Text Jesper Juul 2015
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:
- Ø 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.
- Ø 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.
- Ø 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.
Ø 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.
Ø 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.
Many families have experienced how differently their children have reacted to a divorce and the fact that they were suddenly deprived of the possibility to be with one of their parents full-time. Out of three children two are missing their mother or father on an emotional level. They are mourning their loss over a couple of years and often miss the absent parent. Their lives and psychosocial development continues on a natural and healthy path apart from a dive in school performance, which mostly lasts app. a year. For the third child – who has the intuitive contact – the separation is almost unbearable – emotionally as well as existentially. They are often sad or melancholy (frequently misdiagnosed as “depression”) and tend to withdraw or react aggressively, when the parent in charge tries to comfort or convince them that everything is going to be okay.
Charlotte is fourteen and I meet with her and her mother as a part of a television series about youngsters who are having difficulties living up to the expectations from schools, parents and various social programs and institutions as well as their own (often secret) desire to learn. My role is to help each family discover what they can do to help their child.
C: I should probably tell you that I’m in the process of being diagnosed with ADHD. J: And why is that?
C: Because I have been unable to concentrate on my schoolwork and homework for almost three years now.
J: What happened in your life back then?
M: Her father and I divorced because he found a new woman.
C: I visit him every second weekend, but I don’t really enjoy it. His new wife decides everything and she insists that my father and I cannot do things on our own. It always have to everybody – she has two small children – or not at all.
Charlotte was visibly in pain when she talked about her time with her father’s new family. She cried silently for a few minutes.
C: I don’t really know why I’m still so sad. I know that mom and dad are never going to live together again and it’s three years ago….I should have moved on.
J: (I told her very shortly about the intuitive contact) I think you have this kind of relation to your father, so you are not only missing him, you need him and you need time alone with him.
Charlotte burst into tears, her upper body collapsed onto the table and for a while she was crying her heart out. She then looked up with a completely changed facial expression and said,
C: Tell the producer that I want a copy of this session to show my Dad!! Thank you for telling me this, I think I can learn now.
The last two weeks of the learning program proved her right. She was able to focus and her short- term memory worked again. She had been stuck in her mourning-process because she did not realize what she had lost. Like so many other kids with one of the modern diagnosis she was just traumatized and in need of being recognized as such.
Charlotte had a submissive father, who was completely unaware of her need for him. A stepmother who were nor really interested, a very loving and caring mother, who felt utterly
helpless and teachers who were unable to see the bigger picture. More and more professional adults were ganging up on her with plenty of good intentions, but everybody got stuck on the emotional level (I miss my Dad) and thus could not be helpful. This happens to more and more children and adolescents: when nothing of what we do to help is helpful, we react by doing more of the same and label the child as not motivated instead of confronting our own limitations.
William was nine years old and two minutes from being expelled from school because of his defiant and aggressive behavior towards his teachers. The fact that his school was the only one within miles was a huge problem for his mother, who was a single, divorced mother with three other children to care for as well.
Since their parents divorced two years earlier, William and two of his sisters had been travelling (800 km) to visit their father for a weekend twice a year. The father had a new family with two of his wife’s children and a one-year old common child. The father was described to me as a stern, hardworking man with strict principles and little flexibility. One of these was, that there should not be any difference made between his biological children and his stepchildren. They should all be treated equally.
As his mother, sisters and I were talking, William walked back and forth in the other end of the room like a lion in a cage. Sometimes cursing and hammering a piece of chalk into a blackboard. He had refused my invitation to join us from the beginning.
M: Two months ago William refused to visit his father although I know that he misses him. He claims that he will never go again. I don’t know how to make sense of his behavior any more.
J: I have an idea. (I then started to explain about the intuitive contact and why I believed that William had it with his father. William stood still in a corner and listened intensively.)
I think that William refuses to visit his father because he does not want to treat his children differently, but since their relationship is special is does not make sense for William to spend time
with his father. (When I finished that sentence William pulled up a chair and joined us and I knew that my fantasy was a fact.)
I asked the mother if she felt comfortable explaining this to her ex-husband, which she did not. Since there was a telephone in the room I offered to call the father. It took only a few sentences before the father began to sub.
