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Remember why your child’s not listening to you—even when it drives you bonkers

Why is it that young children can lock down in protest at the mere suggestion of getting dressed or undressed? Why do school-age kids seem to resist directions and expectations when homework needs to get done? Why do some teens oppose and rail against rules and limits around technology use, driving them to push back at parents? At first glance, these scenarios seem unrelated—except for their capacity to ignite parental frustration and persistence. But they all share similar roots.

Kids come with an instinct to resist and oppose, or do the opposite of what they are told. But this isn’t news to parents or teachers. What may be surprising is that resistance can stem from the counterwill instinct that is innate to all humans.

The term “counterwill” was first coined in the German language by Otto Rank, a Viennese psychoanalyst and student of Freud’s. This construct was further developed by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, using the lenses of attachment and development.

Counterwill refers to the instinct to resist, counter and oppose when you feel controlled or coerced. You can feel it arise inside of you when someone tells you want to think, do or feel. This isn’t a mistake or a flaw in human nature, and, like all instincts, serves an important function. The challenge for parents is that immaturity makes a child more prone to expressions of resistance.

Counterwill is an innate response designed to protect the self when feeling coerced or when facing separation. Children are designed to be directed by people they are attached to–which makes them prone to resist people who they are not connected to. If a stranger starts to tell a child what to do, they should be resistant to their directions. Not just anyone was meant to “boss” a child around. This is a good thing, and preserves a parent’s natural place in a child’s life as being the one to care for them.

Why do kids resist parents they are attached to, though? The answer is because our “have to” needs have become greater than the child’s “want-to” desires. In other words, their instinct to resist has become greater than their desire to follow–which could be due to the amount of control or coercion they are experiencing, a reflection of the depth of their attachment to a parent or their level of immaturity. A child’s resistance doesn’t mean we have to abandon our agenda, but it does mean we will need to figure out how to hold on to our relationship while steering through the counterwill impasse.

The counterwill instinct is also important in helping pave the way for separate functioning and becoming a unique self. Part of figuring out who you are involves placing a moratorium on other people’s views, agenda’s, wants and wishes. When other people’s voices are louder than your own, the counterwill instinct helps to create some space through resistance so that you can develop your own perspective. While it may be problematic for parents to be resisted, it can serve an important developmental role in helping a child develop their own mind.

Counterwill responses in kids are not confined to the home and occur to other adults like teachers. The younger and more immature a child is, the more important a working relationship with their teacher will be in order to learn from them. Attachment is what opens a child’s ears to real and lasting influence–not coercion, bribes, threats, rewards or punishment.

The more responsible a parent feels to lead a child and to care for them, the more provocative acts of resistance and defiance can seem. It is sometimes challenging for parents not to react out of their own counterwill instinct when their children are locked into resistance.

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What is true is that the more you push a child who is resistant, the more they can push back and exhibit greater opposition. This can lead to an escalation of tension and conflict that erodes your relationship–ironically exactly what is required to render resistance less prevalent in the first place. Constant battles can create insecurity and anxiety in kids and can adversely impact their development.

The challenge is not to take resistance personally and even expect it.

The challenge is to remain in the caretaker position and lead through the counterwill storm. Some of the strategies below require maturity in the parent and the capacity to see the big picture. It is relationship that opens a child’s heart to being influenced by us and serves to create the ideal conditions for development.

So what are you supposed to do when your young child refuses to get dressed, or when your child refuses to do homework or obey technology rules?

Focus on connection first

What makes a child amenable to following a parent is connection. Before we direct them, we need to get into relationship by collecting them–that is, catching their eyes, getting a smile, focusing on what they are attending to–all before proceeding with our requests. If we need to talk about something that isn’t working, like homework time, then it is best to collect them first to make them amenable to influence.

Reduce coercion when directing

Sometimes when we make requests of our kids we are talking in a coercive manner to counter their resistance before it begins. Statements like, “You have to…” or “You must…” or “You need to…” all serve to raise the counterwill instinct. Consequences are also commonly used to get a child to comply, with statements such as, “You need to do this, or else,” which only exacerbates a child’s resistance.

