And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests and sometimes one positively ought… One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy… What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From The Underground

Steven, a thirty-eight year old labour relations officer for a large company, was referred to me for ADD assessment. He was respected as a creative individual who brought original and innovative thinking to his work. A skilled negotiator, he was able to approach any situation from new angles and unique perspectives that could break a logjam when everyone else was stuck. “I do things nobody else would dream of doing, but I feel I could be doing a lot more,” he said. At times he would impulsively take on problems and responsibilities beyond his experience or control. This propensity for risk-taking had brought him and his company near the precipice of disaster more than once. As I wrote in my consult letter to his family doctor, “it is a tribute to Steven’s daring, acumen, and creativity, and thanks to some good luck, that so far he has avoided catastrophic consequences to his original and idiosyncratic approach to his work.”

In this and in every other way the diagnosis of ADD was self-evident. As he related his life story Steven expressed one major regret. He had been an extraordinarily gifted classical musician in his childhood and adolescence. An international solo career had been widely predicted. In his mid-teens, however, he had given up his instrument, the clarinet, and completely severed his involvement with music. My consultation report noted:

The parents were both artistically inclined. The mother was an actress, the father a talented musician. Steven himself was introduced to music at an early age and was apparently was something of a child prodigy on the clarinet, being invited as an adolescent to play with the …National Youth Orchestra. He was at one time considered to be a great prospect. He quit the clarinet at age sixteen for what he says were reasons of spite and defiance towards his father, who forced him into practising and would beat him when he refused to do so. He was made to practice four hours a day. He continues to love classical music and deeply regrets not having continued with his musical studies.

Steven has for a long time considered his abandonment of a musical career as a perverse, thick-skulled misjudgement. “It was the stupidest thing I have ever done,” he said. He was surprised to find that I did not agree with him. “It was one of the most necessary things you have ever done,” I told him. “To have continued under those circumstances would have been to surrender your soul to your father. Psychologically you may not have survived that.”

The mistake, if we could speak of it as a conscious act, was not committed by the son but by the father. The force he had exerted on his son evoked its own counter-force, resulting in the impulse which finally sent Steven in the direction exactly opposite to what his father had wished. Sadly, it also went against Steven’s interests and contrary to the choice he probably would have made, had he been truly free to make a choice. He did not have that freedom. Steven had not acted, which would have meant autonomy, but reacted, which reflected psychological subjection–not to his father, but to the unconscious defences he had built up against his father. Quitting music was not an act of will, it was an expression of what Vancouver developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld calls counterwill. Distinguishing will from counterwill is important for any successful parenting. Understanding counterwill is particularly crucial for the parenting of the ADD child, and for the self-understanding of the ADD adult.

Children with attention deficit disorder are often characterized as stubborn, oppositional, cheeky, insolent, spoiled. “Wilful” is a description almost universally applied to them. Parents worry that the difficulty is rooted in some deeply embedded negative trait in their child’s personality that will impede her future success in life. The truth is more complicated than that, and it leaves more ground for optimism. Oppositionality cannot arise on its own. By definition, it has to develop in response to something. It is not an isolated trait of the child but an aspect of the child’s relationship with the adult world. Adults can change the relationship by changing their own role in it.

ADD children can hardly be said to have a will at all, if by that is meant a capacity which enables a person to know what he wants and to hold to that goal regardless of setbacks, difficulties, or distracting impulses. “But my child is strong-willed,” many parents insist. “When he decides that he wants something he just keeps at it until I cannot say no, or until I get very angry”. What is really being described here is not will, but a rigid, obsessive clinging to this or that desire. An obsession may resemble will in its persistence, but has nothing in common with it. Its power comes from the unconscious and it rules the individual, whereas a person with true will is in command of his intentions.

The child’s oppositionality is not an expression of will. What it denotes is the absence of will which–as with Steven’s abandonment of music–only allows a person to react, but not to act from a free and conscious process of decision making.

Counterwill is an automatic resistance put up by a human being with an incompletely developed sense of self, a reflexive and unthinking going against the will of the other. It is a natural but immature resistance arising from the fear of being controlled. Counterwill arises in anyone who has not yet developed a mature and conscious will of their own. Although it can remain active throughout life, normally it makes its most dramatic appearance during the toddler phase, and again in adolescence. In many people, and in the vast majority of children with ADD, it becomes entrenched as an ever-present force and may remain powerfully active well into adulthood. It immensely complicates personal relationships, school performance, and job or career success.

