The yin and yang of adolescence: WHAT is going on with my child?

The yin and yang of adolescence: WHAT is going on with my child?

I hear the same story time and time again in my paediatric clinic.  The basic theme is – one moment a parent felt connected to their child, needed and loved.  Suddenly, they feel as if their child hates them, doesn’t want to be around them and that they have lost their connection with them.  When listening to heartbroken and concerned parents, I have found it usually helps if I explain, from a Chinese medicine perspective, the underlying process that is causing the change in their child.  

Adolescence is an in between phase, when the young person is no longer a child but not yet an adult.  It marks a transition between one stage of life and the next.  A caterpillar does not become a butterfly with the click of a finger.  They build a chrysalis around themselves, retreat inside it, dissolve their previous form and, sooner or later, emerge as a butterfly.  There are many similarities between this process and the human one.  Young people in the height of the adolescent change are akin to the chrysalis stage.  They often build a protective shell around them and retreat from loved ones, before emerging as a beautiful butterfly and spreading their wings!

One of the ways in which this analogy stops being helpful, however, is that in humans the change from child to adult tends to be a much less smooth and linear process.  Most young people go back and forth a few times – one minute retreating into a childlike state, the next leaping forwards to ‘test out’ being an adult.  Parents can become easily bewildered by a child who one minute is screaming at them to get off their back and the next is not wanting to go to sleep without them at night.  It is reassuring and useful to be able to remind parents that this is absolutely normal and, in itself, does not indicate any kind of pathology.

So, how on earth do we explain what underpins this massive process of transformation?  I have found the Chinese medical perspective is a really helpful way to understand it, even for those without any prior knowledge.  

In order for young people at this age to grow and develop as fast as they do [1], to start breaking free from their parents and become more independent, there is an enormous surge of yang in the body. Yang is powerful, transformative, hot and volatile qi.  It is resonant with the energy of the Spring – when all of a sudden plants and trees begin to shoot up, blossom and sprout green leaves.  It is yang which initiates and drives the internal processes of a young person so that they gradually leave behind childhood and head towards being an adult.  

Imagine what it must feel like to suddenly have this surge of yang within you.  It is as if a small flame has fuel poured on it and suddenly flares up into a roaring fire.  It is the feeling you would get if you were put behind the wheel of a powerful sports car when you had been used to driving an old banger.  It feels powerful, at times frightening, at times out of control and at times hugely exciting.  It can feel to the young person like surfing a big wave. 

Moreover, if you have constraints put on you when this powerful yang is roaring inside, you will feel them incredibly strongly.  This is why young teenagers often act as if they have just been put in prison when you ask them to be home for supper!  Yang also surges up towards the Heart (which, in Chinese medicine, is the seat of emotions).  This is why teenagers feel things so strongly.  It intensifies and brings to the surface feelings that were previously  lurking around in the background. 

In order to counterbalance this surge of yang, there is also a strengthening and consolidation of yin that goes on at the same time.  Yin encourages retreat, sleep and calm.  It explains why teenagers need so much sleep, and why they have a tendency to want to spend so much time in their bedrooms and are often less willing to interact with the family. This is the equivalent of the chrysalis stage for the caterpillar.  In order for any change to take place, there has to be a period of retreat.  Explaining this to the parent of a teenager who may be feeling hurt by their child’s disinclination to engage, can help them to understand it’s an important part of the process and not a personal rejection.  

There are numerous books and articles for parents offering advice about how to manage living with teenagers.  I am not going to add more advice, too much of which can estrange a parent from their instinctual, natural parenting instincts.  But I urge parents to just bear in mind this explanation of what is going on, in order to better understand their child.  There are three key points to remember:

  • Your teenager has not suddenly stopped loving you
  • They are fulfilling their job description if they are beginning to separate from you
  • This time will pass and, if you let them spread their wings, they will fly back to you as a loving adult when they are through the transition!

[1] Adolescents grow faster than at any other time of life, with the exception of the first year.

Now is the perfect time to take a deeper look at your family dynamics

It was Tolstoy who wrote that ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.  Much as I hate to argue with one of my literary heroes, I would say that no two families are alike, whether happy or not, even if they appear to be on the surface.  The dynamics within a family are as unique as the individuals who make up that family.  If it is true that no two snowflakes ever have been or ever will be exactly the same, that seems a better metaphor for families!

Members of a family are inextricably linked emotionally and energetically.  The health and happiness of all the members is interdependent.  In Chinese medicine theory, we understand that every individual contains each of the 5 Elements and that each of the Elements is connected.  When we treat somebody with acupuncture, treating one Element has an impact on the other four too.  It is the same in a family.  If one member is ill, stressed or unhappy, it will affect all the other members, even in ways that are often too subtle to immediately notice.

