Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “Innocent or Intentional?: Interpreting Oppositional Defiant Disorder in a Preschool Mental Health Clinic”

To begin article highlights from our latest edition of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry (Vol. 41, Iss. 1), this week we are featuring Christine El Ouardani’s Innocent or Intentional?: Interpreting Oppositional Defiant Disorder in a Preschool Mental Health Clinic. This article examines contradictions clinicians face when attempting to identify and interpret “intentionality” in young children with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). El Ouardani argues that conceptualizing intentionality as a developmental, interpersonal process may help to make sense of the multiple discourses and practices clinicians use to try to reconcile the contradictions inherent in diagnosing ODD.

El Ouardani begins by introducing “Carla,” a three-year-old who arrived for evaluation and clinical diagnostic determination at the Preschool Behavior Disorder Clinic (PBDC). At first Carla appears as any typical preschooler, energetic and affectionate, but the care team quickly learns she would frequently have violent outbursts and tantrums, lashing out at her family members, other children, or even nearby animals. This type of aggressive, disruptive behavior represents the main reason for the referral of preschoolers to mental health clinics. Early intervention into and treatment of such behaviors is thus of great interest to researchers and clinicians in the field of child mental health care in hopes of helping the young children adapt and cope with life more effectively and prevent the development of later, more destructive behaviors.

El Ouardani discusses that many of the children seen in the PBDC were given a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV) as “a recurrent pattern of negativistic, defiant, disobedient, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that persists for at least 6 months” that impairs a child’s social and/or academic functioning. Yet with very young, preschool-aged children, the diagnosis is controversial. Many children displaying aggressive behavior come from chaotic or otherwise problematic social environments in which this kind of behavior is a reasonable reaction. El Ouardani states that clinicians “must reconcile their characterization of disruptive behavior as a matter of ‘self,’ with the social environments that seem to be producing this kind of behavior.” El Ouardani also draws attention to the values and assumptions of current treatment models and diagnostic procedures. These modules are often based on white, middle-class norms of a “proper” family, moral assumptions of how parents should discipline their children, and the assumed role of a child in social institutions. Many patients at the PBDC did not fall into those characterizations; the reality of their lives are much different.

Moving to a discussion of agency and intentionality, El Ouardani then examines the biomedical, disease model of mental illness, which attempts to remove the blame for the illness from the individual. “Ideologically, then, those afflicted with mental disorders bear no responsibility for the behaviors that directly result from their disorders,” El Ouardani writes, since the biological processes of mental illness are taken out of the patient’s control. Thus, ODD as a category defined by “intentional” defiance conflicts with the disease model of mental illness. “A central concern of psychiatric therapeutics is to motivate and use the intentionality of a patient to regain control over the self.” Yet the idea that preschool-aged children are fully capable of acting with this type of intention, and possess the capacity to do so, is disputed. Therefore clinicians diagnosing a young child with ODD are forced to face the disparities between what is out of the child’s control, and what is the “will” of the child.

While discussing the diagnostic criteria for ODD as described in the DSM-IV, El Ouardani emphasizes the criteria for an ODD diagnosis requires the child to be aware of his or her own behavior and is purposely trying to upset or defy the person with whom they are interacting. From this criteria, ODD-labeled children are manipulative and spiteful, qualities that require a degree of intentional malice and deception. These characteristics are not thought to be present in other kinds of childhood mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, neurodevelopmental disorders, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Clinicians also attribute ODD children with controlling their behavior to influence “weaker” adults, depicting these children as culpable and intentional in their attempts to “confuse and subvert the efforts of their caretakers who are trying to control their behavior.”

El Ouardani discuses that determining intentionality is a complex process, especially because of a child’s limited verbal capacity for expressing internal states. “In order to identify intentional defiance and diagnose ODD, clinicians had to delineate authentic displays of emotion from those that are inauthentic and manipulative.” El Ouardani explains that nuanced, intersubjective exchanges between the children and the clinicians are not captured within the DSM-IV diagnosis. Clinicians often feel frustrated when they perceive a child is trying to manipulate them. This can be compared to clinicians stating “that they feel bad for children with depressive symptoms. They theorized that disruptive behavior in depressed children is a way to cope with internal pain.” This difference means the clinicians feel less personally attacked by children without the ODD diagnosis, becoming less frustrated. Further, by diagnosing a child with multiple disorders the clinicians can discursively split the child’s “self” into different intentional and non-intentional parts. However, this leads to ODD being categorized as a feature of the individual’s character, who that child is as an individual, rather than as a biological disease.