F: I know what you are trying to say. I guess I always knew but I was too stubborn to admit it to myself. I wanted to be fair to my children and ended up being unfair to William. I would like to talk to him now, if it’s ok with him.
The local school psychologist had witnessed the session and with his support, William was able to go back to school and later got a whole week alone with his father fishing in the mountains. His sisters were more than happy to oblige. Their personal puzzles had also become a little more complete.
Williams mother was able to enjoy this revelation right away. Like so many other mums and dads,
she always knew but never spoke about it. Williams father with all his strict principles and strong male-attitudes appeared to his son as a strong and powerful man who did not take any nonsense from anybody. His softer and warmer sides had been hidden from his families and maybe even from himself. William’s pain manifested itself in a very “macho” behavior, because he had not (yet) had access to other ways of dealing with his emotions and experiences. His mother represented all the all the constructive alternatives, but William was not able to utilize them for his own being.
This session was a demonstration within a seminar for professionals and they spend the rest of the day reminiscing and discovering the patterns in their own families of origin as well the present ones. A gift from a courageous nine-year old who was brave enough to fight for his most urgent need and risk social exclusion.
Williams mother asked a very crucial question at the end of the session: Would it be better for William to live with his father? My answer was far from being clear:
- – If his father did not sense or recognize their special contact, I’m not sure it would make a lot of difference in terms of helping Williams problems with adapting to school and relating to authorities. Fathers like his have an unfortunate tendency to respond to problems with blaming, lecturing, setting “boundaries” and installing consequences, which are making things worse and the children more lonely and alone.
- – In a longer perspective it would most likely be better for him, simply because he would be able to integrate more of his fathers inner and outer behavior than he would otherwise be. Two weekends per year is very far from enough and even one weekend per month plus two weeks of holidays is often more frustrating than helpful for all parties involved.Many children feel this urgent need to live with the designated parents, which they are not legally allowed to live with. In the Scandinavian countries where more and more children from divorced families live half the time with one parent and half with the other, we often meet children around 11, 12, 13 who ask permission for a different solution, where they get to spend most of the time with the parent with whom they feel a special connection.Very few of these children can verbalize their desire to change the agreed state of affairs. In cases where one or both parents are solely focused on their parental “right” to a certain percentage of their child’s life and attention, children are in serious existential trouble. The girls still tend to become submissive, introvert and depressive and the boys develop psychosocial difficulties, which upsets the adult world. Both genders describe feelings of emptiness and a lack of meaning in their lives.Example 5Thomas is eight years old and his teacher is getting increasingly worried about his well-being. He has longer periods where he is quit and withdrawn and because his teachers treat him with compassion and respect, he has no difficulty sharing his thoughts and feelings with them. The statement was always the same: I miss my father and I wish he would come back to us.Two years ago his parents divorced on the fathers initiative. His mother felt betrayed and was still living in denial – believing that her husband would come to his senses and return to his family. After 16 months Thomas’ father moved to another continent and planned to return for a few long visits every year. During their marriage he had allowed his wife to monopolize the parenting
process and had taken refuge from her constant criticism. Consequently he distanced himself from his son as well.
I was asked to consult with Thomas’ teacher and suggested that mother and son should be present. During our conversation I became more and more convinced that there was an intuitive contact between son and father. I did not want to create any more animosity on the mothers side, so I did not talk about my idea/phantasy, but asked permission to contact the father.
During a Skype Conference with the father I managed to make him aware of the nature of their relationship and he responded by regretting the fact that he had withdrawn and by realizing his own loss for the first time. We agreed that he should come back and share this with Thomas and establish the best contact possible under the given circumstances.
These dialogues between father and son turned out to be very constructive and two years later the situation is, that they spend minimum 2 x 1 month together. Thomas is feeling and doing much better, but is still sad weeks before his father’s arrival and weeks after. He is now old enough to use Skype and they often meet in this way.
The mutual realization of the special relationship between son and father has been a big relief for both of them, and Thomas’ mother collaborates as much a she can. My guess is that Thomas will try to move to his fathers in a few years.
Lisa is a five-year old girl living with her father. Her parents divorced when she was two and her mother has been struggling with a mental disorder for many years. She is heavily medicated and every now and then she commits herself to a psychiatric hospital for a few weeks. She loves her daughter to pieces but always knew that if she should live as a single mom, she would fail as a mother .
