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Making Sense of Counterwill

What is Counterwill?

The instinct to resist being controlled or coerced is one of the most perplexing and troublesome dynamics in dealing with children and youth. This course reveals the dynamics controlling this instinct and provides suggestions for how to deal with it. This material is applicable for all those dealing with toddlers through adolescents: teachers, parents and helping professionals.

Course Description

Counterwill is a name for the instinctive reaction of a child to resist being controlled. This resistance can take many forms: opposition, negativism, laziness, noncompliance, disrespect, lack of motivation, belligerence, incorrigibility and even antisocial attitudes and actions. It can also express itself in resistance to learning. Despite the multitude of manifestations, the underlying dynamic is deceptively simple – a defensive reaction to perceived control or coercion.

Counterwill is undoubtedly the most misunderstood and misinterpreted dynamic in adult-child relations. The simplicity of the dynamic is in sharp contrast to the trouble it creates – for parents, for teachers, and for anyone dealing with children. It creates a perplexing dilemma in that what is most demanded or expected from a child can become the least likely to be realized.

Understanding the role of counterwill in the development process is the key to knowing how to handle it. A three-pronged approach to safely defusing counterwill and to handling the resistant child or adolescent will be discussed.

Brief Synopsis

Counterwill can take many forms. It can present itself as the reactive ‘no’ of the toddler, the ‘you aren’t my boss’ of the preschooler, as balkiness when hurried, as disobedience or defiance, or even as laziness or lack of motivation. It can manifest itself in a working to rule, in procrastination, or in doing the opposite of what is expected. It can be expressed as passivity, negativity or argumentativeness. It can be experienced by an adult as insolence or belligerence. It can create a preoccupation with taboo or antisocial attitudes within a child. When pervasive and severe, the child is incorrigible and may qualify for a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It is such a universal phenomenon at certain stages of development that it has given rise to the terms ‘terrible two’s’ and ‘rebellious teens’. Despite the myriad of manifestations, the underlying dynamic is deceptively simple – a defensive reaction to felt coercion.

Because so few adults are conscious of this dynamic in children, the void in understanding has given rise to a multitude of misperceptions and consequent mishandling of this dynamic. Counterwill is most often misperceived as being intentional or ‘on purpose’ as opposed to instinctive and provoked. Adults are forever misinterpreting counterwill in a child as a manifestation of being strong willed, as challenging authority, as being manipulative, as trying to get one’s way, as intentionally pushing the adult’s buttons or as simply asking for it. How we perceive a child’s behaviour will influence how we react to it. Unfortunately when we misperceive counterwill, we are likely to react in ways that actually exacerbate the dynamic. Furthermore, we are at risk of endangering the relationship that provides the context for working with the child.

There are three factors controlling the existence of this dynamic in a child: attachment, maturation and coercion. Strong attachments often preempt the defiant reaction in a child. On the other hand, when immature beings are bossed around by adults they are not attached to, they instinctively resist being controlled. It simply does not feel right for a child to do the bidding of those they are not attached to. The implications for our society are profound as it is our custom to farm out our children to strangers to help raise them. Our educational system is crippled by counterwill yet very few are even aware of this dynamic. The very fact that so many children lose their desire to learn and only do as much as they have to, is a testimony to the power of the counterwill dynamic.

Counterwill is normal in the toddler and preschooler. Because these children can only operate out of one dynamic at a time, whenever attachment instincts are not engaged, pressure will provoke resistance. Children grow out of the impulsive expression of counterwill when they become capable of mixed feelings. For most children, this is by school age but there are many adults who never get there. Unfortunately, not all children grow up as they get older, and those that are incapable of mixed feelings are easily provoked when the coercive elements of a situation are greater than the forces of attachment.

Under certain conditions, defiance can be pervasive and intense, becoming the modus operandi of the child. If these conditions prevail the child may even qualify for a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. This is an unfortunate misnomer as there is nothing wrong with the counterwill instinct in itself. It is more likely that the child`s attachments are disordered or the social environment of the child is disordered. Children stuck in immature functioning were never meant to be bossed around by those they were not personally attached to. When teachers and teaching assistants are put into such a situation, the challenges are profound. Trying to deal with this dynamic with traditional behaviour management techniques is a recipe for disaster. Again, intervention needs to be based on a foundation of understanding.

