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The difference between ODD and PDA

One of the questions I hear often is, "what is the difference between Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)". This question often comes from parents who are trying to figure out what is happening for their child when they are seeing them struggle to an extreme degree. These parents are struggling to cope and to understand and are desperately researching oppositional or defiant behaviour, or they have reached out for support and a professional has suggested to them that their child exhibits signs of ODD.

This one is particularly common if the child is already identified as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or as being on the Autism Spectrum (ASC). When parents research further, or end up in an ADHD or ASC group on Facebook, they are likely to come across mention of PDA and this is when their brains can potentially explode. ​

Why are there so many letters? What in the hell is the difference between being oppositional and being demand avoidant? Is one worse than the other? The PDA description sounds just like my child but they aren't autistic, are they, wait, are they?

​I get it, I have been right there...

So the answer I give each time is "good question" and then I try to explain in a comment and don't do it well because there is a lot to say. This question was one of the first I needed answering. When I first realised my son's struggles went beyond something I would consider as developmentally and emotionally typical (bearing in mind I have bee studying child development for more than 20 years) my initial googling led me to ADHD and ODD. It almost fit him, and I could have stopped there. ADHD certainly fit myself and my eldest daughter but something was off. It was a colleague (and now friend) of mine who alerted me to this thing called PDA and every time she shared something my mind was blown. It explained my life and my son perfectly.

Before I get into the similarities and differences, I want to give you a brief description of each so that we know where we are. I will be skimming the surface but don't worry, I will include links to more information:

Oppositional defiance disorder


For a child to be diagnosed with ODD they must have a pattern of disruptive behavior including at least four symptoms from the following categories:

Angry/Irritable Mood

  • Often loses temper
  • Is often touchy or easily annoyed
  • Is often angry and resentful


Argumentative/Defiant Behavior

  • Often argues with adults
  • Often actively defies or refuses to comply with requests from authority figures or with rules
  • Often deliberately annoys others
  • Often blames others for his mistakes or misbehavior



  • Has been spiteful or vindictive at least twice within the past 6 months

In order to be diagnosed with ODD a child must have had a pattern of behaviour problems lasting at least six months and involving at least one individual who is not a sibling.


It is thought to be "caused" by combining factors, like with mental health conditions and personality disorders. This means there will be a hereditary pre-disposition to mental health issues and then environmental factors play a major part. The "risk factors" are thought to include one or more of the following:

  • a “harsh” or inconsistent parenting style
  • parental mental health problems such as depression and substance misuse
  • adverse childhood experiences (abuse, parental loss, parental breakup etc)
  • poverty
  • consistent criticism in one or more setting
  • the presence of other mental health problems
  • Unrecognised, untreated or mis-managed neurodivergences (e.g. ADHD, Autism)

Pathological demand avoidance


For a child to be recognised as having a profile of PDA, they will show the following characteristics:

  • Resisting and avoiding demands from others, themselves and the demands that are implicitly expected (every day things)
  • Needing to be in control
  • Using social strategies to avoid and resist demands and keep control
  • Lability of mood (mood changes quickly and dramatically between extremes)
  • Impulsivity
  • Taking great amounts of comfort from internal role play and fantasy (and can use this to hide their difficulties at times)
  • Is social in nature but struggles to maintain social relationships
  • Can be obsessive in their interests and become obsessed with people
  • Show characteristics of other neurodivergences including sensory processing, executive function and emotional regulation differences.

In meltdown, a PDA child can be extremely aggressive, verbally abusive and violent. Some PDAers never display this behaviour, and channel their extreme anxiety inwards.


PDA is currently considered as a profile of the autism spectrum. It is my understanding that there is some uncertainty on that, but what is clear is that it is a neurological difference (neurodivergence). What causes neurodivergences is still not entirely clear and is a matter of much research, but is believed to have a strong genetic component with some potential environmental factors on the developing brain in-utero. It is not considered to be affected by social factors.



