Jesper Juul is internationally acclaimed for his ground-breaking works in, among others, the fields of child psychology, family dynamics, the development of relational competencies and empathy in grown ups and children alike.
He is known and loved for his direct, unsentimental, fearless and rugged, but always warm and humorous style, both in writing and before a live audience.
He is a bestselling author of books like Your Competent Child and Pedagogical Relational Competence. He is the founder of the international network FamilyLab, and co-founder of The Danish Society For The Promotion Of Life Wisdom In Children. His voice has for several decades been ranked among the most important European specialists on issues concerning children and the modern society.
In this controversial article he addresses a theme that he states he has observed for many years, yet hesitated to write about: The existence of what he calls Significant Parents.
The article describes how, although both parents may love a child equally, and the child reciprocates this love equally, one of the parents may be more significant. This means that he or she holds a special position in the life of the child as the main role model, the main point of orientation for the child in relation to the outside world.
In his fascinating case descriptions, some of them rendered verbatim, Jesper Juul points out the probable crucial importance of this fact in divorce situations or other events in which the child may feel separated from the significant parent. The article unpacks how the knowledge of the existence of such a relationship, and the courage to point to it directly, can relieve pain and help make existential progression possible.
The Kontemplation community is honoured to publish this deeply important work for the first time.
A Connectedness Beyond Bonding
Essay by Jesper Juul
When one parent is more influential than the other – the intuitive contact
The following has been written because I have lost my normal voice and can no longer travel and teach as I used to. For many years I have been apprehensive about writing about it mainly due to my concerns that divorcing parents might use this phenomenon against each other and their children. I have very often given small lectures and had lengthy dialogues with parents and professionals on this subject, but for many reasons I always preferred to share it in an oral form. I felt more comfortable when I was able to take the time I and the groups needed, because I knew that it was a genuine surprise and revelation to many.
Another reason is that the idea of a special, existential connection between a child and one of its parents is without scientific basis – at least as far as I know. No scientists have been aware of the phenomenon or they have not found it important enough to study in depth.
All I have to offer is a lifetime as psychotherapist for individual adults, groups and families. It took me many years to overcome my own skepticism and I remember frequently reminding myself of the old saying, “When you have a hammer everything start looking like a nail!” in the process.
So my reason for writing this essay is not to convince you that I’m right. I have no need to for that. My motive is twofold: to inspire the reader to see her and himself and their children in a different light and to get the feedback and personal experiences, which they are willing to share with me. And, who knows, maybe even tickle a scientist or two?
Just a few hours ago I was counseling two parents on-line in relation to their concerns about their three-year-old daughter. The daughter was timid, did not really want to play with other children etc. Both parents had a tendency to overprotect their daughter and their genuine empathy had created a relationship, where the girl’s emotions and opinions were no longer merely a guide for her parents but an indisputable leader. This is a very common phenomenon in modern families and only when we know its composition in each family can we successfully show them a healthier path for all involved.
During our conversation it came up that the mother often felt uneasy around strangers and I asked if there was an especially close relationship between her and her daughter and suggested that this might be important in their attempts to care for her in a relevant way. The mother immediately dismissed my suggestion as “crap”. She understood my question as an attempt to blame her for her daughter’s difficulties. When I pointed out that this was not the issue – that she was not to blame for her daughter’s difficulties but on the contrary might be instrumental in helping the girl, she was able to reflect on the matter. In the end it made sense to both her and her husband and she recognized the potential for mutual personal growth hand in hand with the girl.
If I was right in this particular case, the mother has a much bigger potential for guiding and helping their daughter than the father. Hopefully the following will explain why. Up to this point the father had been protecting his wife in different ways. He has been compensating for her anxieties and taken over where she felt inadequate. Since this is his way of loving he is bound to repeat the pattern in relation to their daughter and in this way anxiety will be passed on as the only known coping mechanism.
If, on the other hand Mother realizes her superior role in facilitating her daughter’s development and is willing step out of her own comfort zone for her daughters sake, both of them will benefit and the father can make the switch from caring for and protecting “his girls” to enjoying them. This is albeit a very compromised version of what I aim to make clear in this essay – the huge potential of the intuitive contact, which exists between children and only one of their parents. Somebody else suggested the term “intuitive contact” and I’m uneasy with it – a little too much New age for me – but since I have not been able to come up with a more satisfying alternative I’ll use it for now.
The full, constructive power of the intuitive contact unfolds as soon as both parent and child recognizes it’s existence and especially when the other parent is able to support it. I have never met a young child or even a teenager who was not aware of it or recognized it immediately when described. Adults often need more time either because they are skeptical, doesn’t want to be “special” or emotionally overwhelmed. The latter is often the case in families where fathers have lived in the belief that his wife was “better around the children” as in example 2 below.
