like this is behaving this way.

"We have research," he says, "that shows us that there are a variety of reasons that a child - and I don't know this one in particular and I can't really get a great sense for what's going on from the pictures I was just able to see - but what we spend a great deal of time doing is aggressively trying to understand what are the factors that are underlying this child's exceedingly maladaptive behavior and how do we go about trying to address those things."

Some possible causes, he says, are irritability, learning issues such as language problems, difficulty in very concrete black and white thinking, and problems with set of skills called executive skills.

"The kids who we work with always have one or more of those things going on," Greene says. "And what we find is that when we start to address those things, we find that these kids improve significantly."

Whether a child needs medication depends on what is causing him to behave that way, Greene says. If it's something that medication would address well, medication might be a potential option.