Oppositional Defiance or Faulty Neuroception?

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Mona Delahooke, PhD is a pediatric psychologist and mother of three and author of the blog “The Visible Parent”. Her passion is translating the latest neuroscience research into hope and help for parents of children with emotional, developmental and behavioral challenges. Dr. Delahooke is a also a member of the Profectum Faculty.

Here is an excerpt from her post titled, “Oppositional Defiance or Faulty Neuroception”, published on September 28, 2016. Click on read more at the bottom to read the full post.

Oppositional Defiance or Faulty Neuroception?

Over the years I have come to believe that oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is not a label that should be used to describe young children. As a developmental psychologist, I view oppositional defiance as a child’s response to stress. Viewing children’s challenging behaviors on a continuum of stress and stress recovery reveals a whole new way to think about this stigmatizing disorder, as well as a new way to support children, informed by neuroscience.

Consider the case of Timmy, an 8 year-old boy in the foster care system, who was diagnosed with ODD when he was four years old. His numerous behavioral treatment plans seldom improved his oppositional behaviors. Prone to constantly disagree, run away and hit others, the child had been placed in three different foster homes in a single year. At school, after he found out that a beloved PE teacher was suddenly transferred, he refused all class work and eventually threw over his desk, frantic, when the teacher asked him to line up for lunch.

Oppositional defiance? Hardly. The child was in a stress response due to challenges in his neuroception, the automatic and subconscious detection of threat, described by pre-eminent neuroscientist Stephen Porges, Ph.D.

Neuroception is the brain’s ability to detect danger. It’s how we distinguish whether situations or people are safe or threatening. Porges believes that faulty neuroception is at the root of many psychiatric disorders, including ODD. For many vulnerable children, neuroception is biased towards detecting danger when there is no real danger.  Faulty neuroception shifts the child involuntarily into a defensive position, resulting in a variety of challenging behaviors. This can result from a host of causes (but not limited to) constitutional; genetic or brain wiring differences; biomedical issues; environmental stress; or sensory processing challenges, which cause a child to perceive ordinary sensations as threatening.

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