If the content of this essay makes sense for you as a private person and/or as a professional counselor or therapist it is my hope that you will continue to meet other people with an open, interested and emphatic mind. Do not attempt to define relationships between others but share your awareness with them and leave it to them to decide how to process it.
Emotional and intuitive contact
This is a simple graphic illustration of the phenomenon:
In both relationships there is generally speaking mutual love and a desire to be of value to the other. When I speak of love I refer to the love in their hearts and minds and not to the quality of what is going on between them. In this case the relationship between child and father is visually stronger because it is enriched with an intuitive contact, which has a very strong existential element. The father is a stronger, more influential role model in terms of the inner and outer behavior patterns the child will develop. It can just as well be the other way around with the mother as the designated parent.
Many adult children discover this only when their parents pass away. If the father was the designated parent it is sad when the mother dies and they mourn and miss her. When the father dies they feel completely alone in the world. “For better or worse he always accompanied me, but from now on I walk alone” as a daughter once said it.
I believe that one of the important reasons why so many of us discover this connectedness late in life or not at all is the dominating taboo that we should love all of our children in the same way and one as much as the other. Every day thousands of children all over the world are asking their parents, “Do you love my sister more than me? And, “Why do you love my brother more?” Many are hushed to silence and others sense the taboo and struggle with the mystery within themselves. The same is true for many parents who feel guilty because their connectedness with one child seems much stronger than with the other(s). Because they don’t have any other words for this experience they think of it as love.
A mother once reacted to my attempt to explain what the intuitive contact is with tears of relief.
“I have always felt so bad because I’m thinking of my own family as two families. I have kept my maiden name and my nine-year-old son and I form the Johnson family and my husband and our fourteen-year-old daughter are the Campbells. It is clear to me now what one of the differences is. When I ask my daughter to help me in the garden we often end op having a conflict because I have to tell her everything again and again. When my son is helping me he does everything right the first time and remembers it till the next time. Working with him is just so much easier.”
The most important thing to understand is that the intuitive contact has nothing to do with love. It does not belong in an emotional category and does not mean that this father loves his child more than the mother or his other children nor that the child loves her or his father more that the mother. There is no reason for jealousy although the other parent sometimes has good reasons to be envious.
Over the past few decades Developmental Psychology has discovered “Attachment” as a vital factor in the relationships between children and their parents and rightfully so. The intuitive contact seems to exist independently of the success of the attachment process during the first four-five years of a child’s life and co-existence with the parents. It has the potential of starting an attachment process at any point in time.
So if it’s not love and independent of attachment what is it then?
According to my experience and the stories told by hundreds, the most accurate description I can find is this (described from the child’s perspective):
An existential connectedness, through which the child learns how the parent is coping with life’s challenges and blessings and integrates these skills and patterns in its own being.
If this is all there is to it then nothing much is new. There is however more:
➢ When the parent is not available – i.e. dead, “never” at home or for other reasons not present in the child’s life – it is almost impossible for the other parent to become a role model and therefore the child grows up in an existential vacuum and a severely limited sense of self. One example is how deeply one child misses a parent after a divorce whereas it’s sibling just misses the parent it only gets to be with a weekend now and then. The first child has been deprived of an existential need and her sibling “only” of a loved one. The first child is unhappy, lost and lonely. The other child is basically OK and adapts to the new reality.
➢ No matter how much the child objects emotionally to parts of the parent’s behavior – violence and alcoholism for instance – it will most likely develop similar behavior – i.e. a different kind of aggressive/self-destructive behavior. Both symptoms are external manifestations of how the individual is coping with internal conflict and pain. If the parent decides to get help and learn new coping strategies, the child will benefit.
➢ Often the parent is either unaware of her or his own behavior patterns, cover them up, try to compensate or lie about them, which of course makes it extremely difficult for the child to feel good about itself. Another well-known strategy is that parents try to prevent their own behavior to “rub off” on the child and therefore promote and preach better ways – falsely assuming that existential development is a primarily cognitive process. This strategy places the child in a severe existential conflict and diminishes its ability to trust authorities.
➢ The learning and integration process rarely takes place in the form of the parents “teaching” It is more similar to “Osmosis” in the plant world. The best circumstances are a continuous contact within the same home. When this is not possible – due to divorce, parents travelling, work away home, city or country – it becomes difficult or even impossible for the child to learn and for the parent to enjoy.
➢ Important: No outsider – family, friend or therapist – can determine whether or not the intuitive contact is a fact in a given parent-child-constellation. It can be suggested by others but only confirmed by the adult and child in question.
How does it happen?
When is this special connection made and who is choosing it – child, parent or both?