Press pause, side-step and revisit the issue when in better attachment

If you are locked into a counterwill battle with a child, then it is often better to take a tactical retreat to prevent wounding to the relationship and to avoid using force to get a child to capitulate to your demands. It is also important to maintain an alpha position in doing so. For example, “I’m going to give you some time to think about this and I will be back to talk,” or “I’ve decided this is not a good time to address this issue.”

Make some room for their own ideas and initiative

If a child is old enough to get dressed or organize their homework, then perhaps it is time to put them in charge of these things? If they are eager to have their own mind and exert their own wishes and wants, then carving some spaces and turning over age-appropriate tasks to them may be a helpful strategy. The types of activities that you would not want to turn over to them would include anything to do with their caretaking such as food or who they spend time with.

Make amends when needed

If our reactions to a child’s counterwill have created distance in the relationship, then giving it time and returning to the child to make amends may be necessary. It can be simply done with an apology and an indication that you wish things would have gone better in the discussion.

While our children may claim, “You’re not the boss of me,” we don’t have to take it to heart or react to it. We just need to lead through the counterwill storm, knowing we are their best bet and that they should feel safe and secure in our care. It is OK for our kids to have their own minds, but this doesn’t mean they will always get their own way.

One day the child will be the “boss” of him or herself and until our job is done, we need to make some room for them to flex their wings, but not let go of our caretaking responsibilities.

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Seeing your baby for the first time is an amazing experience for any parent. For most parents, the months preceding this meeting were probably spent imagining what the baby was experiencing inside the womb, trying to paint a realistic picture on top of that two-dimensional black and white ultrasound photo.

But thanks to Brazillian birth photographer Janaina Oliveira and a baby boy named Noah, parents around the world are now better able to imagine what their baby's world looked like between the ultrasound picture and their first breath.

While most babies are born without their amniotic sac intact, Noah entered the world (via C-section), still cocooned inside his. This is known as an en caul birth, and while it wasn't the first Oliveira has captured through her lens, it is likely now the most famous of her photographs.

After she posted Noah's birth photos to Instagram, Oliveira's photos went viral, making headlines around the world.

This slideshow is amazing.

In a Facebook post, Noah's mom Monyck Valasco explains that she had a tough pregnancy with Noah, and is so grateful that he did not arrive too early.

Noah is now something of a celebrity in his hometown of Vila Velha, Brazil, but local media reports he was actually one of three en caul babies born at the Praia da Costa Hospital in just one month. Birth photographer Janaina Oliveira actually captured all three en caul births on camera. Little Matais arrived before Noah, and baby Laura came afterward, both en caul.

These photographs are as breathtaking as the babies featured in them and remind mothers around the world that our bodies were once someone's whole world. And now they are ours.

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Alexis Ohanian has made a lot of important decisions in his life. The decision to co-found Reddit is a pretty big one. So was marrying Serena Williams. But right up there with changing internet culture and making a commitment to his partner, the venture capitalist lists taking time off after his daughter's birth as a significant, life-changing choice.

"My understanding of showing up and being present for my wife was taken to a whole new level when Olympia was born. I was able to take 16 weeks of paid leave from Reddit, and it was one of the most important decisions I've made," Ohanian says in an essay for Glamour.

A nearly four-month parental leave is something too few American mothers, let alone fathers, get to take. Even when fathers work for companies that offer generous parental leave packages, they often don't use the benefit for fear of being sidelined or seen as uncommitted. A recent survey by Talking Talent found fathers typically use only 32% of the time available to them.

In his essay, Ohanian recognizes that he is privileged in a way most parents aren't.

"It helped that I was a founder and didn't have to worry about what people might say about my 'commitment' to the company, but it was incredible to be able to spend quality time with Olympia. And it was perhaps even more meaningful to be there for my wife and to adjust to this new life we created together—especially after all the complications she had during and after the birth," he explains.

(The GOAT's husband is making the same points that we at Motherly make all the time.)

He continues: "There is a lot of research about the benefits of taking leave, not only for the cognitive and emotional development of the child but for the couple. However, many fathers in this country are not afforded the privilege of parental leave. And even when they are, there is often a stigma that prevents them from doing so. I see taking leave as one of the most fundamental ways to 'show up' for your partner and your family, and I cherished all 16 weeks I was able to take."