Robyn Skinner and John Cleese, in their book Families and How To Survive Them describe the concept of the family scapegoat.  This is the idea that difficult feelings within the family (e.g anger, frustration, anxiety or sadness) may be subconsciously taken on and carried by one member of the family.  If these feelings are very strong, this person, who may be a parent or child, may manifest this burden by becoming ill, either physically, mentally or emotionally.  

Have you ever heard someone describe a member of the family as being ‘the one with the problems’?  Or to say something like ‘The rest of us are fine but little Johnnie is just always so angry all the time – it’s hard to be around and I just don’t know why he is that way’?  when it’s obvious that a family think of one member as being ‘the difficult/different/sensitive/withdrawn one’, this is a clue that this person may be carrying the burden of feelings on behalf of everybody else. 

Of course, no parent ever sets out for things to be this way.  Families create scapegoats, however, because of subtle dynamics that arise as a result of other family members struggling to resolve their own emotional difficulties. People are not islands, and when they are all thrown together, they ‘land’ in a certain way and each one takes on a role within the group that comes most naturally to them.  The longer each person is stuck in their role, the harder it is to break out of it.  People often resist change and each family member will (unconsciously again) have something invested in each of the other family members playing their particular role. 

So, during lockdown, when the pace of most of our lives has slowed down (apart from the heroic key workers to whom we owe so much), we have the perfect opportunity to bring some of these subtle dynamics into awareness and see if we can transcend them.   Here are a few suggestions of how you might do this:

  • Identify which one of your family is struggling the most, either psychologically or physically
  • Do you have any insights about what emotional load they might be carrying?  Think about when their suffering began, what was going on in their life and in the family at that time?  (For example, did your child’s headaches begin around the time you and your partner were going through a difficult patch?)
  • Even if everyone in your family is essentially ‘ok’, reflect on where the tensions are.  Do you have higher expectations of one child than another?  Do you find yourself always blaming one sibling rather than another when they argue?  Does your partner focus all their worry on one child?
  • Becoming aware of these dynamics is the most important step.  Next time you find yourself cross with one of your children at the end of the day for ‘ruining the atmosphere’, take a few deep breaths and try to see if perhaps the dynamic was not that straightforward.  For example, did one child start acting up because they sensed your easier bond with a sibling?

Watch, notice and take the time to put on a new pair of glasses and understand your family dynamic from a different perspective.  It doesn’t matter that you can’t instantly change everything, and there is no place for becoming overly self-critical either.  But there is great value in taking the time to understand things in a different way.

There is a renowned living practitioner of Chinese medicine called Liu Yousheng.  He summed it up beautifully when he said:

Don’t talk of mysteries, don’t talk of subtlety!  Focus your teaching on the Dao of being human.  And where does this Dao of being human start? It starts with the Five Relationships, it starts with the family.  Family relationships are the crucial step in the Dao!”

Easy and effective massages to promote good sleep in your child

Many parents have told me recently that their babies and children are not sleeping as well as usual.  This might be due to a combination of heightened anxiety in the household due to the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, the longer days and the rising yang qi which is resonant of the arrival of spring.

There are as many reasons why babies and children do not sleep well as there are suggestions of how to get them to sleep better.  However, these simple, easy-to-learn massages can be used on babies and children of all ages, whatever the cause of their bad sleep.  They derive from a system of medical massage called paediatric tui na (xiao er tui na) which has been used in China for approximately 1200 years.  

Please click on the link below to learn how to do the massages.

Massages for promoting good sleep in babies and children

What do young children most need from their parents during this extraordinary time?

For most kids in the UK, this is the start of the second week when they would have been in school.  There are, most likely, many weeks ahead.  So, as parents, how can we best help them to adapt to this time?

Primary school children are, developmentally, still very much focussed on their parents and family.  The world of what is important to them is generally quite small.  This means that whatever is going on in their immediate family and in their home will determine how they feel, much more than what is going on in the wider world.  

There are two main components to this.  One the one hand, the daily rhythm of life in the family has an impact.  Young children, to differing degrees, are often unable to create their own structure, so they rely on that created by others.  It is as if their own internal scaffolding is not yet constructed.  So, simple things like getting up at roughly the same time each day, having regular meals and routines will help them cope with this extended time without the normal rhythm of school.  It supports them in the way that scaffolding supports a building. 