The short answer is, that I have no idea. I have known examples, which are beyond belief and others, which seem completely straightforward. Over a period of 15 years I met many young and adult adoptees from different countries and many of them had the urge to go back and find their parents (most often mothers). Among those who managed to find their biological mothers there were around 50% who found it a very meaningful experience, which gave them an identity they had missed and a lifelong contact with their parents and their extended families. For the other half the experience was satisfying because they got many of their questions answered but the relationships never became close and meaningful in the same existential sense.
The adoptees in the first half always nodded eagerly when I talked about the intuitive contact whereas the second half did not recognize the phenomenon. Interestingly enough none of them were able to identify one of their adoptive parents as a significant one.
One possible conclusion is that there has to be a biological bond between parent and child.
Can we imagine that those adoptees, which were not experiencing any intuitive contact with their mothers had it with their fathers whom they never met?
I once met an eleven-year-old boy, who had been depressed (not merely sad or unhappy) for about a year. When his mother became pregnant with him the father immediately withdrew from the relationship and announced that he would never have any contact with or responsibility for the child. The mother had accepted this and never tried to contact him.
They boy had asked questions about his father when he was around 3, 6 and 9 yeas old and his mother had told him the truth and this had put his mind as ease. Now the boy was inconsolable and had lost his desire to live.
With the mothers permission I wrote a letter to the father explaining the situation and asked him to visit, call or write his son and personally confirm his position. The father decided to write and two days after reading the letter the boy was out of his depression. When I checked with them three years later the boy had established a very powerful relationship with his male soccer coach and was as happy as the next teenager. His mother had realized that there were limitations in her ability to help her son and was still struggling to come to terms with her choice to support the fathers position eleven years earlier.
It seems possible then that the intuitive contact – albeit not it’s benefits – can exist when there is no physical closeness and no interaction between parent and child.
I have experienced many other examples along similar lines, when I worked with groups of single mothers from the bottom of society over a period of ten years. In those days shared custody was not a possibility and 99% of the time mothers would have full custody of their children. Many of the fathers were more or less irresponsible, drank too much too often and had little sense of commitment to other people. Their children would not see or hear from them for months and suddenly they would call and insist to see the child. The would arrange a pick-up time and never show up or they would come, drive the child to their own mother or sister and go drinking.
Around half of the children in this painful situation would give up after a year or two and refuse future contact with their fathers. The other half would insist on keeping the contact in spite of pressure from their mothers, grandparents, siblings and social workers. These were also the children where the mothers always felt that no matter how hard they tried they were unable to influence their thinking and behavior. No matter how much professional support was given to these mothers and their children it would never really help. After a few days or weeks the mothers would feel helpless again and their children would be just as lonely and desperate as before the intervention. The costs in terms of self-esteem and self-confidence for both were very high.
I was often able to move things to a more constructive level by acknowledging the child’s experience and say, “I know that you miss your father and that is bad enough. But you also really NEED him and that is much worse, because it makes you feel really lonely and lost.” (Most children recognizes the difference between existential and social loneliness without further explanation)
More often than not the child would react immediately by crying and nodding and its tears would be tears of relief and thankfulness for the fact that somebody finally helped them with the relevant words, which they could not possibly have found in their own vocabulary.
“What can I do?” they and their mothers would ask. To the children I would say, “The best thing you can do is to realize what you already feel – that you are alone. You will have to find your own ways in life and be more responsible for yourself and your choices than any child should be. Your mother and other adults can guide you and give you suggestions, but they cannot be what your father should have been for you – and you can still make a very good life for yourself”
You might think that this is a lot of words for a three, six or ten-years-old, but they convey the right message, which children appreciate. They are not longing for intellectual understanding but for meaning and for the feeling of being “seen” rather than looked upon, observed and evaluated or judged for their behavior.
To the mothers, “I know how much you love your daughter/son and would love to help her/him, but you cannot do it in the same way as you can with your other child. You must try to live with the fact that in spite of your love and caring your child is lonely. He will accept your guidance and feedback if you give it to him in a clear and straightforward way, but if you put pressure on him or try to manipulate he will turn his back to you. You cannot have the kind of power, parents expect to have but if you respect that you can have a lot of influence.”
Many a mother cannot grasp the difference between power and influence but this message helps them discharge their guilt and gives them something, which they actually can do for their child and thus feel valuable for its life again. It often took time and lengthy dialogues before these mothers were able to restrain their instinctive desire to comfort the child or make reassuring and optimistic promises. For many of them this was their first encounter with the fact that not everything, which comes from loving intentions, feels like love.
We might never learn how, when and why this special relationship is established and maybe it is not so important. For me the importance has always lied in the fact that a mutual recognition of its nature has an unbelievable healing potential, which is far more powerful than any kind of professional therapy or pedagogical strategies and methods.
