This week at the Power to Parent DVD course I'm attending (and loving), Dr. Gordon Neufeld explained a concept called counterwill, which is a natural instinct that every person possesses and it flares up as a defensive reaction to any perceived coercion. No one wants to be forced to do anything against their will. We are wired as humans to resist when we feel that someone is exerting the strength of their own will over ours, and the resulting friction is called counterwill.
Understanding this concept felt like recognizing something that I've always known to be true but had no words to define it before. I heard him speak about it, and I saw myself, and my kids, and my husband, and every relationship I've ever been a part of, and I said, "That's what it's called." He did a beautiful job of defining it.
In terms of parenting, he said that counterwill happens when the outside pressure imposed on the child is greater than the child's pursuit of proximity. In other words, when the child feels connected and attached to his or her parent, counterwill tends to be weaker, and the opposite is also true. When the relationship isn't working well, coercion and force tend to be present (and this is true for all relationships, not simply parents and children) and generally speaking, it backfires. Counterwill exists to be sure we are doing things we want to, and not what we feel we have to.
If the connection between people is functioning well, the need for coercion is not necessary, so the power to influence in a positive way is very strong. Influence always trumps coercion. No one likes to do something they are commanded to do, but if we are invited, and we have a choice to say yes or no and not be punished for it, we have the freedom to respond from our hearts and tend to feel happier about it.
For children, this is especially important, because unlike adults, kids have virtually no power in the relationship. They are given commands all day long, and counterwill shows itself as their only defense mechanism. We say, "Hurry up" and they slow down. We yell, "Clean up this dump of a room" and they cry and refuse and only when they feel the relationship is threatened will they sullenly begin to do the job.
I was always fighting with my kids, particularly Ava, to clean their rooms. After learning about counterwill, I tried a different tactic. I said, "I would like you to clean your room, but I understand that it's not as important to you as it is to me. I know I don't like to be told what to do, and yelled at about something, and I'm sorry for all of the times I've done that to you. I would like you to think about how you feel when you spend time in a clean room instead of a messy one, and decide if you want to clean it up or leave it like it is."
I closed her door and walked away, and had absolutely no idea what would happen, but I felt satisfied that we stayed away from our usual dance (I yell, she cries, I threaten to come in with a garbage bag and throw everything in the garbage, she finally acquiesces but is miserable about doing the job). Realizing what counterwill is there for, and how to work around it to get a better win-win result where no one feels intense pressure, really helped me to keep the emotion out of the issue, state what I wanted, and give her a choice.
Fifteen minutes later she came out with a big smile on her face, and asked all of us to come and see her room. It was by far the best cleaning job she had ever done to this point, and she was happy about it. An hour later she was reading on her bed and she called out, "Mom, I do like how nice my room is when it's clean." Talk about a one hundred and eighty degree difference, and it all came from phrasing my request better, so she felt part of the solution, and not dictated to.
Dr. Neufeld said that counterwill is a reactive instinct, not "on purpose". A child is not pushing our buttons to drive us up the wall, but instead the child's buttons are being pushed as a reaction to being ordered around outside of the context of connection in the relationship. If we decrease coercion or increase attachment, we can counteract the effects of counterwill.
He talked about a toddler ride which goes endlessly in a circle, but the toddler feels involved when they are turning the steering wheel. It's important to help kids feel like they are driving sometimes, and come alongside of them to support instead of direct. I'm looking forward to finding more ways to defuse counterwill by altering the way I ask for things, and thinking of how my kids feel when I order them around, and making changes accordingly.