By first taking his leave and then speaking out about the ways in which it benefited his family, Ohanian is using his privileged position to de-stigmatize fathers taking leave, and advocate for more robust parental leave policies for all parents, and his influence doesn't end there. He's trying to show the world that parents shouldn't have to cut off the parent part of themselves in order to be successful in their careers.

He says that when his parental leave finished he transitioned from being a full-time dad to a "business dad."

"I'm fortunate to be my own boss, which comes with the freedoms of doing things like bringing my daughter into the office, or working remotely from virtually anywhere Serena competes. My partners at Initialized are used to seeing Olympia jump on camera—along with her doll Qai Qai—or hearing her babbling on a call. I tell them with pride, 'Olympia's at work today!' And I'll post some photos on Instagram or Twitter so my followers can see it too," Ohanian explains.

"The more we normalize this, on social media and in real life, the better, because I know this kind of dynamic makes a lot of men uncomfortable (and selfishly I want Olympia to hear me talking about start-ups!)," he says.

This is the future of family-friendly work culture. Take it from a guy who created an entire internet culture.

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Trigger warning: Some of these responses describe a women's experiences with child loss.

Anxiety is one of those concepts you can never truly grasp until you face it yourself. And, each person's anxiety can announce itself in different ways—for some, it's postpartum anger, while for others, it's an overwhelming feeling of worry about a pregnancy. This can be especially prevalent if you're at high risk, concerned about telling your boss or undergoing medical issues. If you suffer from anxiety, know you're not alone in this mama. In fact, women are twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder than men.

These mamas shared how they manage and cope with their anxiety on Chairman Mom:

1. Hypnobirthing class

"I took a hynobirthing class at a nearby parents resource center—it was phenomenal. The class changed my emotional forecast for both the pregnancy and delivery. I uncovered a calm existence that lived dormant inside a very anxious body. For quick help at my fingertips, I love the Headspace app. My favorite quote pops up on the screen before I tap to complete a meditation 'Rather than the mind leading the breath, allow the breath to lead the mind. Keep glowing!'" —Jenny

2. Journaling

"It took my husband and I three years to have our IVF miracle baby after a devastating miscarriage last summer. I was wracked with anxiety for the entire duration of my pregnancy and it got worse as I got closer to his due date. The one thing that helped me was to journal. I wrote to the baby constantly about every step of the process and was very raw and real about the emotions I was experiencing each step of the way."—Anonymous

3. Set some ground rules

"[While I was on strict bedrest for 10 weeks] I tried to set ground rules for myself—I 'indulged' in worst case scenario/message board/Googling for exactly 30 minutes each day, and had to fill the rest of the bedrest time with other positive activities. I controlled for the factors I could, and just tried to chill out about everything else. Easier said than done, but I forced myself to breath deeply and try to limit the physical effects of my anxiety."—Milo

4. Therapy

"I feel like this could be my answer for many questions, but I say get to therapy. Anxiety can be a normal part of parenthood and it's a good idea to take the time before baby comes to build your tool kit and to feel like, even though it is full of unknowns, you have prepared your heart for the wild ride that is motherhood. I am an anxious person by nature, a worrier, a big feeler— learning that this is okay and that I can use it to my advantage has been empowering beyond measure. You are not alone and you will get through this. Hugs to you. If you are an "action person" and can't/won't get into therapy right now, this workbook has a lot of good, practical exercises."—Stratton

5. Reading this book

"I found a book called Finding Calm for the Expectant Mom useful. The major anxiety reducer for me during pregnancy was walking, because it was the only time I didn't feel sick early on and then later it was the only time the baby wasn't kicking me (which is supremely comforting and yet not). I found going with a mid-wife rather than a doctor helped alleviate a lot of anxiety. In Ontario (Canada) this is covered by OHIP (provincial health insurance). Midwives have way more time and patience. All appointments are booked for 30 minutes, so you never feel rushed."—Sian

6. Find a super knowledgeable OB

"I'm currently pregnant (second trimester) with two complications one of which can cause stillbirth. I found the best way to reduce anxiety was finding a super knowledgeable OB that I could talk to about treatments and milestones. Ask them about what kind of monitoring they'll do for you in the third trimester (NST/BPPs). Talk about contingency plans. I also found a doula that has been wonderful to talk with about the process of birth and the potential of NICU time and emergency c-sections (both not that uncommon with other women that have the same condition I do.) I whole heartedly recommend finding a therapist that you can talk with about your fears and anxieties. Look for ones who specialize in new moms. If there are any support groups for mamas with your high risk condition I also urge you to seek them out. Setting a limit for how much time you spend there is also extremely wise. And know that there are women who will experience loss in those groups. That doesn't mean you will." —Anonymous

