Most adults try to control a defiant child. But control rarely works. If you’ve tried to control a defiant child, regardless of their age, you’ve likely been met with counterwill.
“Counterwill” is the name for the natural human resistance to being controlled. Although adults experience this phenomenon, we seem to be surprised when we encounter it in children. Counterwill is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted dynamic in adult-child relations.
This instinctive resistance can take many forms—the reactive “No!” of the toddler, resistance when hurried, disobedience or defiance, and lack of motivation. Counterwill can manifest itself in procrastination or in doing the opposite of what is expected. It can be expressed as passivity, negativity, or argumentativeness and is such a universal phenomenon at certain stages of development that it has given rise to the terms “terrible twos” and “rebellious teens.” Despite the myriad of manifestations, the underlying dynamic is deceptively simple: a defensive reaction to felt coercion.
Counterwill is normal in the toddler and preschooler and explains why in older youngsters praise sometimes backfires, why some youth are preoccupied with taboos, and why some children do the opposite of what is expected. Adults misinterpret counterwill in a child as a manifestation of being strong willed, as being manipulative, as trying to get one’s way, or as intentionally pushing the adult’s buttons. Trying to deal with this dynamic with traditional coercive techniques is a recipe for disaster because no one likes to be pushed around—including children. The antidote to counterwill is to avoid prompting feelings of being coerced.
For example, saying to someone, “You will have to….” immediately promotes counterwill, a negative reaction to coercion. However, saying, “Would you like to…?” rephrases this perceived command into a request for cooperation.
Similarly, “No, you can’t…!” is not nearly as effective as, “Sure you can as soon as….”
The key is to focus on influence—rather than on coercion. The art of influence is to induce people to influence themselves. Parents who aim at influencing rather than trying to control a defiant child have more success, less stress, and greater joy in their relationships with their children.
For more details about counterwill and dealing with a defiant child, see the book Parenting Without Stress.
Have you ever experienced a defiant child? How did you influence the child to do what needed to be done? Please share your comments on the Without Stress Tips Facebook page.