The Chedva Beat: A rebellious child can be challenging for any parent. What can be done to improve such a relationship?
Shoshana: First we have to define what rebellious means. When we say a child is rebellious, we usually think of him as rejecting the teachings and values of his parents. This child does not listen and defies and even mocks his parents. Sometimes he will do the opposite of what his parents expect of him. He might even be quite aggressive and verbally attack. In extreme cases, he might attack physically. If this is the rebellion we are speaking of, then the only way to help this child is to rebuild the relationship with him, because the very cause of this situation is that the child has backed out of the relationship. This is a painful process because the parents must be able to accept a great deal of hurtful behavior from their child until they win back his heart. There is no “one size fits all” answer to how the relationship can be improved or rebuilt. First, the parents must gain insight into what led their child into this situation. Secondly, there has to be a yearning for restoring the relationship and for helping the child return to the normal path of development. This is the work of the heart; it is very intuitive. The parents need to find the way to soften their child’s heart which has become defended from accessing any vulnerable feelings that are involved in being in a true relationship.
“Defendedness” is a term that is used to describe the mechanism our brains are equipped with to protect us from too much pain. When being in a relationship is painful, the brain reverses the instinct to seek closeness and contact. Thus in the case of a “rebellious” child, he would no longer experience feelings of vulnerability and would automatically resist his parents. This is why parents must then make it as easy and safe as possible for their child to come close to them again. As I mentioned previously, they must accept the hurtful behavior of their child. It’s important to remember that the child has not consciously chosen to back away from his parents. He is not choosing to hurt them. This is a mechanism of the brain’s defense system when a child experiences too many alarming feelings of separation from his parents.
There is a second kind of benign behavior which is often described as rebelliousness. This behavior takes the form of not listening, resisting a parent’s direction, or wanting to do the opposite. Even two-year-olds behave this way. This is called counterwill, a dynamic which exists in all of us when we counter the will of others. No one likes to feel forced to do something. Any perception of being forced to do something against our will raises counterwill, a natural force of nature. Counterwill in children of all ages serves the development of the child because it helps him find his own will, direction, goals, desires, preferences and priorities in life. This is different from the kind of rebellion that I described earlier when the child’s instincts to be close to his parents go into reverse. Here we are talking about a child who still has his soft heart and is heading in a positive direction in life. There is a way to work with this dynamic within the relationship such that the counterwill can be avoided. Dr. Neufeld designed a 4-hour course, Making Sense of Counterwill, to explain this misunderstood dynamic of parent-child relationships.