Jung on the Problem Child

Jung on the Problem Child


“… the things which have the most powerful effect upon children do not come from the conscious state of the parents but from their unconscious background.”[1]

                                                                                                C.G. Jung, 1927

“It is of course not possible for parents to have no complexes at all. That would be superhuman. But they should at least come to terms with them consciously; they should make it a duty to work out their inner difficulties for the sake of the children.”[2]

                                                                                                C.G. Jung, 1924

“If there is anything that we wish to change in our children, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.”[3]

                                                                                                C.G. June, 1932


            This essay derives from a student-generated Jungian Center course on parenting from a Jungian perspective. While that course included multiple topics,[4] this essay focuses on just one: the child with problems. We will consider this topic in several ways. First, we will examine Jung’s image of the child—how he regarded the child, the qualities and opinions he had about children, and the archetype of the child. Then we will consider the 5 main types of children with difficulties that Jung recognized, including discussion of some definitions of terms he used to describe these types of children. Third, we will discuss the factors Jung felt have to be considered when dealing with a disturbed child. Finally we will review some key principles Jung offered for handling children with problems.


Jung’s Image of the Child


            We begin with Jung’s image of the child because it differs rather starkly from  conventional American thinking, which owes much to Locke’s idea of the tabula rasa—or “blank slate”—as the image of how everyone starts out in life.[5] Given our democratic ethos, myth of equality and cultural appreciation for the “Horatio Alger” ideal of the self-made man, Locke’s idea has enjoyed a large following in both American education and politics. Jung’s child image runs counter to our social and educational theory in its insistence that children are not “blank slates:” they are heirs to the whole human race[6]–with all the potentials and innate tendencies that have developed over millennia of human evolution[7]—and also the product of many generations of their family history.[8]  

            Jung believed that the child comes into life “as a very complex organism with existing determinants that never waver through life.”[9] These “determinants” give children their character and most parents are familiar with the surprise this can create within the family, when their child turns out to be “… furnished with a character which is not in the least like that of the parents and sometimes seems to be quite frighteningly alien.”[10] Alien, and often very different from both parents and his or her siblings. Of such stuff are family misunderstandings and conflicts born.

            Each child, Jung felt, should be recognized as “… a new experiment of life in her ever-changing moods, and an attempt at a new solution or new adaptation.”[11] As “a new and individual creature,”[12] the child had to be “faithful to the law of his being,”[13] meaning that his parents had to recognize their child’s unique nature, so as to help the child toward authentic living.

            Jung appreciated children as our “potential future,”[14] as beings evolving toward independence,[15] full of sensitivity,[16] and easily affected by others’ emotions.[17] Impressionable[18] and pre-rational,[19] the child had to be cared for with understanding and respect. “So lovely”[20] were Jung’s words describing children. But Jung was no romantic: he recognized that children are unconscious[21] and by no means innocent: they can sense evil.[22] Nor are they unaware: Jung felt a 10-year-old child knows much more than his parents would guess.[23] In the same sentence that he calls children “so lovely” he also noted “There is nothing more cruel than children…”[24]

            Archetypes are a central component of Jung’s thought, and he defined “child” not only as the little beings that attend day care, pre-school and school. The “child” also lives in each of us, regardless of our age, as one of the paired archetypes (the opposite in this pair is the senex, or “old person”).[25] Jung felt that, while each human has both these archetypes, one of them is our preferred way of approaching life. Perceptives tend to lean more toward the child, while Judging types tend more toward the senex side. In type theory, therefore, Perceptives are more likely to have the flexibility and adaptability required to make good parents.[26] 


The Five Types of Problem Children


            In his essay “Analytical Psychology and Education,[27] Jung identified 5 types of psychic disturbance in children.[28] The first is what he called the “backward, or mental defective”[29] child, with low intelligence and incapacity to understand. This type might be what we today would call the child with Down’s syndrome.

            Jung’s second category of psychically disturbed child is the psychopath, or child with “moral insanity,” due to a congenital problem or brain injury. This child lacks the capacity to make moral decisions and is unable to interact with others in “normal” ways.[30]

            The third group is the epileptic child, in either the mild (“petit mal”) or severe form. Jung identified irritability, rages, greediness, egotism, ferocity and sticky sentimentality as personality traits of the child with severe epilepsy.[31]

            Jung described as “incomprehensible” the fourth category: children who are psychotic, or in the first stage of what would become schizophrenia in adolescence.[32] These 4 types would be called in modern parlance “special needs children.”

            The fifth of Jung’s 5 types is the child whose problem is not so obvious or severe, the child that teachers, parents, siblings and others label as a “problem” or “troubled,” but not a “special needs” child. This is the neurotic child, troubled in a physical, mental or moral way.[33] This is the type we will focus on, since it is this type that most commonly causes the family, teachers, classmates and school administrators to seek help.

