River District Counselling & Wellness

Life is Like A River
Why Can't My Kids Listen to Me?

Has your kid ever told you, "You are not the boss of me!" and you think to yourself, "Well... I kind of am!"

I am sure, as parents, you are familiar with this scenario. Asking them to perform a task or simply put on a coat can sometimes be challenging! When something like this happens, we might think “Why are they so defiant?” Or “Are they just trying to annoy me?” 

The answer is no! Have you ever heard of “counter will”? 

A clinical psychologist, Dr. Gordon Neufeld referred to “Counterwill” as the "instinct to resist, counter, and oppose when feeling controlled or coerced." This instinct serves an essential protective function for human survival. As children, they may feel coerced or threatened by separation and this is the "Counterwill" instinct keeps them protected from dangerous or risky situations like following a stranger off the playground. Most often, you’ve probably witnessed it in your own home with temper tantrums about you helping them put their socks on. Their inner voice says “I want to be independent” and what you see is screaming and flailing on the floor.


"Counterwill" is also significant for children to develop their sense of self. It is challenging for parents to watch their kids develop a sense of self and watching them struggle to figure out who they are, what they do or do not want. The key to getting them to listen is actually found in how emotionally attached your kid is to you. The more secure and attached the child is to the adult, the more likely they are to listen. The most optimal attachment style is “secure attachment” which includes the four S’s of attachment that Dr. Siegal mentions: Secure, Safe, Soothed, and Seen. Kids with secure attachment feel that their parents are a safe base, always there for them, which, in turn, allows kids  to feel secure in exploring their world. Kids with secure attachment tend to be more resilient, higher self-esteem, better emotional, social development, and have more positive adult relationships. Now, knowing that the "you're not my boss” instinct in children is Counterwill, how can you, as a parent, work with this resistance.”

Picture this: It’s a Tuesday at 4 pm, and you’ve been at home working and your kid comes home and you ask them how their day was, instead of “Oh it was fantastic - we did this…” you get “Nothing” and off they go to their room and slam the door behind them, leaving you staring at the jacket and bag left at the front door and shoes ten feet from the shoe rack. 

Now, your first thought might be “Agh .. really? Is this a mess for me to clean up?” You might also notice a little fireball building inside of you. Before we act, let’s consider these five steps Dr. Neufeld has for us to navigate this and other challenging situations. 

Not listening

 Connect before We Direct. Remember Counterwill is least present when our bond with our kids is the strongest. So, before we ask them to pick up their shoes or backpack, try and observe what is happening in that moment, like “How’s that video game going? What are you up to?” Take interest in what is happening in front of you.

Try using less “You should, You must, and  I need you to”.  Starting your statement with these three things tend to make Counterwill resistance more prominent. Watch what happens to your tone of voice when you ask. Test it out! Say  “I need you to pick up your shoes” in a fast and quick tone. Now, try “Could you please pick up your shoes?” in a softer and more deliberate tone of voice. Do you notice the difference? You’ll probably have better success with the second one!

Pause and come back to it later. When your child is resisting a lot, recognize this might not be the best time, so take a pause and return to it later. This is a great time for a self check- in. So let’s say your kid is just really protesting, the “No” is very loud and clear. Now, this is the time for you to ask YOURSELF “Is this really worth it right now? Is it worth the fight right now?” The answer is often no. Give you and your kid some space and freedom to come back later.  

Make them their own boss. You are raising a version of you! They can make certain decisions like what to wear or where to play. After all, even you don’t like being told what to do! It’s okay to provide your kids with options, remember to be specific and time limited. For example, “It’s okay if you don’t want to do it right now, but it needs to be done before 9pm. Would you like to do it after you finish playing video games or before you get ready for bed?” The key is provide them options you want them to have and allow them the autonomy to choose. 

Take ownership for your actions. This one is a tough one. Let’s be honest for a second, it’s challenging as a parent to apologize, our ego gets in the way. We teach our kids to take ownership for their behaviours, so we must model that as well. More often than not, our kids are not waiting for us to say “I’m sorry.” (But it does help in the repair process.) They want to reconnect and return to that “safe base.” So, try saying “Hey, I feel like I’ve been nagging you a lot lately. I just want to recognize that I find myself annoying, so you must be too.” You can take it one step further with “Clearly, what we’ve been doing is not working. How can we do this differently?” Be there to listen openly to what your kid is saying will work for them, even if it doesn’t seem like it might work well for you. 

Now you know more about “counter will” and the five steps above, you will likely see your kid in a different way. Everyone knows parenting is one of the most difficult jobs there is. It’s not like they came with an instruction manual, that would make our lives a lot easier! Give yourself self-love and compassion! Your kid is not intentionally “annoying” you, they are just becoming their own person! Be the safe base your kids need. 

Happy Parenting and good luck from JC! 

Here are some resources for you and a quiz to find out what type of parenting style you have: 

Counterwill from Dr. Gordon Neufeld: https://neufeldinstitute.org/the-surprising-secret-behind-kids-resistance-and-opposition/ 

Understanding Parenting Styles: https://www.verywellfamily.com/types-of-parenting-styles-1095045