Parenting 101 Series: Understanding Why Our Kids Say “No”

Otto Rank was the first psychologist to identify the term “counterwill,” describing our instinctual resistance to being forced to do something. We all know this phenomenon: the more someone tries to force us to do something, the more we dig our heels in. We first see this counterwill in action in toddlers, when “no” becomes their response to absolutely everything. We don’t even have our request out of our mouths and our kids are running away yelling, “no, no, no!” The more we tell our kids to clean their rooms, share their toys, eat their veggies, go to bed, the more they say “no” and do the exact opposite.

Exasperated, parents beg, plead, bribe, and eventually force their child to obey. Many parents do not understand that the child is not being a disobedient brat; rather, she is merely displaying an appropriate response that is so important for her development. Counterwill is a crucial part of growing up because it a) protects the child from being misled by strangers and b) fosters their independence.

Babies are born completely dependent on their caregivers, but eventually need to learn how to be an independent, unique individual all their own. Counterwill provides a protective shield to help them experiment with what they like and dislike and to become their own person, rather than a clone of their parents. Without counterwill, children would simply become zombie-like followers who never question why things are the way they are. There would be no creativity or motivation. Bottom line: Children need to develop their own ideas on their own terms. I ronce had a disagreement with my daughter about the fact that baby seals are baby seals and not puppy dogs. She was adamant that they were puppy dogs and would not listen to any of my explanations because she needed to come to that conclusion on her own. She now knows the difference, but she needed the opportunity to figure it out herself.

While counterwill is a challenge and difficult to manage for most parents, it does have a purpose: To help our children achieve mature independence, which is ultimately our goal as parents. However, helping our children become independent does not reduce the need for us to develop a strong relationship with them. As outlined in my previous article in this series (The Secret), the relationship you have with your child is the most important element of successful parenting.

Unfortunately, in face of conflict, many parents disrupt that relationship and try to use leverage to gain parental control over their children. This is typically done through bribery (e.g., “if you clean your room, then you can have ice cream”) or force (e.g., “if you don’t do your homework, you can’t watch TV for a week”). As our parental control decreases, our focus on rewards and punishments increases. Although we would not tolerate it anywhere else, we end up manipulating our children to do our bidding. We use external influence to gain compliance, forgetting the need for intrinsic motivation. Just think of the starry eyed elementary children who want to please their teacher.

The solution: reframe how you view your child’s behaviours. If you view your child as being disobedient, you will likely respond with anger and force. By responding in anger, we weaken our relationship with our child (and our ability to parent successfully), thereby creating a vicious cycle. Instead, if you understand that children are only responding in reaction to feeling forced, you will likely respond very differently: with compassion, patience, and empathy. In doing so, you will maintain your relationship and may even elicit compliance and better yet: inward motivation to please you.

The next article in this series will focus specifically on how to respond to your child with compassion and empathy, thereby creating a different pattern of interactions. From there I will explore how you can increase your attachment with your children and other strategies to bring them back under your wing.