Unfortunately the majority of professionals involved with the mother have recommended, that Lisa does not spend a lot of time with her mother and does not stay over night. Lisa’s father actually disagrees intuitively (!), but find it difficult to go up against the more eloquent “experts”. Lisa’s signals are very similar to Thomas’ and even her kindergarten teachers recommend a minimum of contact with the mother, because they notice her unhappiness, when she has spend time with her. They fail to recognize it as a healthy reaction to the separation.
In this case the father asked me to step in by, and I chose to invite both parents, Lisa, three grandparents, Mothers social worker and the leader of the kindergarten. I started our meeting by giving a fifteen-minute orientation about the possible existence of an intuitive connection between a child and one of its parents.
Lisa was all ears and looked more and more happy and finally moved over at sat on her mother’s lab.
Father had tears in his eyes and stated how he had always felt “inadequate” or “not enough” as a parent.
His mother said that she had always known this and that her son had this contact with her.
Lisa’s mother was smiling and crying simultaneously. Smiling because she felt of validated as a mother for the first time and crying because she was afraid of the negative influence she might have.
F: does this mean that Lisa can spend more time with her mother?
J: Lisa can spend as much time with her mother as both of them can manage, but for many years to come she will need you to balance her mothers influence and to provide her with experiences, which her mother is unable to give her. Your ex-wife has a lot of empathy and wisdom and some severe limitations. Her wisdom will prevent her from harming Lisa.
L: Papa, I know that Mama is not well.
Lisa’s last statement proved that she had inherited her mother’s wisdom and it seemed an appropriate moment to end the session.
I had a few talks with Lisa and her father during the following months and the good news was, that her whole network was now trying their best to support her instead of demonizing her mother. They had all sensed the significance of the relationship but failed to recognize its nature and potential.
As I have already pointed out the identification and acceptance of the intuitive contact can make an enormous difference especially for single parents or parents who live with their children part- time. Sometimes when a child, an adolescent and even an adult child is having trouble with social behavior, adjustment to school, learning difficulties, loneliness, drugs, the law, studies etc. one parent gets intensively and wholeheartedly involved in various attempts to help and support. But no matter how dedicated the parent is it simply does not help. In fact it is sometimes counter- productive and becomes a risk for the very relationship between parent and child. Either because both of them feel more and more failures or because the parent is putting all the blame on the child. Very often the many attempts to be of value to the child threatens the parents new relationship with another adult as well.
When this happens soon after a destructive divorce process, where both parents have abused a child as a weapon in their power struggle, two phenomenon occur. One as a result of the child’s grief and difficulties adjusting to the new situation (two homes etc.). The sign is, that it takes the child a day or two to find its balance after each shift. This imbalance is not recognized by the parents for what it is but merely interpreted as proof that the child is feeling terrible with the antagonist. The other occurs when a child lives most of the time with one parent in a more or less dysfunctional relationship, which (along with missing the significant parent) causes it to “misbehave” at home, outside or both. Teachers, psychologists, social welfare agents are often not recognizing the nature of the relationship and the child is defined as the problem. We must never forget that the child loves both parents and feels equally loyal and responsible for their well being.
How to recognize and identify the intuitive contact.
Whenever a phenomenon like “intuitive contact”, which many people recognize and find interesting, occurs two things tend to happen:
- – One is that laymen as well as professionals ask for a general signs, which might “prove” the existence of (in this case) the intuitive contact.
- – The other is the search for an answer to the question “why” is it like that? Is there a purpose or a meaning and if I don’t recognize it in my own family, does that mean that we are “wrong”?The first question is easy for me to answer: I have never come across any objective signs. Even when I describe the intuitive contact to a family and the two people involved recognizes it and are able to utilize it, this is still a very subjective experience and the fact that it is shared by 2,3 or 5 people close to them does not make it an objective truth. My tendency is to trust peoples own perception no matter if it confirms my experience or not.I’m pointing this out because we live in a time where everything must be based on evidence in order to be taken seriously. This demand almost excludes experience as a source of “knowledge”, which in my opinion is a sign of intellectual and spiritual poverty, but so be it. And again that might just be a convenient standpoint from a non-scientist?A feasible first step in your own investigation is to reflect on your connectedness to each of your own parents. How did the saying go in your family: “You are the spitting image of your mother/father”, “You have your fathers looks and your mothers soul”? This might very well be true and the next step is to contemplate on the emotional state of this relationship. Was/is there a steady flow of emotional exchange between the two of you, or is this more true in your relationship with the other parent? Or look at your immediate family. Who is connected to whom and how does it manifest itself in words, body language, behavior etc.? Beware of the difference between having the
intuitive contact and being branded as “Daddy’s princess”, “Mamma-boy”. These definitions are often misleading and have their own intriguing phenomenology.
