Let’s talk about Counterwill – and how it not only applies to Children

by | Mar 11, 2020 | Education, Family life | 0 comments

A few weeks ago, we were riding in the car as a family – I was driving.

It was a sunny day and I forgot to turn on the lights.

On the way to my destination, just before a roundabout, the car in front of me suddenly stopped. The driver (an elderly man) got out of the car and with a gesture showed me that I had forgotten to turn on the lights. 

As I said, it was a sunny day, but the law in Switzerland requires that all cars must always have their lights on. I felt a sense of reluctance rising within me. I showed myself friendly, with a gesture of “ok, I’ll do it”. But the man waited until I had actually turned on the light.

Then he nodded, got in the car and drove on.

I had to overcome myself with all my activated will in order to not switch off the light again.

What was the matter with me? 

One could argue that this person only wanted me to avoid being fined if I got into a police control.

Or it could be argued that I was really breaking the law by failing to turn on the lights.

That may be true. But my feelings rebelled and I had no understanding for such dominating and controlling behavior.

Perhaps in such a situation you would simply say thank you to the man for pointing it out to you and continue along happily.

But what about situations in which you got advice from your neighbor – or even your mother-in-law, who appears sporadically – on how to clean your house better? Or the person at the cash register behind you, who shows you how much she is in a hurry by pushing her shopping trolley into your legs?

I think most of us know that feeling. It’s a vital, God-given instinct that helps us resist all outside influence. In the following article we will look a little more into what this counter-will can be good for.


The counterwill.


It is exactly this feeling that occurs when children (or, as in this example, I as an adult person) react defiantly and go into resistance.

I used my self-control, but it cost me a lot to just leave this light on. Every fiber in me was striving to do the exact opposite of what would be good and right: Everything in me wanted to turn off that light (and see if the driver who was still in front of me would stop again…).

I could not describe it better than Emil: [1]

The same happens with children who are in the resistance. For example, if we tell them to hurry, they will slow down even more. If we ask them to come here, they are paralyzed and don’t move an inch.

Does that look familiar?

It’s a deeply human quality and it helps us to be true to ourselves. Counterwill is a crucial part of protecting our integrity. (Integrity refers to the congruence of personal values, ideals, impulses and convictions with one’s own speech and actions).

This is our basic state. To resist instructions that do not originate from ourselves.”

Neufeld explains: [2]

“Counterwill is an instinctive, automatic resistance to any sense of being forced. It is triggered whenever a person feels controlled or pressured to do someone else’s bidding.”

“Counterwill manifests in thousands of ways.

  • It can show up as the reactive no of the toddler,
  • the “You aren’t my boss” of the young child,
  • as balkiness when hurried, as disobedience or defiance.
  • It is visible in the body language of the adolescent.
  • Counterwill is also expressed through passivity, in procrastination, or in doing the opposite of what is expected.
  • It can appear as laziness or lack of motivation.
  • It may be communicated through negativity, belligerence, or argumentativeness, often interpreted by adults as insolence.
  • In many children driven by counterwill we may observe a fascination with transgressing taboos and adopting antisocial attitudes.

No matter what it looks like, the underlying dynamic is straightforward—instinctive resistance to being forced.”

Kraft writes [3]

“What is the surest way to keep a person from doing something: You force him to do it. And what is the surest way to make him do something? – To forbid him to do so. Although described as early as 1906 by the psychoanalyst Otto Rank (1884-1939), this superficially simple theorem is still hardly used in everyday life. To our disadvantage, because counterwill is one of the most powerful forces in man.”

Neufeld confirms this when he writes: [4]

“The very fact that something is important to us can make our children feel less like doing it. The more we pressure our children into eating their veggies, cleaning their rooms, brushing their teeth, doing their homework, minding their manners, or getting along with their siblings, the less inclined they are to comply. The more insistently we command them not to eat junk food, the more inclined they are to do it.”

Many of us parents don’t really know how to deal with our children who are in opposition. Whether a toddler or a teenager, it is never a nice feeling to be confronted with any of the above mentioned behavior.

For the time being, a threat like “If you don’t help me carry the table out, there won’t be any lunch” may work. (see last article).  You could even describe it as a measure of “logical consequence”, which is actually a good thing, isn’t it?

Heinz Etter once said:

“I only work with children who are not in resistance.”

As I delved into this topic, it also became clearer to me why he said this. I have seen two important aspects around the subject of counterwill, which I will try to explain to you.

The first is about how we can go from being that man to our children who pressured me to turn off the lights on the car to that person who is allowed to say such everyday things into our children’s lives. We will see this in the next article.

The other week will be about what, with a child who is only in opposition to us, no matter what we say or do, we need to understand in order that we can turn the situation around.

 [1 ]In this Article (in German) by Emil Zitlau

[2 ] Neufeld, Gordon. Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle-Version. Chapter COUNTERWILL: WHY CHILDREN BECOME DISOBEDIENT

[3] In this Article (in German) by Marc-Steffen Kraft

[4] Neufeld, Gordon. Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle-Version. Chapter COUNTERWILL: WHY CHILDREN BECOME DISOBEDIENT


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