It is clear that these behaviour profiles could look very similar. You have a child in front of you who refuses point blank to do as they are told and acts violently and aggressively if you try to make them. If your child is also ADHD, which the majority of children diagnosed with ODD are, impulsivity, emotional regulation, executive function and some sensory issues will also be present. ADHDers also have some social difficulties due to their impulsivity and attention struggles. It is also noted that to co-occurrence of ADHD with PDA is much higher than for the general population. You can see how parents feel confused, and frustrated. I was. So let's look at the differences.


For children with ODD, their behaviour is understood to originate from a persistent and pervasive state of negative thinking and emotions, that stems from extremely difficult experiences or a persistent environment of negativity, either at home or at school, this can trigger a negative state of mind as the "norm" for them. For instance, research shows that ADHD children receive considerably more criticism than neurotypical children. The ODD child is triggered by the perceived source of negativity; authority. This leads to emotional fragility, persistent anger and annoyance, low tolerance for people, and frequent confrontations and altercations with people in positions of authority. ODD is a childhood behaviour profile which, if it continues, can become an adult conduct disorder.

For the PDAer, the behaviour is understood to be a difference in wiring and chemistry in the brain that (amongst other things) triggers a threat response when the person is faced with demands. I actually believe that it would be more accurate to describe that the response is triggered when there is any perceived threat to their autonomy, but that is a matter for another day. The key thing is that demands (all kinds) will cause the PDAer to go into fight (aggression and violence), flight (avoidance to extreme degrees) or freeze (shutdown).


The ODD child may have come to see people as an immediate source of great annoyance to them, feeding their negative self-talk, negative emotions and causing anger. The PDA child will love being around people and seek them out even though they cannot cope for long with the demands of socialising. They may try to control social situations and become frustrated when they are not able to be in control. This will cause anxiety that may display as anger if it is not recognised early.


A child with ODD will have fairly consistent negative emotions to lesser or greater degrees at a given time. The PDAer is more likely to switch moods inexplicably and experience fleeting emotions where they may suddenly flip, and then are back to being ok reasonably quickly. The PDAer can swear at, scream at and threaten the people they love to avoid a demand, and then when the demand is removed, as long as meltdown hasn't happened, be suddenly calm and affectionate. This is not manipulation but genuine terror occurring and subsiding. The ODD child will remain angry and resentful for longer.

Equally the PDAer is likely to feel full of remorse after a meltdown for the behaviour displayed, as a meltdown in its nature is a total loss of control.

The ODD child is less likely to feel remorse and is more likely to remain in control of their actions, though not always.


So what makes the defiance different? Here is where it is super tricky. All human beings can be defiant and all human beings can be demand avoidant. This means both children can display both behaviours. However this also makes it easy to understand.

​We have all felt like we do not want to do as we are told by the person in front of us because we feel angry inside ourselves, or angry with them, or angry about having to do the task. When we refuse on these grounds, we are being defiant and our refusal is driven by anger. In these cases we outright refuse or we become obviously and outwardly angry.

We have also all felt like we do not want to do something or are unable to do something for other reasons that are not because we are angry or annoyed at being asked. It could be from exhaustion, a lack of motivation or from apprehension at the complexity or length of the task. Ever left an essay to the last minute? This apprehension can sometimes be more extreme and be better characterised as anxiety. Avoiding doings things because the thing causes us anxiety is typical. In some people, including those with mental health difficulties and neurodivergences, certain tasks or activities (like making phone calls, going outdoors, social gatherings or complicated organisational tasks) are anxiety inducing. These people will go to greater lengths to avoid these tasks than others. All of this is considered demand avoidance and it is driven by either a lack of motivation, lack of executive function or by stimulus that causes anxiety.

The reason that PDA is described using the P word is because the avoidance of demand in the PDAer is abnormal or atypical and to an extreme and pervasive degree. The PDAer does not only avoid demands that cause them anxiety. The PDAer's anxiety is actually caused by the presence of demand. The telling, requesting, reminding, begging, or even gently expecting of the PDAer all cause utter panic, even when they expect things of themselves.

I keep struggling to describe the feeling to people but I will give it a go: I am a black belt in Taekwondo. I love it and find classes really help my mental health. I really enjoy it. However, I battle myself every time it is Taekwondo day, arguing in my brain with my PDA. My threat system is telling me that everyone expects me to go, including me, and I need to resist at all costs. I have to fight it with everything I have, because I want to go. If anyone reminds me to get ready, it feels like they just put a brick wall up in front of me, and my brain screams STOP. DANGER. FIGHT. RUN.