Beware also that actual contact in the form of verbal exchange, physical closeness and outspoken interest – or lack of the same – from the parent is of minor importance. For many children the phenomenon of “absent fathers” has meant living in a life-long existential void often accompanied by severe emotional issues in close relationships. Regardless of age and gender the awareness of what was really missing often helps people to stand on more solid ground and explore the possibility of finding alternative role models. In order to be successful this must be a personal choice as opposed to being staged by others.
My best advice is to trust your intuition, gut-feeling and your observations. When a combination of those leads you to assume that the intuitive contact between two people does exist and plays an important role in their lives, personal issues and interpersonal conflicts – just tell them and see how they react. Never try to convince any of them! That will merely feed your own ego.
If you are a parent and your child is 2-3 years old or more, you should also ask, “I often feel that I have a special connection to you. Do you feel something like that too?”
No matter what the answer/reaction is you can tell the child a little about your own experience and thoughts and maybe also, which of your own parents you were connected to in this way. Make it short and leave it to simmer. If you feel that the special connection is between your partner and your child, talk only with your partner about it! (The only exception from this rule is if the other parent is dead or has broken all contact with the child.)
The second question – why it is like that – I’m not able to answer and to be honest, I’m not so interested. We have all kinds of role models when we grow up. Some are important and leave life- long imprints, others are intense and short and of a more social nature, so it is only natural that we also have existential ones. Don’t worry if you do not recognize latter within your own family.
Personally I had this connection with my father, but it was only “active” about five minutes when I was seventeen and again a short moment minutes before he died. My own son had it with his mother and they both enjoyed it. He has it with his son and they are both aware of it.
What is a role model supposed to do?
However we look at it, all parents serve as role models for all their children. The reason is children’s desire and ability to cooperate, which I have described in a few books over the years (jesperjuul.com). It basically means that children are copying the inner and outer behavior of both parents, but not 50% from one and 50% from the other. A complex host of factors are involved, such as attachment/emotional closeness, the emotional, physical and mental availability of each parent etc.
Learning from a role model often includes striving for the opposite. My father was an artist at heart, but conservative parents and a dominating wife made him give up his painting soon after he and my mother married. I did the opposite in the sense that I never gave in to any direct attempts to push or manipulate me but steered my own course in life and yet every day I had to struggle with a faint shadow of submissiveness. My father was a very accurate man with a sometimes ridiculous obsession with details – and so am I. I can rise above this personality trait intellectually but never get rid of it.
In todays world where most children spend very little time (compared to what they would like) with their parents and therefore have limited possibilities to acquire the necessary life skills and wisdom through “Osmosis”, observing and experience. Parents and professional pedagogues are trying to substitute this organic learning process by using methods and strategies but with less than convincing results. Worst of all the adults tend to believe more and more in lecturing and preaching to their children and this never worked. Not even in the “good old days”. In this way children will at best learn how to behave but not how to be.
Since children’s need for parents as role models has not changed with the development of society, many children never get the possibility to build an inner foundation – be is more or less solid. As teenagers, young adults and adults we can have valuable role models outside our family, but as children we need adults with whom we have a love-based relationship. Sometimes – but rarely – this can happen with a stepparent, aunt or uncle, grandparent or a foster parent.
In this context it might be very important for parents and others to be aware of the intuitive contact. It will certainly help their children and it will also specify what the significant parent can do and should refrain from doing instead of the more general advice “spend time with your child”.