The other key component, however, is a little more complex.  This involves what is going on underneath the surface of family life.  It concerns the emotional vibrations.  Children are like sponges.  They soak up everything that is in their surrounding environment.  Whilst they may hear their parents’ words, they sense the emotion underlying them.  We all know that on a day when we are especially stressed and irritable, our toddlers will be more fractious.  Children are a mirror of the internal state of their parents.  

I am aware that, for many parents, reading something like that evokes feelings of guilt and inadequacy.  It can feel like too much of a responsibility and a burden, and we can too easily criticise ourselves for not doing our parenting job well enough.  One of the best things we can do for our children, however, is to let go of those self-critical inner voices.  The labels of ‘good parent/bad parent’ are unhelpful because they don’t describe the complex reality of parenting.  It is an absolute impossibility for a parent to get it ‘right’ the whole time.  The key thing is that, when we do get it wrong (which we all will, repeatedly) we try to recognise it and then make it right if we can.  The psychotherapist Philippa Perry calls this ‘rupture and repair’.  It’s not ideal but it’s OK that things rupture, as long as we try our best to repair them afterwards. 

So, returning to the idea that our children are a mirror of our own internal state, one of the best ways to help our primary school kids at this time is to do whatever we can to get ourselves into the best internal state possible.  I do not say this lightly.  I understand that this is a time of enormous anxiety – about health, finances, work, the future.  But it is also an opportunity.  An opportunity to model to our children that we can weather difficult times.  An opportunity to show our children that, when life does not go according to plan, we can adapt and find another way through. 

Chinese medicine explains why children are so susceptible to picking up what is going on in their emotional environment.  The ‘protective’ qi at the surface of the body, which helps to create a filter between the child and the environment, is not yet fully formedThe spirit/emotions (shen) are not yet fully ‘rooted’ because the child’s qi is being consumed by the process of growth and development.  So there is less available to ground the emotions.  Like a boat without an anchor, a child will more easily get swept away by a strong wave of emotion.

If you, the parent, are feeling anxious, frustrated and sad, here are some suggestions of how to manage this in a way which is helpful for both you and your primary school children:

  • Acknowledge the feelings.  Feelings are not the enemy – it’s OK to have them.  By acknowledging them, they are less likely to cause you get into an emotional ‘funk’.
  • Find a time each day to do something that you know helps you maintain an emotional even keel – whether that be yoga, going for a walk, meditating or beating up a pillow.  Even if you are juggling home schooling and work, prioritise this.  Put the kids in front of the TV for half an hour if you have to in order to find the time.  They will benefit from having you in a better place more than they will lose out from having a bit of extra TV.
  • Avoid telling your kids that you are fine if you are not.  This is deeply confusing for them because they will hear the word ‘fine’ and, in their sponge-like way, pick up that you are not.  You can say to them something like ‘I am feeling sad at the moment because we can’t visit Granddad, but it’s great that we can chat to him on the phone and this time will pass.’
  • Dig deep.  This truly is an exceptionally difficult time, and each family is affected in a unique and complex way.  But as parents it is up to us to dig deep and steer the ship (our family) through the turbulence to calmer waters. 
  • Arrange Zoom calls with friends or family that you know help you to feel supported, in lieu of being able to see them.

The hardest thing for primary school children at this time will be the impact it has on the adults around them.  Most will not have the cognitive capacity to understand the magnitude of what is going on in the world.  We are their rocks and, despite many of us not feeling solid, they will take their cues from us.  So, dig deep and remember that this time will pass.  And remember, you and your children can come out of this experience with increased strength and resilience. There is a Chinese proverb which sums this up brilliantly:

The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.

Are your teens now at home for the foreseeable future? What will be important to them and how can you support them?

Yesterday I watched the excitement and elation of five pre-teens and young teens as they heard the news that school was going to be out for the next few weeks at least.  One of the first things they did was to download apps to make sure they could easily communicate as a group if they were not able to see each other.  They then began writing their ‘No school bucket lists’, and top of all of them was the resolution to ‘make sure not to become distant from my friends’.

Even in extraordinary times, teenagers are still teenagers. And there is nothing more important to most teens than their friendships.   Whilst as parents, we may look forward to being able to spend more time with our teenage children and to deepen our connection with them, no doubt their main concern will be how they are going to cope with being stuck at home with their parents. It is natural for a teenager to increasingly separate from their parents, to go out and find their own tribe.  It’s a time when they need to explore their identity, and to find out who they are outside of their family.   So, any enforced isolation is likely to jar with their deep drive and instinct to go outwards into the world.  

