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Causal Factors

Stubbornness, noncompliance, and aggressiveness are traits largely determined genetically. Some children have by nature a difficult temperament (Sanson and Prior 1999). They are irritable, difficult to soothe, and have numerous and more severe tantrums than other children during infancy or the preschool years. Parents or teachers are often drawn into power battles with these young people, which can create a vicious cycle of increasing attempts to control the young person that lead to more anger and rebelliousness.

Conversely, oppositional behaviors are highly context-sensitive. Many factors can reinforce or exacerbate normal oppositionality so that it becomes a problem. Parents of noncompliant, defiant children seem to have less effective problem-solving skills, particularly in tasks that involve conflict, and are more likely to criticize, belittle, and blame their children. Oppositional behavior is also believed to be more common in children living in families in which there have been several parental figures, due to separation or divorce, or in which parents were very strict, particularly if discipline was inconsistent or not accompanied by warmth and care. Children who have been abused or neglected are often aggressive and defiant.

Childrearing practices that are caring, non-punitive, and that encourage strong group loyalty and respect for authority may reduce oppositional behavior. These are observed in some Eastern cultures. For example, Chinese people tend to be very lenient toward infants and children under six years of age. This is in marked contrast to the strict, even harsh, discipline they impose upon older children. Traditionally, Chinese parents were more concerned with impulse control and less tolerant of aggressive behaviors in children than their Western counterparts. By emphasizing filial piety, they tended to discourage independence, assertiveness, and creativity (Ho 1986).

Young people with learning difficulties and mental health problems, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and those who are depressed often show marked oppositionality and irritability. Oppositional defiant disorder can be an early stage in the development of the more serious conduct disorder. In that case, as children become older, their behavior escalates into breaking rules, truancy, stealing, and physical fights.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaOther Marriage & Family TopicsOppositionality - Oppositionality And Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Causal Factors, Epidemiology, Treatment, Family's Response To Oppositionality