            Some definitions are in order. What is meant by “neurosis”? The English word comes from the Greek “neuron,” meaning “nerve,” and “neurosis” is the term for

a mild nervous disorder showing emotional disturbance with no apparent organic change. The nerve function is deranged and characterized by anxiety and a feeling of insecurity: A neurosis is an emotional problem that is solved in an irrational manner.[34]

Jung felt a child’s neurosis usually formed in the home, in a domestic environment that was itself neurotic:

I myself make it a rule to look first for the cause of infantile neuroses in the mother, as I know from experience that a child is much more likely to develop normally than neurotically, and that in the great majority of cases definite causes of disturbances can be found in the parents, especially in the mother.[35]

This is because, Jung felt,

Children are so deeply involved in the psychological attitude of their parents that it is no wonder that most of the nervous disturbances in childhood can be traced back to a disturbed psychic atmosphere in the home.[36]

The child’s interactions with his family in such a “disturbed” atmosphere led to the constellation of archetypes, the production of fantasies and the development of neuroses.[37] These interactions also affect the formation of the parental imagoes—the father imago and the mother imago.

            What is meant by “parental imago”? Jung recognized that “mother” and “father” were archetypes, like the child (puer) and old person (senex). As such, they are innate: we are born with an inner sense, or image (imago) of these two figures.[38] Our personal experience of our real-life mother and father flesh out these archetypes, since all archetypes “… get their contents from the material of conscious experience.”[39] Jung explained the concept in one of his essays on analytical psychology:

The simple soul is of course quite unaware of the fact that his nearest relations, who exercise immediate influence over him, create in him an image which is only partly a replica of themselves, while its other part is compounded of elements derived from himself. The imago is built up of parental influence plus the specific reactions of the child; it is therefore an image that reflects the object with very considerable qualifications. Naturally, the simple soul believes that his parents are as he sees them. The image is unconsciously projected, and when the parents die, the projected imago goes on working as though it were a spirit existing on its own. The primitive then speaks of parental spirits who return by night (revenants), while the modern man calls it a father or mother complex.[40]

Our parents may die, but the imago of them never dies. While our actual parents may pass on, the image of them that we have within us remains in the collective unconscious “where they continue to attract the same ego-dissolving projections as before.”[41] This “ego-dissolving” power is due to the “high energy charge”[42] that these images acquire in childhood. This charge never leaves, no matter how long we live, which is why Jung urged people to get wise to these inner forces and work to integrate them.[43] Without such conscious attention, the parental imagoes will exert an influence (often baneful) on our relationships, romantic prospects, choice of marriage partner, marital success or failure—a host of significant areas of life.

            The personal coloration of the parental imagoes begins in childhood,[44] often being at the root of the problem in the problem child. When a child is termed “neurotic” Jung felt the cause was likely something about the domestic environment or the relation between parent (especially mother) and child, or in the mother herself, or in the relationship between the parents.[45] The child developed the neurosis from “gross parental negligence, parental slothfulness, neurotic anxiety or soulless conventionality”[46] By “soulless conventionality Jung meant that the parents had developed strong personas in trying to conform to the expectations of their social group, and, as a result, were living inauthentic lives).


Factors to Consider in Dealing with the Disturbed Child


            Jung provided some guidelines to help parents and educators deal with neurotic children. Jung felt if a child was doing poorly in school that could be a sign of neurosis.[47] To rule out something in the school environment Jung suggested beginning by examining the method of education the child was receiving. He recognized that not all children are well-suited to the system of collective education.[48] Some children need more personal attention than others. Some children (especially strong Feeling types) must have a sense of emotional rapport with the teacher if they are to function well in school.[49] Feelers won’t do well, or feel safe, with teachers who are cold, overly strict or demanding. Highly Intuitive children, whose imagination and capacity for fantasy are strong, will need support and encouragement to help them cope with a system that is geared much more to Sensates and practicality.[50] In some cases of disturbance in a child, changes in the form or structure of the learning environment would be enough to set things right.

            Much more common, Jung felt, was the situation in which the predominant family atmosphere was neurotic. The parents had problems themselves—financial, emotional, marital, psychological—which created a “breeding ground for neuroses”[51] (all unconsciously, of course).

This was the second guideline Jung offered: inquire as to the way the parents lived, the aspirations they had in life that they had fulfilled, and the hopes they had neglected or given up.[52] Were they happy? frustrated? discontent? fulfilled? Were they living out their destiny or were they living inauthentically? Did they fight or allow “things to hang in the air.”[53] Jung thought it was much harder on the children if the parents tried to suppress their problems rather than engage in open conflict because the hard feelings, anger etc. left to fester would be vaguely felt by the child, creating “an oppressive atmosphere of apprehension and foreboding,”[54] which would affect the child’s psyche like a poison and create a condition fostering neurosis. In short, Jung tried to determine if the parents had an “unlived life”[55] and if so, what its effects were on the children.