Counterwill has many manifestations. The parent of a child with attention deficit disorder will be familiar with them. Most obviously, it is expressed in verbal resistance, the “no’s”, the “I don’t have to’s”, the ” can’t make me’s”, in the constant arguing and countering whatever the parent proposes, in the ubiquitous “you are not the boss of me’s”. Like a psychological immune system, counterwill functions to keep out anything that does not originate within the child herself. It is present when the four-year old puts both hands over the ears to keep out the parent’s voice, or when the older child pins up an angry “keep out” sign on her door. It is visible in the body language of the adolescent and teenager: the sullen look and the shrugged shoulder. Its signs drive some adults around the bend, as in the futile “I’ll soon wipe that smirk off your face” of many a parent or teacher. Counterwill is also expressed through passivity. Every parent of an ADD child has had the experience of feeling intense frustration when, being pressured for time, they have tried to hurry their son or daughter along. The greater the parent’s anxiety and the greater the pressure he puts on the child, the more slothfully slow the child seems to become. Passivity begins to look like almost second nature to some of these children, although one may notice that when highly motivated the child will perform many tasks with alacrity. This passivity, what people may call laziness, can signal a strong internal resistance.

Counterwill is a natural inclination and does not mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with the child. It is not as if the individual does it; it happens to the child rather than being instigated by him. It may take the child as much by surprise as the parent. “It really is simply a counterforce,” says Dr. Neufeld. “The counterwill dynamic is simply a manifestation of a universal principle. The same principle is seen in physics, where it is considered fundamental to keeping the universe together: for every centripetal force there has to be a centrifugal one; for every force, a counterforce.” As all natural phenomena and all stages in the child’s life, counterwill has a positive purpose. It first appears in the toddler to help in the task of individuating, of beginning to separate from the parent. In essence, the child erects a wall of “no’s”. Behind this wall the child can gradually learn her likes and dislikes, aversions or preferences, without being overwhelmed by the far more powerful force generated by the parent’s will. Counterwill may be likened to the small fence one places around a young tender shoot to protect it from being eaten. The vulnerable little plant here is the child’s will. Without that protective fence it cannot survive. In adolescence counterwill serves the same goal, helping the young person loosen his psychological dependence on the family. It comes at a time when the sense of self is having to emerge out of the cocoon of the family. It is a defence mechanism to protect this fragile, threatened sense of self. By keeping out the the parent’s expectations and demands, counterwill helps to make room for the growth of the child’s own, self-generated motivations and preferences.

Figuring out what we want has to begin with having the freedom to not want. “Far from being depraved, counterwill is bequeathed by nature, to serve the ultimate purpose of becoming a separate being,” says Dr. Neufeld. “Counterwill, the dynamic, should not be identified with the child’s self. This is really important. It is not the person that we are getting to know when we get to know the resistance. Nature designed the child that way. It is really Nature that has a purpose, not the child.”

The great importance of understanding counterwill in attention deficit disorder stems from the extreme sensitivity of the ADD child who in this, as in many other things, is affected by environmental stimuli more than the average. Any force or pressure of whichever sort, no matter how good the intention, will be experienced by the ADD toddler, child, adolescent, or teenager to a highly magnified degree, and will generate counterwill of greatly heightened intensity. A vicious cycle ensues. The tendency of the ADD child is to behave in ways that evoke disapproval and attempts at parental control. Disapproval makes the child feel more insecure and promotes acting out, and the parent’s controlling responses deepen the child’s automatic resistance.

Emotional hypersensitivity in ADD is coupled with psychological underdevelopment. The weaker the child–or, for that matter, the adult– is psychologically, the more automatic and rigid the counterwill response becomes. A strong unconscious defence indicates a weak, undeveloped will, which is what is reflected in the oppositionality that seems intrinsic–but only seems that way–to the ADD personality. A strong defence is only there because there is threat, and the child is threatened only because a strong sense of his own self has not developed sufficiently. So the root of the problem is that, rather than being too powerful, the inner core of self, the true will, is stunted. This why the various epithets such as stubborn, wilful, and so on, denote not a strong will but the lack of one. An emotionally self-confident person does not have to adopt an oppositional stance automatically. She may resist others’ attempts to control her, but she will not do so rigidly and defensively. If she opposes something, it is from a strong sense of what her true preferences are, not out of a knee-jerk reflex. A child not driven by counterwill does not automatically experience any advice, any expression of the parent’s opinion as an attempt at control. Registering deep in her psyche is a sense of solidity about this inner core, this nucleus of the self, so there is no necessity to defend the will against being overwhelmed. “I will be able to hang onto myself,” an inner voice reassures her, “even if I listen to what somebody else thinks, or do what someone else wants me to do. I won’t lose my identity, so I don’t have to protect myself through resistance. I can afford to cooperate. I can afford to heed.” In contrast, the counterwill of the child with an underdeveloped self asserts itself ferociously. A parent meekly suggests that the child may wish to do her homework, only to get the automatic and combative “You are always telling me what to do!” .