As you can see from this description this can be a long and slow internal struggle, which can suddenly become unmanageable. I am an adult so I mostly fight with myself but when pushed I will use all kinds of strategies to avoid demand, including, distraction, procrastination, incapacitating myself, making excuses, and on and on until it’s all too much. For me meltdowns are sobbing for hours or visible panic attacks and sometimes it is more shutdown.

A quick summary

Now all of that is a lot of information so lets look at the key differences side by side:


-Neurological difference
-Lability of mood
-Perceives demand as a threat
-Avoids multiple types of demand including things they want to do and every day activities
-Uses social strategies to avoid demands to increasing degrees before meltdown
​-Shows much remorse after extreme avoidant behaviour and meltdown
-Present from birth (not always obvious)
​-Will display extreme anger in fight mode
​-Will have executive function, sensory and emotional regulation differences.


-Negative cognitive and emotional pattern
-Persistent anger and annoyance
​-Perceives authority as a threat
-Avoids things they don't want to do, things they are afraid of doing, or requests that make them angry
-Uses refusal and aggression to defy authority figures
-Shows less or no remorse for defiant behaviour
-Triggered by difficult life situations
-​Struggles to control anger and annoyance
-Sensory & executive function differences only if neurodivergence is also present


Now that we can see the pattern a little clearer, there is one way that can be potentially very helpful to observe which you may be dealing with. The reaction of the child to rewards and imposed consequences will be a good indicator. ​The child with ODD will often respond well to being offered increased external motivation to do something. If they can see the point in doing the task, even if they don't really want to, they will often comply. Therefore, if you want an ODD child to tidy their room, for example, offering them a new lego set or telling them they won't be able to go out on their bike tomorrow, will increase the chance that they will tidy their room. Now I have researched motivation a great deal and I want to tell you that this approach to parenting whilst widely acceptable is unhelpful in the long term. That is also a topic for another day. In the short-term though, with an ODD child, it will get the result you want in most cases.

​Now, try offering the same thing to the PDAer who is refusing to tidy their room and watch meltdown occur. The looming threat or even the reward hanging over them will not motivate them. It will simply increase their anxiety to a point they cannot control. All you have done is increased the demand of that activity by a factor of 10 (or more depending on the weight of the threat or value of the reward).


Reading this may make you feel as though ODD is a profile of a traditionally considered "naughty" child, whereas PDA is not. This is not the case. Firstly, I think the label naughty (or any other derivative of this) is extremely loaded and unhelpful at all times. Children show positive behaviour when they can. If they are displaying difficult behaviour, they are struggling. The evidence is very clear that regardless of the difficulties behind the behaviour, both the ODD and the PDA child are struggling and need compassion and loving care.

Why does it matter?

The really important thing is that how this compassionate parenting is approached is likely to look pretty different depending on what is happening for your child.

Very simply, the ODD child will need strong boundaries and limits, enforced with high levels of empathy and compassion, appropriate positive reinforcement and a great deal of consistency and connection. Demands do not necessarily need to be reduced and communication can be direct as long as the child is being handled gently.

The PDA child needs a flexible approach, lots of autonomy, a low or no demand environment, collaborative and problem solving techniques without extrinsic reward, with very careful management of communication and praise, and an individual approach to their sensory needs.

Both children need to have adults around them that really understand and have empathy for their individual situation. Both children can be extremely challenging to live with and to raise. Both children need us to manage our own issues so that we can do the best for them. Whichever you are dealing with, I know you are doing the very best you can because you have taken the time to read this. Thank you from me and thank you from the child who may never find the words of gratitude for you. Keep learning and trying to see the world through their eyes.

Tomlin Wilding

If you have a comment to make on what I have written or you have a simple question, please comment below. If this has brought up lots of questions, wonderings about your child or yourself, or you have had an emotional reaction to reading this, please drop me a message to discuss it further. I also have a list of services that I offer for anyone wanting personalised education or support.