            It was not uncommon for Jung to find that the parents of a neurotic child were “fanatical” in wanting to “do their best” for their children and “to live only for them.”[56] Rather than help the children, this attitude created a monster, because the focus had turned from the parents’ own growth and development to their forcing their “best” down their children’s throats. Jung felt this “best” was often the very thing the parents had neglected in themselves.[57]

            So Jung would work to identify what was going on within the parents: was one or both of them neurotic? He focused especially on the mother, because she is usually the parent who is most responsible for creating the domestic environment, and she is (or was, back in Jung’s day, 50 years ago) the parent most likely to sacrifice her own ambitions and live through her children. As Jung did his initial interview and determined what was going on, it was not uncommon for the mother to storm out of Jung’s office in fury at being called the source of her child’s problem.[58] Jung was not deterred: the psychic state of the parents was most often the root cause of the child’s dilemma. He saw little point in treating the child when the real problem lay with the parents,[59] and he felt parents “should make it a duty to work out their inner difficulties for the sake of the children…”[60] Which brings us to some key principles Jung offered for dealing with the problem child.


Some Key Principles


•Neuroses can be inherited.

Jung recognized the wisdom in the Greek myth of Atreus,[61] and the “curse” that descended on his house.[62] Jung knew that children are born into a family matrix that has a multi-generational history: “… the parents must… be viewed as children of the grandparents. The curse of the House of Atreus is no empty phrase.”[63]  Addictions, perversions, neurotic behaviors—all these are as likely as genetic problems to be passed down from grandparent to parent to grandchild.

… neurotic states are often passed on from generation to generation, like the curse of Atreus. The children are infected indirectly through the attitude they instinctively adopt toward their parents’ state of mind: either they fight against it with unspoken protest (although occasionally the protest is vociferous) or else they succumb to a paralyzing and compulsive imitation.[64]

Just as genetic conditions can show up in life, so we can see the psychological inheritance in the natal chart, especially in reference to the 12th house, planets in the 12th house, afflictions to the ruler of the 12th and hard aspects to the Nodes of the Moon.[65]

•Consider the phenomenon of participation mystique.

            The child does not create the domestic environment, but due to his participation mystique [66] with his parents, he is particularly susceptible to picking up the psychological qualities of father and especially of mother.[67] The child is born into a reality created by his parents. Is it a healthy or disturbed reality? If a child has a neurosis, look first to the mother, because the child is likely to develop normally unless the child is in a neurotic environment, and the mother is the biggest influence in creating a neurotic environment in the home.

•Remember the influence of the parents’ unlived life

            As noted above, Jung believed that the strongest psychic effect on children is the life their parents have not lived. Children “… re-enact under unconscious compulsion the unlived lives of their parents….”[68]—the lives the parents didn’t know, didn’t dare or denied to exist. Without being conscious of it, without being able to articulate just what is going on, children pick up their parents’ failure to live authentically, and take on this burden. The responsible parent, therefore, if confronted with a “problem child,” should look in the mirror and reflect on his or her life.

•Regard the “problem child” as a symptom of a pathological family matrix.

            The responsible party in situations with problem children is not the weak, dependent, impressionable child, unable to craft a life of his own. Rather, those in a position to work for change are the parents. Jung was explicit about this:

If a parent sees something in their child that they wish to change [which is very likely when a child is a “problem] they must first examine themselves, to see if it is something they have to change in themselves.[69]

Just as the nature of a dog can tell a lot about its owner’s temperament and psychic state, so children can reveal a lot about their parents and the psychic quality of the home in which they live. Therapists who work with children do well to educate the parents, to get them on the child’s side.[70] For, in many situations when there is a “problem child” in a family, the parents are deeply invested, unconsciously, in using the child as a scapegoat.[71]




            Jung saw how society labels children as “problems” when most often the real source lies with the parents and the home environment they create. Jung would turn to the parents to work the changes needed to foster a mentally healthy domestic scene. Parental efforts toward their own individuation, and their work to become conscious of the unconscious were Jung’s most frequent prescription for healing what ailed a problem child. Jung rarely analyzed children, feeling it was as difficult as it was inappropriate, in most situations.[72]

            What does his model offer us? Modern parents have the challenge of looking within, if they have a child with problems. The child is holding up a mirror to the family’s domestic reality, and presenting his parents with the opportunity to grow and move more fully into an authentic way of being.