Five-year old Suzan got involved in too many conflicts in kindergarten. Her younger sister went to the same kindergarten and never got in trouble. For a while it helped to attach a male teacher to Suzan’s group but as soon as he was off duty the old pattern surfaced. The teachers felt that S’s behavior might be related to a problem within her family and the parents agreed to consult with me. Unfortunately they did not bring the two girls to our first session but two things became clear to me during our conversation:
- – The family was under stress because the man and father worked so far from home, that he had to live away from home five days a week. This was a time of high unemployment so he did not really have a choice. He missed his family and felt guilty towards his wife and daughters. As far as S’s behavior problem was concerned the parents had the same theory as the teachers: Suzan was missing her father.
- – During our meeting I was wondering if Suzan and her father had an intuitive connection because just missing a parent emotionally should not create such a disturbing change of behavior. Especially since their relationship was close and enjoyable for both of them.Their second session included the two girls and it was obvious that there was a special bond between Suzan and her father, which everybody agreed to, when I suggested it. It turned out, that the fathers “mistake” was a simple and very loving one: he simply wanted to divide his time and attention equally between the girls when he was at home during weekends.
Every Saturday morning he would go to the petrol station to service and wash his car. Most mornings the girls were playing and he went alone thinking that is was better for them to play. I asked him to do test where he took the youngest one morning and the oldest the following Saturday. The result was as expected. The little one got bored after fifteen minutes and wanted to go back home. Suzan had the opposite reaction. She was all eyes and ears and absorbed all her father’s jokes and stories, which he exchanged with the other men in the line. She enjoyed a deeply meaningful hour with her most needed role model.
Once the father was able to see and recognize their special connection Suzan’s behavior outside their home changed back to normal. I have no doubt that Suzan would have preferred to have her father available every day of the week, but there was a look in his eyes now (his wife pointed out) when he looked at her, which made her feel connected and seen and this in turn restored her balance.
Our common history is full of “absent” parents. Not only absent fathers who were always working or resting, but also mothers and fathers who had withdrawn into depressive states, drank too much and too often, suffered from various undiagnosed or unrecognized mental disorders. Since the Middle Ages the wealthy, nobility and royalty have left the majority of contact with and care for their children to strangers – wet-nurses, governesses, boarding schools etc.
After World War 2 millions of children have been without fathers because these had to live and work in another country in order to take care of their families economically. Many of their children were not only lonely and separated from the designated parents but also living in extended families where their fathers were idealized heroes. The past few decades we are often meeting very troubled children and youth among emigrants, refugees and displaced people as well as among unaccompanied refugee children. We cannot reunite them with their absent or deceased parents nor make constructive role models out of their traumatized and victimized parents. These children have no existential anchor and rarely a meaningful cultural base and thus their status as social outcasts becomes the only identity.
The current problem for small children is often a deep frustration over the mixed signals they get from their parents, who are verbalizing their love and adoration all the time and are simultaneously
preoccupied with smartphones, tablets etc. A similar frustration and insecurity derives from parents who are frequently using Marihuana and Hash or drinking too much. They are in the vicinity but not present and thus not available for what their children need the most: to be seen, heard abd taken seriously. This is much more difficult for children to cope with than physical absence due to work, travel and divorce.
The most valuable thing a significant parent can do is not really to play with or entertain the child but rather to invite the child into her or his own life – chaws, hobby, work, pleasure – i.e. everything, which gives joy and meaning to the parent’s life. So,
If you like walking in the forest, talk about why and what you experience. Answer all your child’s questions, but do not teach biology.
If you love to bake go in the kitchen and begin. Talk about your passion for baking and do not make special arrangements for the child, just let it participate or watch you however it wants. For your child you and who you are is more interesting than baking.
If you enjoy going to the stadium and watch soccer, bring your child and share your experience. If you are passionate about art, take your child to museums and galleries.
If you love to spend time with an elderly relative, bring your child along.
The essence is to make it possible for your child to discover how you think and feel, what your passions and fears are as well as your talents and shortcomings. Don’t try to be “child-friendly” and ask it what it feels like doing all the time. Tell you child what you feel like and that you want her or him to tag along. As long as you do this, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing things according to the child’s wishes and desires as well.
Now it gets difficult! As your child grows up and matures you will see behavior, which you recognize from your self and know does not serve your best interests. When this happens, find a quiet moment to share your thoughts and experiences and trust your child to do the best it can to
avoid your mistakes. The more franticly you try to prevent your child from making the same mistakes as you once made, the more you pave the way for exactly that to happen.