In Chinese medicine, adolescence is resonant with the Fire Element.  The Fire Element governs how we manage our relationships with other people and ourselves.  The qi of the Fire Element intensifies during adolescence, which is why children of this age tend to feel things very passionately!  This intensity also drives teens to fulfil their developmental role of this time – ie. to make strong connections with others outside the family.

Whilst those of you who regularly read my blog will know that I have written a lot about the potential negatives of screen time and social media, this is one time when the benefits of it will come into their own.  If technology allows our teens to keep those connections with their new-found tribes, it will make this time of uncertainty and disruption a lot easier for them than it otherwise would have been.  

At the same time, although teenagers would rather do just about anything than admit to needing their parents, they really do still need us!  They are in a state of huge internal flux.  Put that together with the enormous external changes they are currently experiencing, and it makes for a potentially anxious time.  The more as parents we can work on managing our own anxieties and fears (which may be great at the moment), the more our teens will benefit.  What they need from us at the moment, more than ever, is to feel that we are solid and stable.  That is not to say we need to pretend that ‘everything is ok’ when it is patently not, but that we need to let them know that, despite all the difficulties, we as a family will come through it.  

So, as well as recognising that over the next few weeks or months, our teens will have a strong need to connect with their peers, it might also be beneficial to ringfence some time each day to put away screens and to connect as a family.  

Here are some other potential benefits for teens of an enforced, prolonged period out of school:

  • Time to catch up on some sleep: teens are growing and changing so fast and good sleep is crucial for this process.  
  • Time to slow down and lean in to a more yin lifestyle: most teens have crazily chaotic lives with little downtime.  Learning how to be still and have downtime at this age will serve them well for the rest of their lives.   Have a look at this blog post – ‘How does a child get real downtime in the 21st century’ – for more thoughts on what actually constitutes ‘downtime’.  
  • Time to reframe what is important: there is a lot of talk about rising anxiety levels at the moment.  But I believe, if dealt with appropriately, this time of crisis could actually help teens to reduce their level of anxiety.   Through conversation, we can help them to see that a lot of things they may worry about, are actually of very little consequence.  One teen, who is prone to huge amounts of anxiety, and who has just found out she won’t be able to take her A levels said to me ‘I was gutted at first but now I’m OK.  It’s made me realise there are more important things in the world.  We will get through this and I trust that my life will work out – maybe just differently to how I expected’.  

William Arthur Ward wrote ‘The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.’ I wish you and your teens, and indeed all your loved ones, all good wishes in adjusting your sails over the coming weeks. 

The Panda Clinic and paediatric acupuncture feature in BAcC film ‘To The Point’

Yesterday, I went to a parliamentary reception at the Houses of Parliament, for the launch of the British Acupuncture Council’s To the Point film and the Scope of Acupuncture 2020 report.  This is to raise awareness of acupuncture as an effective treatment for a variety of health conditions.  I am delighted that paediatric acupuncture played such a prominent role and was given the place it deserves.  The last 8 minutes of the film are of my work with children in The Panda Clinic.  If you don’t have time to watch it all, you can fast forward to 27 minutes and 40 seconds! Enjoy!

To The Point

 

 

 

When teething is a tyranny – and what you can do about it

There is a view that we blame everything on teething.  When a baby or toddler is grouchy, not sleeping or not eating, it is all too easy to say ‘ah, she must be teething’.  But whilst there are, of course, other reasons for our little ones to be unhappy or lose their appetite, the reality is that teething can be a really disruptive process.  Chinese medicine can explain perfectly why this is, and give us some clues as to what to do about it. 

Firstly, the process by which a tooth works its way up through the gum requires a surge of yang qi (heat) in the body.  This is the equivalent to athletes needing to warm up before a race.  In order to run their fastest, their body needs to be warm beforehand.  In order for a tooth to emerge, a baby must produce some extra heat to provide the motive force for the process.  This heat is necessary.  However, it can also explain many of the common ‘symptoms’ of teething, such as:

  • Red cheeks
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Raised temperature
  • Smelly stools

In children who are already a bit too hot, the teething process tends to cause quite a lot of disruption.  But for children who are energetically damp or cold, the extra heat in the body can actually be useful.  It can enable the body to ‘throw off’ damp that has been lingering.  This explains another common teething ‘symptom’ which is:

  • Snotty nose

Secondly, the acupuncture meridians (channels) of the Stomach and the Large Intestine both run through the gums.  When a new tooth is emerging, the qi in these channels temporarily becomes disrupted and blocked.  It can no longer flow smoothly.  This explains some other common ‘symptoms’ of teething, such as:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Loose stools