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________ (1996), Barriers and Boundaries: The Horoscope and the Defences of the Personality. London: Centre for Psychological Astrology Press.

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[1] “Introduction to Wickes’ ‘Analyse der Kinderseele’,” Collected Works 17, ¶84. As has been the convention with these blog essays, Collected Works will hereafter be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 17, ¶219.

[3] CW 17, ¶287.

[4] E.g. discussion of the Myers-Briggs type differences among parents and children; analysis of individual charts reflecting parental imagoes and family heritage; Jung as a husband and parent himself; Jung on children’s education; and the stages of life, as Jung defined them.

[5] Locke (1960), 1057-1061.

[6] Cf. CW 8, ¶589 and CW 17, ¶94.

[7] Jung (1977), 262,292.

[8] CW 17, ¶94.

[9] Jung (1977), 287.

[10] CW 17, ¶222.

[11] CW 17, ¶173.

[12] CW 17, ¶222.

[13] CW 17, ¶295.

[14] CW 9i, ¶278.

[15] CW 9i, ¶287.

[16] CW 2, ¶1007.

[17] CW 17, ¶83.

[18] Jung (2008), 131.

[19] CW 17, ¶250.

[20] Jung (2008), 159.

[21] CW 17, ¶83.

[22] Jung (2008), 181.

[23] Ibid., 257.

[24] Ibid., 159.

[25]  See DW 9i, ¶259-305 for a thorough discussion of the child archetype.

[26] Kroeger & Thuesen (1988), 169.

[27] “Analytical Psychology and Education,” in CW 17, ¶127-229.

[28] CW 17, ¶131-141.

[29] CW 17, ¶131.

[30] CW 17, ¶135.

[31] CW 17, ¶137.

[32] CW 17, ¶139.

[33] CW 17, ¶141.

[34] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1303.

[35] CW 9i, ¶159.

[36] CW 17, ¶80.

[37] CW 9i, ¶161.

[38] CW 9i, ¶155.

[39] Ibid.; cf. CW 16, ¶212 note 2.

[40] CW 7, ¶294.

[41] CW  16, ¶218.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] CW 9i, ¶155-156.

[45] CW 17, ¶107.

[46] CW 9i, ¶161.

[47] CW 17, ¶259.

[48]CW 17, ¶256.

[49] Keirsey & Bates (1984), 119-120.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Jung (2008), 112.

[52] CW 17, ¶107.

[53] CW 17, ¶217a.

[54] Ibid.

[55] CW 6, ¶307.

[56] CW 17, ¶288.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Referring to one such session Jung noted: “When I spoke to the mother, after the examination, she was outraged by my diagnosis and insisted I must have made a mistake.” CW 17, ¶228.

[59]CW 17, ¶107.

[60]CW 17, ¶219.

[61] Jung refers to this myth multiple times in his works; cf. CW 17, ¶88 and 154; CW 6, ¶43 note and 223; CW 18, ¶1374.

[62] Atreus and Thyestes were two brothers, rivals and enemies. In an effort to get revenge on his brother Atreus seized Thyestes’ sons, killed them, cut them up and served them to an unknowing Thyestes at a feast. When he learned what his brother had done, Thyestes cursed Atreus and his house, a pronouncement that led to generations of tragedy to follow, with regicide, patricide, matricide, fratricide—all sorts of horrible fates befalling the subsequent generations.

[63] CW 17, ¶88.

[64] CW 17, ¶154.

[65] For excellent analyses of natal charts from the viewpoint of Jungian psychology (including how familial psychological inheritance can be symbolized on a chart), see the works of Jungian analyst and astrologer Liz Greene; Greene (1976)(1978) (1980) (1983) (1984) (1996) (2003); Greene & Sasportas (1987) (1988) (1992) (1993); Greene & Arroyo (1984).

[66] Jung defined this term, which he took from the French anthropologist L. Lévy-Bruhl, in CW 6, ¶781: “It denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity. This identity results from an a priori oneness of subject and object. Participation mystique is a vestige of this primitive condition. … it is a transference relationships, in which the object (as a rule) obtains a sort of magical—i.e. absolute—influence over the subject…” In our context, the parent has something of a magical quality for the small child.

[67] CW 10, ¶70; cf. CW 17, ¶107.

[68] CW 6, ¶307.

[69] CW 17, ¶287.

[70] As Jungian therapy has evolved over the last 60 years, more analysts have begun to work with children and several Institutes have added to their training programs the analysis of children as a specialty .

[71] This scapegoat phenomenon can often be spotted in the astrological chart, particularly when the astrologically-knowledgeable therapist has the charts of all the family members and can create and analyze a family matrix chart.

[72] Jung (2008), 200,237,467-8; CW 17, ¶211.

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