When children meet our attempts to discipline and set boundaries, with defiance and resistance, life becomes very stressful! If this is something you struggle with as a parent, read on! I have good news.
No matter how defiant your child is, there is hope! You as the parent have the power to change the dynamics of your interactions.
Every child comes into this world with something called “counterwill” built into their system. Counterwill, aptly named by Austrian psychologist Otto Rank, first rears it’s head in the terrible two’s, and grows to a deafening crescendo in adolescence. Although it can make parents and other caregivers crazy, it comes built in for a reason.
Counterwill is the instinct to resist any outside attempt to manipulate or force action or non-action.
Because of counterwill, every chid is naturally protected (to a certain extent) from the influence of anyone to whom s/he does not feel connected. Counterwill also plays an important role in helping a toddler in the task of individuation, and the adolescent in developing healthy independence.
In their book “Hold On To Your Kids”, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate put it this way:
“Counterwill is serving the purpose of protecting the child against becoming an extension of anyone else, even the parent. It helps to deliver an autonomous, emergent, independent being, full of vitality and able to function outside of attachments.”
Here’s the key for parents and caregivers – counterwill primarily happens with anyone who is not in the child’s circle of attachment.
This means that a child is much more likely to accept direction coming from a beloved caregiver.
The catch is that as caregivers, we have to know how to foster a sense of close connection. Given the history of parenting practices, not many of us have learned how to do this well.
As soon as your efforts to connect and attune with your child are greater than your efforts to manage their behaviour, discipline becomes much easier.
A fully mature adult with a healthy will has the ability to recognize and rise above their counterwill. When conflict does arise, it is really two counterwills duking it out. Of course there are moments where you must assert your will with a force that is greater than your level of attachment to a child, but these should be the exception.
One of the most powerful concepts to hold onto in your day to day parenting is to ‘connect before you direct’.
If you see something going wrong, find a way to connect with your child first before pointing out what they can do differently. Meet their eyes with warmth rather than hostility. Smile and touch them with gentleness. This may seem counter-intuitive when you see them doing something that makes you upset. If you are too upset to greet them with warmth, then redirect as calmly as you can, and save the explanations and teaching for later when the heat of the moment has passed.
Discipline means ‘to teach’ – not ‘to punish’.
Using time outs, and other punishments that impose separation are only pouring oil on the fire of defiance. Children need our love more than anything else. The most crucial task of a parent is to foster a warm connection first.
The idea is not to be perfect. None of us are. Just holding the intention of making every interaction with your child one of warmth and connection is enough. You will always do your best, and your best is going to change moment to moment, day to day.
Children will ultimately learn healthy behaviour more from your example than from any words you might speak. And how much more will they want to emulate you if they feel a warm bond with you!
May your relationships grow in warmth and connection, and may your perspective of life be one of clarity and beauty.