This is the seventh in a series on Thursdays detailing some of the high points from the Dr. Gordon Neufeld DVD series Power to Parent. This session was one of my favourites, as it explains counterwill, and offers strategies for dealing with resistance without sabotaging the relationship. Understanding the counterwill instinct has improved my relationships with my kids, and my husband, and given me insight into why I resist any form of coercion exerted on me.
Counterwill is a defensive reaction to any perceived coercion, be it physical, behavioural, emotional, cognitive or psychological. None of us like to be pushed around or forced to do something against our will. Counterwill is our natural human instinct against someone else's will being more important than ours. We automatically rebel when we sense that this is happening.
Counterwill is an important attachment instinct. It protects against outside influence and direction. Coercion happens outside of the proximity of the relationship, when you haven't been collected first. Our will should not be coercing someone else's. When the will is imposed outside of the context of connection, it always backfires. But inside connection, coercion isn't felt, so the power to influence is very strong.
When kids feel rewarded because they are supposed to do something, they resist. When "want to's" turn into "have to's", resistance is felt, and that is the purpose of counterwill. It's not that kids don't want what their parents want, but if the parents get there first, the kids tend not to want it anymore. When attachment is strong, counterwill is weak, and the opposite is also true.
Whenever you have immaturity, you have counterwill, unless you are in a context of connected relationship. As parents, we must continue to collect before we direct, as this lubricates the parent/child relationship. Will takes a long time to develop. Preschoolers are said to have a strong will, but they haven't had the time to develop it yet. They have a strong counterwill.
Sensitive children are very perceptive. They can read what is being expected of them and will resist if they are not connected to us (read any of my past posts about William to discover how true this is). The defense is strong, not the will, and it's defense against someone else's will.
Counterwill is a reactive instinct, not "on purpose". A child is not pushing our buttons, but rather their buttons are being pushed (which in turn pushes ours and the situation escalates). If we increase force, they increase counterwill, and if they sense the relationship could break, they will capitulate (I certainly saw this with William and it's heartbreaking when you understand what's really going on).
Dr. Neufeld offered seven steps to counterwill proof a relationship:
1. Refrain from using separation as a consequence.
2. Don't take counterwill personally.
3. Anticipate and expect to be resisted.
4. Don't make behaviour the bottom line.
5. Reflect resistance as natural and normal.
6. Keep reactions to counterwill in check.
7. Repair damage done by counterwill fallout.
We can either decrease coercion or increase attachment. Both will work to defuse the power of counterwill. When we say, "How many times have I told you..." or "I'm the boss and I say so" engages counterwill and our children don't want to obey but they do it because they feel they have to. Look for ways for them to obey without making it so hard. Understate. Use a connecting tone, and attempt to stay calm. Give your expectations in a way that won't provoke counterwill.
Think of the steering wheel on a toddler ride at a fair - the steering wheel is useless and doesn't steer the vehicle, but the toddler thinks it does and has a big grin. It keeps them involved. Subdivide your will as a parent, don't reveal where you are going, and be careful not to impose your iron will on the child. Lessen force instead of increasing it. Reduce counterwill by getting the child on your side with a good intention (more on this next Thursday).
All humans are allergic to coercion. The only thing that makes it go down easier is attachment. Any investment you make to nurture belonging, value, significance, love, and delight deepens the connection (go back to the roots of attachment from session two). When counterwill is present, we need to take one step back into the attachment, then two steps forward into the problem. Slowing down and being patient is the key (this has been hard for me to practice, but deeply valuable as a parenting skill).
When the child wants to be good for you, it melts away the resistance. The hard part is working at the attachment. Parental reactions to counterwill cause massive insecurity in children. We can't take it personally, and we must address the root of the problem. Children are meant to be immature, and we are meant to be mature, and to show them the way through these relationship dynamics. If you can make sense of counterwill, it will change your dynamic between parent and child.