17 thoughts on “The difference between ODD and PDA”

  1. I just want to say thank you so much for this article, and especially for your determination to present this information in a way that is sympathetic to the child (or adult)who has the conditions discussed. These could both describe me very accurately as a child–I was diagnosed with Tourettes and OCD at age 8 after a very sudden and dramatic change in behavior and was later diagnosed with ADD, and am now strongly suspecting I have undiagnosed autism or Asperger’s. I thought I had ODD as a child that I “grew out of” as I got older, but a Twitter user a couple days ago alerted me to the existence of PDA and now I’m trying to tease apart which one might be more applicable to me; I think that I had a lot of overlap but only because adults seemingly are determined to misunderstand children who are high-functioning but neurodivergent, which certainly will result in a lot of the child’s reactions looking like ODD symptoms. I’ve never been able to really adequately explain to people how I had a terror of being a “bad kid” and badly wanted the approval of every adult around me, but felt compelled against my will by something that felt like my OCD to do the opposite of what was demanded of me…but only if it was demanded. If people let me get to it on my own, I had no resistance to the activity or task itself, but if I was being told to do it, or coaxed with rewards or–terror of all terrors–threatened with punishment for disobedience, suddenly I would get very frustrated that now I COULDN’T obey, even if I wanted to, and get very angry that the adult making the demand had made it so that I now had to struggle against it! It sounds like insanity, and let me state clearly that it is not at all an enjoyable existence and was probably worse on me than the adults around me, but I do believe it was a neurological “hardwiring” issue that was made a horrible problem by the way adults around me were, for various reasons and in various ways, unequipped to deal with me, as well as probably the overall culture of child-rearing when and where I grew up. People in my life nowadays don’t understand my sense of having to have been quite a challenge to raise or be around growing up, but this explainer makes so much make sense, and I cannot thank you enough for the reassurance that this is a real thing and the validation for the idea that the child is struggling with their own behavior and with trying to live in their own body and mind. I’ll be bookmarking this blog post to share with others as needed…thank you!!

    1. Thank you for this comment. The bit about not wanting to be a ‘bad kid’ really hit me and may well have just explained my son and answer which of these he is. So thank you. X

    2. This is exactly how I feel. Did find out if your pda or odd or both. I’m suspecting both now.i was diagnosed with asd in April so it’s a learning curve for me I also have adhd as well.

  2. Thank you so much for this article and for sharing your knowledge of these sometimes complex neurological differences. I will save so I can return to it again and do a refresh on the finer details. I’m always reading, listening and trying to learn more for our young people.

  3. I should have a copy of this to hand to every new teacher my girls encounter.
    They have the diagnosis of ASD and Anxiety but PDA goes that next level to help caregivers understand what is going on for them when they meltdown, run or fight, then crumble in a corner telling everyone how sorry they are. Trying to get people to drop their own ego and realise this is a child in distress, is a challenge.
    Thank you for writing this Emily.

  4. My son definitely had PDA – my explanation of him is he has an anxiety based control system on bored. He is waiting on his 3rd ADOS assessment and this is probably going to return the same answers – he has been under Camhs for 10 plus years and will soon be 17 – he hasn’t left the house in 7 weeks and has consequently missed his exams – he also has epilepsy social communication disorder extreme anxiety major depression and puberty delay and a mild learning disability – he missed all his milestones of walking talking being dry but caught up quickly – he has sensory overload – he had a tic which I was told was because of his anxiety but as soon as he was put on meds for epilepsy the tics went. I read all the above with great interest and just wish that the staff in Camhs understood this 😕

  5. This post is so helpful as I’m trying to research my daughter’s behavior. She exhibits ODD but the as soon as I learned about PDA, it was like a light bulb moment.
    Can you share your sources for this post, though? I’m trying my best not to fall victim to confirmation bias and primary sources would help greatly.

  6. Thank you for the publishing this information. I am the parent of an adult who has recently been diagnosed with PDA. In childhood she was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD. Our family has been on this roller coaster ride trying our best to be do the right things for her. Our daughter is intelligent (completed university), and empathetic with others. Her adult personal life has been chaotic. This condition does not go away in adulthood. Meltdowns still occur and the outbursts become more threatening.
    I am distressed when I read that inadequate parenting or poverty, etc is linked to this diagnosis.

