The Birthday Cake: Lessons from Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ODD

Nathan doesn’t eat birthday cake.

Stop sign-NOHe can’t.  His brain won’t let him.  There is a great big stop sign between him and his birthday cake, parked right between the blowing out the candles and the sweetness of the first bite.  The stop sign says “NO!”  Then a caption underneath says, “This message is brought to you by YOUR ODD.”

Its not hard to pick out a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ODD.  Just ask “ Do you want to go to the park, honey?” or “Do you want some ice-cream?”

ODD Neurologically Gifted“NO!”

“You sure?”


“I have your favourite flavour.”


If you think that is bad -try to convince him that he really, really does want ice-cream.  You may start a full blown rage and certainly ruin your day and his day.  What would be even worse?  You end up feeling a need to punish him, send him to his room, ground him from his friends and take away his I-pod.  Yikes!  Things go from bad to worse.  Everyone ends up exhausted and steam-rolled.

And its not like Nathan doesn’t like cake.

(Okay.  He doesn’t like Chocolate cake and that’s a bit weird.)  He likes cake.  He could eat an entire cake all by himself – just not his Birthday cake.

Year after year, Nathan refused his birthday cake.  Chocolate cake, (I know), angel food cake, ice cream cake, any kind of cake…  It didn’t matter.  He loved his birthday and fully participated and listened graciously to our singing “Happy Birthday”, making his wish, posing for photos and blowing out the candles.  And then, “NO!”  to cake.

Sometimes, I would feel ripped off.  Why the heck can’t we just have a happy, normal celebration?  “Let’s eat cake!”  “I got it just for you!” “Just enjoy the damn thing.”  There was something unsatisfying about not ending up with icing and smiles on all our faces.  I admit it – I am pretty sensitive.  Being yelled at by my son hurts my feelings.  Especially if I am really trying to be nice!

Sometimes I felt bad for him.  His challenges are pretty huge and it’s NOT just the cake.  But…his disorder preventing him from being able to participate fully in a normal, happy celebration year after year with his family.  The poor kid!  He likes cake and he can’t even eat his own cake!  Knowing the expectation that “everyone loves birthday cake”, causes his ODD to contradict the expectation.  He can’t help it.  He needs to say “No” to it.  That’s how ODD works:  if he is expected to do something, say something, or even like something (like birthday cake), his internal stop sign pops up and forces him to become non-compliant.

And yes, sometimes it would go from bad to worse.  Someone would naively try to convince him,  “Oh, come on Nathan, you have to havesome of your birthday cake.”  Then his ODD would take over.  Harsh words would go flying, voices would be raised, and feelings would be hurt.  He is already fired up, of course – it’s a party after all.  Not a good way to end a birthday party.

What we have learned from Oppositional Defiant Disorder

  • detour Neurologically GiftedOppositional Defiant Disorder responses are deeply entrenched by repetition.  To circumvent this roadblock, try going around or get off and take another route!  This is one of the general rules in our home.  We know that attempting to crash right through Nathan’s “NO”/Stop sign will cause injuries.  And, who wants to flatten their child?
  • Ignore the “No!”  The automatic “NO!” is exactly that – automatic.  It really doesn’t mean anything.  If we wait it out, the automatic “NO!” may subside, then disappear.
  • Give your child time between their automatic  “NO! and your reaction to it.  Nathan often responds with “NO!” and then physically follows through with a “Sure, Okay!”  The pause before my reaction was the key to that realization.  Over time, the delay between his automatic “No” and “Sure, Okay” became shorter.  Now he often says “No” while he complies with our requests.  It can be funny at times.
  • Pick your battles.  Listen to your child and respect their choices.  Sometimes, “NO!” is really a “NO!” (like the chocolate cake), and not just ODD, (like the “NO!” birthday cake stop sign).  Don’t make a “NO!” into a “You’ll do it because I said so!”
  • Teach your child about their Oppositional Defiant Disorder and what your observations are.  Self insight will help your child immensely to take power over their automatic ODD responses.  We talk about it all the time and encourage Nathan to fight back against his ODD tendencies.
  • We don’t really know when Nathan’s birthday cake stop sign got placed or cemented there but we all know it is there, so we work around it.  This year Nate had a slice of pie.  I made cupcakes and we had two kinds of pie.  He picked lemon meringue.  Candles and everything!

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