Genesis of the material

Dr. Neufeld’s formal introduction to the construct of counterwill was rather serendipitous. He was preparing to teach a university course on personality theory in the 1970’s when he stumbled upon Otto Rank`s theory of counterwill which he had proposed at the turn of the century. Somehow this gem of a concept had been overshadowed by other theories and theorists of the day and never received the attention it deserved. Dr. Rank perceived counterwill as the developmental forerunner of a child`s sense of autonomy. He also perceived counterwill as the greatest source of insecurity in children, largely because of the rather adverse reactions most parents have to being resisted or countered. In his words, the greatest danger of counterwill is that it threatened to ‘break the union between parent and child’.

Reading this in the context of contemporary knowledge of the attachment and maturation processes, it became immediately apparent to Dr. Neufeld that this was a vital missing piece required to make sense children. Counterwill explained all kinds of things: why toddlers were so difficult to handle, why teenagers rebelled, why praise sometimes backfired, why rewards can be counterproductive, why some kids are preoccupied with taboo, why some children do the opposite of what is expected. Otto Rank was very much ahead of his time and intuited something that was actually much bigger than he possibly could have realized. The more Dr. Neufeld studied counterwill, the more impressed he became with its power to explain behaviour that otherwise is perplexing, as well as with the profoundness of the implications in our day and age. Once our eyes are opened to the dynamic of counterwill, we see it everywhere and fresh insights and understandings come repeatedly.


This material applies to all ages and all settings including:

  • parents with children from toddlerhood to adolescence;
  • early childhood educators;
  • teachers and assistants working with students from K to 12;
  • helping professionals working with all ages

The counterwill dynamic is universal. It exists in all but the very young and the very disturbed. It is extremely troublesome to parents of toddlers and preschoolers because of their impulsiveness and lack of mixed feelings. It is also a troubling dynamic in school-aged children who are not properly attached to those responsible for them or who are psychologically immature. The counterwill dynamic is, of course, legendary in adolescence and often referred to as ‘rebellion’.

The counterwill dynamic is something every parent and teacher should be familiar with. If this dynamic is not understood or if it is taken personally, our reactions to increase coercion can be counterproductive as well as damaging to the relationship. Defiance is a crippling dynamic in the school system, causing children to become passive in their learning, to work to rule, to procrastinate and to resist doing the bidding of their teachers. Children who are stuck developmentally and who are not attached properly are daunting to deal with because of their elevated counterwill instincts. If counterwill is not understood, our typical reactions actually exacerbate the problem.

The earlier one becomes familiar with counterwill, the better. The parenting of toddlers and preschoolers goes much better with a working knowledge of this dynamic. This material is also suitable as a course for general audiences and as professional development for educators and for teaching assistants. The material is particularly suitable for those that work with children that are difficult to manage.


Topics include:

  • the many faces of counterwill
  • how to differentiate between counterwill that is healthy and counterwill that is a sign of something amiss
  • why praise and reward can backfire in some children
  • why counterwill is normal in toddlers and preschoolers
  • why the educational system provokes counterwill in our children
  • why pervasive counterwill is a sign of attachment problems
  • how to prevent and defuse counterwill in children
  • how to safeguard one`s relationship against the fallout from counterwill
  • how to differentiate between a child with a strong will and one with a strong counterwill
  • how to help children grow out of counterwill

Can’t wait for a course and want some answers now?

See our PDF file tutorial on the Strong Willed, Defiant, Alpha Child.

Course Outline

This facilitated videocourse is formatted into 4 one-hour sessions with one hour discussion after each video segment. It can be held over one day, or can be spread out over 4 weeks, or some variation of this to suit the requirements of the individual organisation.









Registration Details

This course is offered for group bookings.  Minimum of 10 persons are required for a group.  Cost is $100 per person.

Course Coordinator

Kaye McKean

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