“It’s time to leave now.”

“Take my hand so we can cross the street.”
**sits down on sidewalk and refuses to move OR runs out into road without taking hand**


What is WITH these little people who just. don’t. listen. Seriously! Why are they so resistant, combative, and downright disrespectful? One likely source of all this oppositional behavior is COUNTERWILL.

The term counterwill was introduced by Austrian psychologist Otto Rank. He explained that counterwill is what you see in children when you try to GET THEM to doing something. This is different from will, which is doing what is necessary to complete tasks and meet goals. When we talk about a child being “strong-willed”, we usually mean that counterwill is the culprit.

The Neufeld Institute has an online continuing education course solely devoted to this phenomenon. Counterwill is a BiG deal. Mostly because parents, naturally, get really, really annoyed when their kids resist, don’t listen, and are otherwise “strong-willed.” (Actual will looks more like determination than refusal.)

Deborah MacNamara, longtime student and now faculty at The Neufield Institute, and author of the recently released book, Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One), (**BEST parenthetical subtitle EVER!**), devotes an entire chapter of the book to counterwill. It’s fittingly entitled, “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” I also love this subsection header: “Young Children Are Allergic to Coercion,” which is hysterically, maddeningly true. This chapter alone is worth your money, as it explains counterwill clearly and elegantly:

The Counterwill Instinct


1) is a defensive reaction to perceived control and coercion
2) serves attachment by protecting against outside influences & direction
3) serves development by preparing the way for separate functioning


rest play grow

The first step in finding one’s own WILL is to resist and counter the WILL of others.

Deborah’s sage advice is to use the counterwill instinct in children to your advantage, after all, you as a parent are a trusted attachment figure:

“It is important to collect young children before giving them commands, obligations, expectations, or demands or pressuring them to do something, as their default mode is one of resistance.”

In a related piece on her website entitled, Why Kids Resist and What We Can Do About It, Ms. MacNamara makes the adult’s role perfectly clear:

“A young child is usually resistant as a result of not being attached to a parent in the moment when a direction was given. Young children only have the capacity to attend to one thing at a time and if they are focused on something else, their parent has little ability to engage their instincts to follow. In fact, if you ask a young child to do something without engaging their attachment instincts, then expect to be resisted. The only thing that trumps the counterwill instinct is that of the attachment instinct. That is, when a child is connected to a parent, the instinct to follow them is stronger than their instinct to resist. (Read the rest of the article here.)”

The chapter continues with a complete explanation of the Two Faces of Counterwill, reasons why counterwill becomes problematic and cyclical, and strategies for parents to employ in the face of resistance. Very good stuff.

The rest of the book is excellent too, and offers parents solid research and science, paired with practical explanations and tools for bringing more peace to your home, and ease to your relationships with your children. You can get yourself a copy right here.

Share your experiences and success stories in working with counterwill and resistance in young children in the comments.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and has been featured in The Huffington Post. She brings 20 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to an eight-year-old who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. She works with families one on one, in groups, and through online offerings.