7. Yoga, working out + meditation

"[After a miscarriage] what I've learned is that all that worrying didn't make a difference. It didn't make me feel any more prepared or okay once I lost the baby. And it limited how much I enjoyed those three months that I was pregnant. Next time I'm not going to read anything or Google anything or read any odds. I'm just going to take everyday as a gift. I know that's easier said than done. Yoga, working out, meditation. Being around people who don't know because then you can't talk about it or obsess about it. Warm baths, tea. Just be super super nice to yourself. Don't worry about what you should be eating or shouldn't be eating, etc."—Anonymous

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Having a new baby is incredibly hard. And beautiful and fulfilling and rewarding, of course—but definitely, definitely hard.

Especially the nights.

Watching the last rays of sunlight disappear would make my heart race. My 3-week-old baby didn't sleep for more than an hour and a half at a time and had zero regard for what time it was.

She was so tiny and helpless—and it was my responsibility to keep her safe and fed and healthy. For me, that was easier during the day. Because at night, it felt unfair knowing my husband and toddler were fast asleep a few rooms over.

The minute our newborn would wake, I would spring to action. Bottle, breast, pacing the floor, bouncing on an exercise ball, loud shushing into her tiny ear—I would do whatever it would take to get her to quiet down so she wouldn't wake the rest of the house.

The evenings also started to feel very isolating. It's hardly appropriate to call your mom or friend or sister at 1 a.m. when your baby starts spitting up a curdled milk mixture so hard it comes out of her nose. And even if I did call anyway, it wouldn't matter because they wouldn't answer because they'd be sleeping.

I was used to anticipating a lack of sleep each night, which was terrifying. I felt such dread knowing I would only get a collective two and a half hours of sleep before my toddler would wake up at 5:30 a.m, ready for his morning dance party.

Fear would strike me at night, too. An incapacitating, all-consuming fear that something might happen to my sweet baby girl while she was lying peacefully in her safe crib, in her baby-proofed nursery. I often wondered how I was even supposed to sleep with such intense worry on my mind.

I would stare for hours into the pitch black night, half of me thankful my baby was healthy, the other half of me terrified something would happen to her.

I'd feel irrational in the late hours of the night (or more likely, the wee, wee hours of the early morning) often reacting with full-on annoyance because as soon as she'd started to fall asleep I'd think, this is it—I can finally get some rest, only for her to wake up a few minutes later. I'd snap, "Seriously? All you do is eat!" at my tiny baby, which would automatically trigger intense guilt over what felt like such an uncontrolled emotional response.

"It gets better" and "sleep when the baby sleeps" are two sentiments I hope never to hear again in my life because—does it get better? Well, yes it does. Children don't usually turn into adults who only sleep for 90 minutes at a time. And sleeping when the baby sleeps sounds good in theory but it's impractical. Plus, neither statement helps at 3 a.m., TBH.

I went to extreme measures to quell my anxiety. I sent my husband to Walmart in the middle of a tropical depression to buy a rock 'n play. Then I sent him back when he returned with the version that didn't vibrate. I put a $300 Owlet monitor on a credit card. I used Amazon one-day shipping to obtain a copy of Dr. Harvey Karp's The Happiest Baby on the Block.

I eventually found there's no magic solution to aid in this season of parenting. It helps to find a community of women going through the same struggles. Prioritizing self-care and spending time connecting with your significant other are also healthy ways of dealing.

But I'm going to level with you—for the first three months of my baby's life, I didn't have time to seek out a support group, wash my hair or converse about one meaningful thing with my spouse.

I was in survival mode and the only thing that helped me was time passing and binge watching Downton Abbey.

And walks around the block. And coffee.

If you loved the newborn stage and came through it with fond memories—I applaud you.

If you gave it all you had and emerged on the other side with a baby who (mainly) sleeps through the night and is somewhat happy, most of the time—you deserve a standing ovation.

You managed to prevail in a time that required intense mental and physical stamina, and you nailed it. Great job, mama.

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