A family of three came to see me. They were: mother, teacher and a very warm, extrovert and lively woman; father, accountant, introvert and very sincere and responsible; daughter Elisabeth seven years old, pretty and with a sad face. The way they positioned themselves gave the first small hint of what turned out to be crucial. Mother sat alone in one small sofa, father and daughter in the other with app half a meter between them.
M: We have come to see you because Elisabeth has changed personality almost completely over the past two years. She used to be very cheerful, outgoing and humoristic and now she is depressed or maybe melancholy is a better word.
My first reaction was textbook routine:
J: I would like to know if anything happened around the time when you noticed this change?
M: Oh yes! First there was a terrible accident in her kindergarten. A little boy got strangulated and died on the slide, when his anorak got stuck on a bolt. Elisabeth was inside at the time and we have never been able to clarify if she saw something from the window.
E: I’m not really sure whether I saw something or we have been talking so much about it that I just imagine it. Now I never really think about it anymore.
M: The community provided the kindergarten with a crisis- psychologist. She told the parents of the children who were on the playground that they should only talk with their children about it if they asked questions. We were told not to talk about it, which we felt was wrong so we talked a lot with Elisabeth about it during the following weeks.
This happened in August and in September my mother got cancer. She came to stay with us and died within two months. In December my husband’s father died suddenly from a hearth attack, which was a chock to all of us. Especially to my husband because he was very close to his father.
J: Tell me Elisabeth, how was it for you when your grandmother died?
E: (with a smile) I was very happy that she stayed with us and very sad when she died.
J: And when your grandfather died?
E: (In tears and shaking) The most awful was that I never got to say good-bye to him.
Elisabeth moved close to her father and they were both crying for a while. Mother were watching them with a lot of love and sympathy.
J: Your story and what I have learned from observing all of you leave me with a big question. Very often I meet families, where sad and painful things are not talked about, so we talk about them and it helps everybody to move on. In your family, you (mother) have all the wisdom and tools to deal with this kind of things, and Elisabeth’s answers to my questions are relevant and healthy. So why has her joy of life left her soul?
M: Well I told my husband to take Elisabeth to the cemetery and say their farewells at his father’s grave because he has the same pain.
F: (embarrassed) Yes, but that’s not how I am.
J: He’s right. Your idea is a good one, but it is also a typical feminine as well as a common psychotherapeutic idea. A lot of psychotherapy is based on so-called feminine values, so it does not always work for everybody. How are you dealing with your grief?
F: My father and I were very close and we talked everyday on the phone. He was a lawyer and we mostly talked about professional issues. I miss him terribly and I’m ashamed to admit that I still talk with him several times during the day. (As he talked his daughter moved closer to him and her eyes were glued to his face and her ears grew to double size)
At this point I fetched my flipchart and explained about the intuitive connection. The whole family was very attentive and both Elisabeth and her mother were nodding from time to time.
It is my idea that this connection is between you (F) and Elisabeth and if that is true, it means that you hold the key to her vitality.
The mother laughed out loud and said,
M: Oh yes, you bet you are spot on. Since the minute she was born she never took her eyes off of him.
Elisabeth looked very happy and clung even more to her father who was subbing and covering his face with both hands. After a few minutes in silence he said,
F: I never thought about it. I feel in my hearth that it’s true when you say it, but I always had the idea that my wife is better with children.
J: She might very well be with children in general, but in relation to Elisabeth you are her most important role model.
F: But what can I do?
J: Whenever you tug her in at night take a few minutes to share your feelings about your father and what you have been talking to him about.
He looked at me with disbelief,
F: Is that really all?
Elisabeth sat so close to him and with her head in is armpit that he was unable to see her smile happily and nodding in agreement with me.
J: Yes, that’s all.
After a few more exchanges we finished the session and I never saw them again. Six months later I received a letter from the mother describing how Elisabeth had started on the path back to her old self the same day, they saw me and that she was now completely ok again.
In this case the profound commitment of all family members, their emotional maturity as well as intellectual flexibility, was very helpful. In other families it sometimes takes a few sessions before one or both parents can distinguish between mutual love and the intuitive contact. As long as they are stuck with this they are self-centered and unable to mobilize their empathy.
Sometimes when fathers are the significant parent, mothers get stuck in feeling that it is “unfair”, because they always took care of the child almost singlehandedly and have been holding a grudge against their husbands for a long time. Sometimes even to the point where they question the love of these fathers towards their children. I have however also met fathers who grabbed the possibility to justify their absence when it became clear that their wives had the intuitive connection to a particular child. There are as many different reactions as you can imagine including maybe the most painful, where a child experiences the special connection to a parent who refuses to recognize his or her importance.