When you see your child behave in a way, which makes you angry, annoyed, sad or scared take a good look at yourself in the mirror before you rush into action. There is not much, which hurts and confuses a child more than being criticized for being like his parent.
If you want to avoid this, some of these things will force you to change your own ways and patterns and that is after all maybe the most valuable example to set for a child.
Living with and raising children inspires, motivates and sometimes forces parents to change their ways and values. When most successful the same is true for close, love-based relationships with another adult. The challenges and rewards of both make us grow and mature as human beings. I knew a mother with a very troubled son who for her 50’Th birthday wore a t-shirt with this inscription: I’m 50 and my son raised me well! This mutual influence and inspiration has always been a fact of family life but it is only fifty years we began to take it into account. Until then childrearing and education was generally considered a one-way street where wisdom and insights flew from parents to children and never the opposite direction.
As mentioned above, the significant parent, who is unaware of her/his importance in the child’s life, will often have more destructive confrontations with the child. This happens partly because of the child’s longing for the parent’s recognition and validation of their special bond and partly because of the frustration and desperation, which follows when this does not happen. Some children will keep a low profile hoping that the parent will make a move and other children will bang on the door. Old-fashioned psychology would label their behavior as “attention-seeking” which it is not. The child is not trying to draw attention to itself but to the quality of contact, which is missing. For children this is a primary existential need with the potential of becoming an existential challenge for the significant parents. A challenge, which she or he is often innocently ignorant about.
Often these parents are equally frustrated and doubting their own value as parents and tend to react by turning up the volume of their attempts to act like what they believe is good and responsible parents. This is what we all do – regardless of age – when we don’t feel of value in a
relationship. The more this happens the more distance is created and the lonelier both of them become.
The rewards on the other hand are numerous. The term “quality time” has become increasingly popular, as parents have begun to spend more and more time at work. In my opinion the general understanding of the term is self-contradictory as long as it means time spend with children on their terms. This just adds yet another entertainer to the lives of children. If we want to use the term at all, it is important to realize that there are only “quality moments” – i.e. brief moments of deep contact and mutual understanding – often silent.
In order to experience these moments, parents must cultivate the soil. In this respect there is no difference between the two parents – or grandparents, friends a.m. There are in fact an infinite number of possible situations and activities to chose from and there are two important phenomenon, which parents must bring on the table: He or she must enjoy the activity or lack of such and be aware that being together is more important than the activity itself. Children know this instinctively and often invite their parents by suggesting mutual. They only become demanding when their need for closeness is not being met.
Here are some possibilities: Read aloud or read together; create a collection of the child’s treasures; look at old family photos; sit on the beach, by the lake or river; sing and play music; find a reason to celebrate; look at the stars or the rain; cook and bake; go fishing; play cards; visit the significant locations from your own childhood. Whatever you do, do it primarily for the enjoyment of the moment. Any kind of educational agenda or objective will spoil it. Your child will learn about the world, mathematics and all that from others but only with you can he learn about you.
Adult couples sometimes enjoy a similar experience, when they suddenly have unstructured and unplanned time together. When everything on the agenda has been talked about, a comfortable silence follows and each of them begins to say things, which they never even knew, they were thinking. This kind of presence and closeness is equally meaningful to all love-relationships between adults as it is to the relationship between parents and children.
Preparing the ground for these moments between a child and one or both parents is the responsibility of the parent(s) and especially for the significant parent it is important to demonstrate initiative and leadership. So asking, “Would you like to go fishing with me?” is not such a good
idea, simply because the parent is hiding her or his own feelings and desires behind the question. It is much more productive to say, “I feel like going fishing tomorrow and I would like you to come too”. In other words: say what you want and pay attention to the child’s reaction.
When the special contact is recognized there is another kind of “quality time”, which is when the parent includes the child in her or his own world, whether it is thoughts, personal experiences, favorite activity or dreams in life. It could also be taking the child to the carwash, visiting your own family, invite it to spend time with you at work or helping you when you paint the house or work in the garden. This is the ultimate way for a child to get to know its parents, whether or not there is an intuitive contact.
