I co-facilitate a study group of professionals who meet regularly to discuss Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s theories of attachment and development. Together we are a group of teachers, psychiatrists, social workers, counsellors, parent educators, alternative school educators, early childhood educators, and most of us parents, with a strong focus on understanding and forwarding attachment thinking. Next on our agenda, we plan to begin studying Neufeld’s concept of counterwill.

As a parent and professional, I have found the concept of counterwill to be absolutely pivotal and groundbreaking. Counterwill was first discussed by insightful Austrian psychoanalyst, Otto Rank [1884-1939], and later adapted by Neufeld to describe our instinctive defensive resistance to feeling forced. It is an instinct present across the life-span, although far more intense during the growth-spurt phases of around two, and again during adolescence.

Counterwill ChildCounterwill can present as moments of defiance, balkiness and digging-in, yet it serves a constructive purpose in development. According to Neufeld, the counterwill instinct has evolved with a two-fold developmental function: to serve attachment and to forward psychological growth.

In terms of attachment, it’s primary role is as a defence that repels the influence of those outside of our attachment circle. It is meant to keep us home and keep us safe as youngsters, and is part of the attachment ‘glue’ that bonds us to our people by ensuring we have a strong instinct not to follow just anybody. It is the catalyst very much behind the toddler turning away from the smiling stranger while in line at the grocery store [perhaps even sticking out the tongue!]. I don’t know you and I am not attached to you! it tries to say.

In terms of forwarding psychological growth, counterwill again evokes an urge of ‘push-back’ to feelings of being forced, except within this realm, it is an instinctive reaction to feeling pushed even by those to whom we are attached. These are the strong feelings of resistance that can automatically surge in a youngster when they perceive they are being told what to do, demanded of, or told what to think.

NO! begins to say the two year old, crossing arms and digging-in.

WHITE! says the adolescent when told something is black.

BLACK! says the adolescent when told something is white.

Developmentally-speaking, counterwill inside the natural context of attachment becomes a healthy part of the very young child’s tentative gradual movements towards a necessary sense of ‘separateness’ from parents, and the adolescent’s growth towards psychological independence and the ability to think for themselves. Having studied the counterwill instinct, I am tremendously grateful for the increased ‘smoothness’ in day-to-day parenting that comes with this insight. I am able to see moments of counterwill when my children resist or are digging-in because of sheer reaction to how I’ve approached them, and I’ve learned to momentarily alleviate my energy of insistence, demand or force to allow things to unclench before moving forward again [rather than trying to push more in the face of their strong counterwill reaction]. 

Important to our study group of educators and mental health professionals, Neufeld discusses in detail how the counterwill instinct can be one of the most perplexing and troublesome dynamics in dealing with children and youth, particularly if it is misunderstood by the adults around the child, or becomes pronounced, intense and stuck. Why? What can cause a healthy and natural instinct to become problematic, frustrating and difficult for the child? How do we approach intense or systemic counterwill, seeking to restore a more settled and healthy balance? These will form important discussion questions for our study group as we focus on Dr. Neufeld’s concept of counterwill.

Editorial Note: For more information on Counterwill, please see Dr. Neufeld’s DVD: Making Sense of Counterwill.

© 2024 The Neufeld Institute