In the ADD child the underdeveloped circuitry of self-regulation reinforces the counterwill reaction. Because the child with attention deficit disorder is unable to disengage impulse from action, his automatic negative responses are expressed immediately and dramatically, in ways the adult world usually interprets simply as deliberate rudeness.

Further magnifying the brazen outbursts of oppositionality is another feature of underdevelopment, the one-dimensionality of the ADD child’s emotional processing. In a manner characteristic of infants and toddlers, children with attention deficit disorder are unable to hold in their minds simultaneously two different images of themselves or of others. For the preverbal child the “me” is either happy or miserably upset. Mommy is either good or bad. “When a twelve- to fourteen-month-old gets angry at someone he may have no sense that just moments ago he was playing happily with that person,” writes Dr. Stanley Greenspan. “If he had a gun, one suspects, he’d shoot without remorse. By fifteen months or so, however, a dawning awareness that a relationship of trust and security can coexist with anger has often begun to moderate his temper.” For ADD children (and for ADD adults) it’s all or nothing. When anger arises, all feelings of attachment and love are banished. Since counterwill grows as attachment weakens, the child who is upset and angry may, in that moment, resist the parent with the emotional fury one would feel towards a despised enemy.

In the literature of child rearing counterwill is sadly neglected because so much of the emphasis has been placed on behaviours. If specific behaviours are the goal, then threats, punishments, promises, and rewards may work very well–for a while. That, unfortunately, characterizes much of the advice parents of ADD children receive. With counterwill, as with every other aspect of parenting, it is far wiser to put the emphasis on long-term development. The long-term objective here is the growth of a healthy and robust sense of self. Counterwill becomes maladjusted, as it does in ADD, only when adults do not understand it and try to overcome it by some sort of pressure, be it physical or emotional, be it inducement or threat. Counterwill is triggered henever the child senses that the parent wants him to do something more than she, the child, wants to do it. It arises not just when the child absolutely does not wish to do that something but also when she does wish it, only not as much as the parent. Many parents find out to their chagrin that there is no better way to kill a child’s interest in music than to force him to practice, even if by methods much milder than the brutality Steven’s father employed. All one ends up with is the child’s resistance.

The use of rewards–what might be called positive coercion–does not work in the long run any better than threat and punishment, or negative coercion. In the reward the child senses the parent’s desire to control no less than in the punishment. The issue is the child’s sense of being forced, not the manner in which the force is applied. This was well illustrated in a classic study using magic markers. A group of children were screened, and those were selected who seemed to show a natural interest and inclination for playing with magic markers. They were then divided into three different groups. One group was given no reward, in fact no instructions whatsoever as to whether they should or should not play with the magic markers. Another group was given a mild reward if they did so, and the third group was promised and given more substantial rewards. When retested sometime later, the group that had been most rewarded showed the least interest in playing with the magic markers, while the children who had been left uninstructed showed by far the greatest motivation to do so. According to simple behaviouristic principles it ought to have been the other way around, another illustration that behavioural approaches have no more than a short term efficacy. At work here, of course, was the residual counterwill that had been evoked in response to the positive coercion. In a parallel experiment the psychologist Edward Deci observed the behaviours of two groups of college students vis-á-vis a puzzle game they had originally all been equally intrigued by. One group was to receive a monetary reward each time a puzzle was solved, the other was given no external incentive. Once the payments stopped the paid group proved far more likely to abandon the game than their unpaid counterparts. “Rewards may increase the likelihood of behaviours,” Dr. Deci remarks, “but only so long as the rewards keep coming… Stop the pay, stop the play.”

We have seen that the very first step in helping the ADD child is to strengthen the security of her relationship with the parents. The process of making the child feel safer, more secure in the relationship becomes much smoother and less frustrating if the parents understand counterwill and do what they can to relax its chronic hold on the child.

Join the Dr. Gabor Maté Mailing List

Find out about upcoming events and publications