Anytime I am working with the parents of adolescents, I am always excited to share insight about the pivotal concept of “counterwill” in the context of healthy development. Understanding this concept can make a tremendous difference in understanding our teenagers, especially when we feel confused or worried about their tendency to push back. First coined at the turn of the century by Viennese psychoanalyst Dr. Otto Rank , this concept has been further developed and refined by Dr. Gordon Neufeld. Simply put, counterwill is our instinctive reaction to resist, oppose, or push back when we experience a feeling of force or coercion greater than our ability to manage it, and greater than our desire to cooperate or comply. The counterwill instinct does not surface because we seek to be difficult or decide to be contrary (although it can result in these outcomes), rather it is an innate defensive reaction with a very specific protective and developmental purpose. 

Counterwill tends to be more pronounced and chronic in adolescence (and in toddlerhood!) and, without insight, it can cause strain on the parent-teen relationship.  The purpose of counterwill is to serve maturation; adolescent counterwill helps to deliver an adolescent to individuation by pushing back the thoughts, agendas, demands, and wills of others to make space for the teen’s own thinking, ideas, and opinions. (2). Through counterwill, the pushing out of the influence of others, nature is trying to provide a cocoon-like space for the adolescent to develop their own mind. Counterwill exists even, and perhaps sometimes especially, in relationship with parents, teachers, and those the teenager is closest to as nature is trying to assist the adolescent to grow the self as separate from parent(s) and in a truly healthy context, separate from peers, too (3). Counterwill is serving to prime the transition to adulthood, even while it accounts for a significant amount of the turbulence involved in the process.

So what does this mean in real terms? We say “black” and the teenager will say “white.” We say “white” and the teenager will say “black.” This can be a highly confusing and frustrating time when we suddenly feel like our child now seems to think that we know nothing, that we are “out of date”, and that our suggestions and ideas are irrelevant. We can feel shut out when we try to connect, correct, teach, and parent. This can be a challenging dynamic in the relationship, but when we understand that counterwill has an important purpose, we can more gracefully weather the temporary storm.

What can make this “counterwill storm” worse is when, lacking insight, we take this pushback personally, experience our own hurt feelings defensively, and react with increased force and authority, push more, or deliver our expectations in a language of coercion and ultimatum. Guess what happens next? We provoke increased counterwill at a time when the teenager is already swimming in it, perhaps now starting to drown.

In her excellent editorial on the Neufeld Institute website titled: The Surprising Secret Behind Kids’ Resistance and Opposition, Dr. Deborah MacNamara encourages parents to “… anticipate resistance and not to take it personally.” She reminds us of the practices that can diffuse the intensity of counterwill, such as focusing on connection in the difficult moments,  reducing coercion, pressing “pause” in that moment rather than charging ahead, making room for the teenager’s own ideas and thoughts, and always making amends when things have gone sideways, so that the relationship remains the priority. 

Counterwill in our teens can really lead us down the garden trail and it often does…until we see it in context of healthy development and begin to work with it in a way that gives it some needed room to fulfill its developmental purpose.

Dr. Neufeld’s course, Making Sense of Counterwill, is being offered as a Scheduled Online Class led by Neufeld adjunct faculty member, Colleen Drobot. Classes start October 23, 2019. Click HERE for more information.

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