  7. I appreciate your article. My son with ASD was labeled ODD years before he was screened “at high risk” for PDA. (A PDA diagnosis is not recognized in the US, so he doesn’t have one.). But when we became LESS regimented, with fewer boundaries and consequences then our son began to flourish. Principles of ABA are truly counterproductive in these kiddos.

    1. I wish this was talked about more. I have had a similar experience with a kid at work. I too thought it was ODD but the more I learned about PDA I realized it was definitely that. His diagnosis is only Autism and I think he’s going to really struggle when he gets into elementary school becasue of the lack of PDA diagnosis. Once I changed my approach we’ve had much more success. This article was VERY helpful in outlining the differences.

  8. I was diagnosed with PDA when I was 7 but I think I only fit some of the criteria. I’m really not sure if I was misdiagnosed or not as I don’t really fit neatly into either category. Is it possible that some of these symptoms would just appear as a neurotic personality trait?

  9. Thank you so much for this explanation and comparison. Last week when I was in search of a coach/counsel or specialized in working with ND people I came across PDA and had an “a-ha!” Moment regarding my life experiences. Your article has helped me to understand PDA and that, without a doubt, relates to my life. I suspected I was on the spectrum and was diagnosed with ADHD this past year. However, with all of this knowledge there were pathological behaviours that I became aware of that made me think we’re (myself and professionals) missing. I thought Avoidant Personality Disorder possibly so I asked my DR to send me for a psych evaluation. The psychiatrist went through the DSM with me and said “yes, I probably have APD but a psychologist would be able to confirm. As you mention in your article most professionals don’t know or think to look for these conditions. I think it really comes down to individuals to do the detective work, trust your intuition. Coming to this realization though has helped me to come to self-acceptance and self-compassion, where I have been beating myself up, stuck in a permanent state of self-loathing up til now for behaviours I and reactions that often felt like they came out of nowhere and that I had no control over and would leave me feeling badly about myself. So again, thank you. I want wait to share this insight with my doctor, and psychologist.

    1. I am really not sure how common that is. It is always so difficult for professionals to tease apart especially because most do not understand PDA. The best person to tell you about their experience, obviously in the future, is likely your grandson, though he would too have to understand the differences. The most effective thing to try right now is likely to be going fully down one strategy path and seeing what happens. If those strategies aren’t helpful, try the other path and see. I would suggest giving the PDA techniques a go initially for a significant period of time (only changing tack if your grandson is in distress, or after say 4-6 months). This might give you positive insight, and could potentially help him. Let me know how you get on.

  10. Thank you for this fabulous yet easy to understand information. It’s really helped my fight to get our daughter diagnosed with what we thought to be the same as her older sister ( Asd) yet has so many differences and difficulties in her daily behaviours. I only read about PDA in the news last week and reading more and more into it, I am certain she has this instead ( her sister is defo Asd/Aspergers). With our youngest, every day is a struggle and it’s tearing the family apart. Like you wrote, simple everyday expected tasks cause unimaginable hardships, anger and tears!!. We are really struggling with attending school at the moment and tbh school haven’t even replied to emails or phone calls when asking for help. They have started Senco assessments, but I get no response or answers, plus it’s only Asd they are assessing for. Reading your article makes me realise she’s not just stubborn or naughty, but a constant battle in her poor overloaded mind.
    Thank you for such an inspirational piece, that has encouraged me to push this until we get a correct diagnosis and help we all so need.

  11. This is a great article thank you. I’m still confused but I think leaning towards pda for my son (and can definitely see me in your example).
    Since things started ‘kicking off’ 2 months ago with my 7yr son I’ve seen that it seems to be a control issue and have therefore tried to give him more choice and scope for autonomy. However he then struggles with making those decisions and/or choosing or asking for things that are impossible (last nights example being him wanting to both sleep at granny and grandads and be at home all at the same time). How on earth do I give more opportunity for choice when he struggles with the executive functioning for that? And how on earth do you manage the fact that you then have to make an adult decision (because they can’t) instead which may result in a meltdown.

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