As a significant parent your huge potential for supporting and helping your child through rough patches in life is not only valuable for your child and your family, it is also a very privileged position where you can enjoy and grow from the ultimate experience of being of value as one human being to another.
When parents divorce
My main reason for not writing about the intuitive contact has always been my fear that parents might use it against each other and their children as part of the divorce process. Some parents tend to forget that what they are doing in order to hurt each other always hurts their children as well. Some divorces get so mean and ugly that the parents – in my professional opinion – should be denied the privilege of living with their children until the can behave civilized. Others are just messy for a while and most are okay in the sense that parents are mature enough to avoid fighting about the children and able to come to reasonable decisions based on the best interests of the children. For this majority of parents the awareness and recognition of the intuitive connection can become a very constructive element in everybody’s future.
Sometimes parents need the help of their child in order to become aware. They make the best possible decision about the child’s future living conditions and contact with each parent and talk it over with the child. Loosing their family, as they have always known it is painful for children regardless of age and they must go through a grieving process, which for most children is characterized by alternating periods of sadness and low energy and periods of balance and energy.
It happens fairly often that a child becomes more permanently sad and looses its former vitality. Getting behind those obvious reactions to what is really going on can be almost impossible for parents because children come to their own conclusions about which kind of cooperation and loyalty the new family situation demands from them. These conclusions are far from always correct but they are what they are and they change only slowly, because they simply define for the child itself how it can be most valuable to each parent and the whole family situation including the well- being of siblings.
Sometimes this reduced vitality is accompanied by outspoken desires or complaints like, “Why cant I live with my mother/father all the time?” or “I don’t want to visit my father so often because his new girlfriend dislikes me.”
It takes a lot of moral integrity and empathy to ask your own child (living with you most of the time) if it would prefer to live with your ex-partner and the child’s answer is not always easy to interpret, but the invitation to verbalize is in itself a relief for the child. A door is now ajar and the child is free to open it if need be.
In my experience it is very difficult for many children over five to get what they need from the significant parent on a part time basis. It seems to be easier for children when parents have decided for a 50/50 and even 40/60 settlement when they were between one and five years old. I could very well be wrong about this because I don’t have enough statements from adult children, who have grown up under these circumstances.
The important question is of course, what significant parents and their children can do when circumstances does not allow a continuous flow of input between them. At this point in time I know very little about how the use of Skype, Social Media, Chat etc. might help.
According to my experience the best thing to do is to be open and share the thoughts and feelings related to this unfulfilled need for sharing the same space and breathing the same air. When the other parent who is living with the child on a daily basis is willing to recognize and sympathize with the child’s feelings of longing, emptiness and frustration it is a big comfort for the child. It can now be allowed to have those emotions and share them without feeling disloyal.
As Charlotte in Example 3 proved by her fast recovery it’s a lot easier to deal with a loss when we know what we have lost. The sharing of thoughts and feelings, which I recommend, does in no way compensate for the loss and the pain, but it sets the child free to seek meaningful connections with other adults. It also frees the child from the burden of feeling different and maybe even “sick” because many of its friends whose parents also divorced seem to cope much better.
We never knew
In my experience most people over forty or thereabouts have grown up without a mutual realization of the special connection with their mother or father. I did and survived. Without any conscious deliberation I managed to connect in very meaningful and mutually beneficial ways with four very different men, who were twenty – thirty years my seniors. I never thought of them as “substitute fathers” as Sigmund Freud might have said. They were teachers, friends and adversaries in their own right and from each of them I was able to pick valuable material for the foundation under my own life. They were real role models in the sense that I got to experience them at their best as well as their worst. Compared to the optimal scenario this meant a thirty years delay and that is okay with me.
Over the years I have worked and talked with many adults who have suddenly realized what was missing and what they had been yearning for all their lives. After a good cry most of them were able to point out several very creative, wise and helpful choices they had made in terms of friends, teachers, spouses and careers. For some the most revealing realization was the fact that they had been able to find the closeness and profound inspiration in relationship with their own children.
My conclusion is that no matter how valuable it is when parent and child are both aware of and able to utilize the intuitive contact, it is fully possible for the child to create a good life without this mutual recognition. At this point I don’t know enough about how the same phenomenon affects the quality of life for the mothers and fathers.
Text Jesper Juul 2015