Explanations for why a particular child’s behavior were not always attended to within the PBDC. “Clinicians tended to rely upon the widely accepted idea that behavior and psychopathology is a result of interactions between biological temperament and the social environment. According to this model of developmental psychopathology, innate temperament interacts with problematic interpersonal relationships and chaotic household environments, causing the child to react to these negative circumstances with disruptive behavior.” Yet this strategy still leaves ambiguities over etiology and treatment.

El Ouardani concludes her article with a discussion of the treatment modality. Clinicians regularly spend the majority of the treatment focused on teaching caretakers how to more effectively discipline and relate to the children. The clinicians primarily focus on a lack of consistency in discipline and structure in both interactions and routines, thus, if the caretakers correctly implement strategic routines, the child will then change their behavior over time. “However, clinicians also informally acknowledged these techniques, which took time and energy that many of the caretakers coming from stressful, low-income, single-caretaker families did not necessarily have.”

Dr. Christine El Ouardani is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development at California State University, Long Beach. She is a cultural, medical, and psychological anthropologist who focuses on the anthropology of childhood and lifecourse in Morocco and in North America. El Ouardani’s current book project, Discipline and Development: Negotiating Childhood, Authority, and Violence in Rural Morocco, examines the everyday lives of children and youth in a Moroccan village as they move through their families, classrooms, and medical clinics. She analyzes disciplinary interactions between children and caretakers in their extended families and local schools that were often both violent and playful, demonstrating how local conceptions of authority, care, pain, and violence are constructed and enacted in everyday life at different points throughout childhood, and in different institutions.  El Ouardani shows how examining the nuances of child socialization practices over time and children’s roles in family and community life provides a sharp lens through which to consider larger-scale political, economic, and social change, in this case, contested norms of authority and violence in Moroccan families. For more information, visit her information page on the Department of Human Development, California State Universtity, Long Beach, available here.



Vol. 39 Issue 1 March 2015: Medicalizing Heroin

In addition to our From the Archive series, where we highlight past articles in the journal’s history, the CMP blog features selected previews of our latest issue. This week, we again take a sneak peek into an article from the March issue: the first installment of 2015’s Volume 39 of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry.

Heroin: From Drug to Ambivalent Medicine

On the Introduction of Medically Prescribed Heroin and the Emergence of a New Space for Treatment

Birgitte Schepelern Johansen • Katrine Schepelern Johansen. Pages 75-91. Link to article:

This article examines the reintroduction of heroin as a medicine, as opposed to illicit drug, in the treatment of substance abuse patients. Unlike existing research on this topic, the authors here emphasize the exchanges between the users, the staff, and the material space of the implementation of heroin: the built and organizational environments of the clinic, rather than just the actors in this space alone.

Heroin exists in a complicated place in these clinics: it is (paradoxically) utilized to minimize addiction to it. Rather than marginalizing the drug, this process of managed heroin prescription lends the drug a central place in the lives of users and staff, albeit a place that ambivalently lies between drug use as pleasure and drug injection as a form of medicalized control.


When considering the rooms in the clinic where the staff injects heroin into clients, the authors note that the space is strictly regulated. Staff observe incoming clients, while those who carry out injections do not permit the patients from selecting where the drug is administered. Likewise, this clinical space is not used for socializing: clients don’t casually talk while waiting, and typically depart this area and linger in the facility’s more casual cafe after receiving their injection. The clinical space removes the use of heroin from the context of pleasure-seeking, and assumes control for the drug’s use. Although the substance is the same, heroin users’ experiences of the drug in recreational settings is deliberately set apart from its use in the clinic.

Yet distinguishing the clinical space where heroin is injected, while no doubt increasing medicalized control over the substance, also complicates the notion of the drug as unquestionably destructive. Clients move into a social, casual environment in the cafe after initial injection. Even the clinical space itself underscores the intimacy of intravenous drug use, as staff and clients engage one-on-one during the injections. The staff similarly struggle with the complex nature of heroin as an illegal drug, made most evident by the strict safeguarding of the location where heroin is stored.

Although the medicalization of heroin abuse may serve to diminish the criminal stigma surrounding use of the drug, medical models of treatment remain entangled in older ideas of substance illegality, criminality, and the stringent enforcement of substance abuse policies. Conversely, the clinical treatment space and its organization is arranged in such a way that muddies the boundary between pleasure and treatment. The authors thereby illustrate the complexity of moving towards a medical model of heroin treatment, and how notions of control evolve with the changing landscape of substance abuse policy.