So, is there anything to be done to help make this transition an easier one?  The answer, thankfully, is a definite yes!  Here are the most common pieces of advice I give to parents whose children are having a difficult time with teething:

  • Trust your child’s instinct to lessen their food or milk intake during this time.  It will help to relieve the stagnation in their digestive system, which comes from the tooth cutting through one of the key digestive meridians.  Babies and children of this age have an innate instinct for survival.  They will make up for it once the tooth has come through!
  • Foods should be kept simple and light.  This means avoiding red meat and spicy foods, and keeping cheese and sugary products to a minimum.  
  • Make sure the baby or child has good breaks (ideally a minimum of 2 hours) between meals or feeds, so they have time to digest one before taking in the next.
  • Massage the acupuncture point LI 4 hegu on the hand.  It really helps to ease the pain of teething.
Acupuncture point LI 4 hegu
  • If your child has red cheeks, feels hotter than normal to touch and is generally restless and irritable, massage this acupuncture point (known as Kidney 1 yongquan) at the bottom of the foot.  It will help to draw the heat down from the top of the body.
Acupuncture point Ki 1 yongquan
  • Whilst hot, restless children may need opportunities to run around outside, most children also need more rest when they are teething.  In Chinese medicine, teething is seen as an outward manifestation of a strong developmental phase.  This means  children need to conserve their energy rather than expend it on too many external activities. 

Teething may be an unpleasant experience (although, thankfully, one that we don’t remember!) but it certainly does not need to be a tyranny.  Having an understanding of the process, and following the simple guidelines above, can enable parents to nurture their children through this developmental stage.  We can’t take away the pain, but we can ease it and, most importantly, be alongside our children through it.  

Eating disorders: how can we help guard against them in our young people?

This week (March 2-8th) is eating disorders awareness week.   It is both sad and shocking that eating disorders amongst young people in the western world seem to be on the rise.  Whilst many in the developing world are starving, more and more children and teens in the developed world are starving themselves.  If they are not starving themselves, many have come to have a disturbed relationship with food and eating.  This may cause a daily misery.

The causes of eating disorders are many and varied.   They are also relatively poorly understood.  Studies point towards a combination of genetic predisposition, psychological and sociological factors.  Trauma and difficult family relationships are known to also play a part.  But in my experience of working with young people, the seeds of an eating disorder lie in emotional dysfunction.  The emotional dysfunction is the root; the disordered eating is the manifestation.  An eating disorder is an expression of internal unhappiness.  It is a misguided, and sometimes dangerous, way of expressing emotions that, for a variety of reasons, are not able to be either managed or expressed verbally.   The young person may not even be conscious of them. 

One particular case illustrates this point.  I treated a 13-year-old girl who had orthorexia (an obsession with eating only extreme ‘health’ foods) and who had rapidly lost an alarming amount of weight.  She was under the care of CAMHS who had put her on a strict weight gain programme.  Whilst this was necessary in order to preserve her physical health, it did not address any underlying, dysfunctional emotional patterns.  What struck me about the girl when she spoke was the mismatch between her words and her demeanour.  She was pathologically polite and did not admit to having any angry feelings at all (even towards her father, who had recently left the family, not responded to her attempts at communication and not acknowledged her thirteenth birthday).  Yet her eyes were hard, her voice clipped and I saw flashes of anger across her face. [1]  Through dialogue and acupuncture treatment to bring balance to the Wood Element (which, in Chinese medicine, is associated with emotions in the anger family), the girl began to recognise that she did in fact feel angry and then to be able to express these feelings.  The more she expressed the feelings, the less she controlled her eating.  

Somewhere along the line, this girl had completely disconnected from her feelings because they felt overwhelming, too painful to sit with or because she had imbibed a value that feeling angry is in some way not ‘good’ or ‘acceptable’.  In her case, the predominant emotion was anger.  But it could be sadness, fear or a feeling of unlovability, and is very often a mix of many different feelings.  When a child disconnects from or ‘packs away’ an emotion over an extended period of time, she will no longer have much consciousness of it being there at all.  At this point, the spirit of the young person becomes compromised and a pathological behaviour often arises.  This may be disordered eating, self-harm, addiction or OCD, for example.  

There are always multiple risk factors for the development of mental illness, as well as multiple protective factors.  As parents, we can influence some of these factors but not others.  For example, we cannot stop our children’s exposure to images of ‘perfect’ bodies on social media and in the press.  But one area where we can have a positive influence is to support our children in becoming comfortable with and adept at verbalising and expressing a wide range of emotions.  Some possible ways of doing this are:

  • With young children, giving them a word for a feeling we think they may be experiencing.  For example, ‘I wonder if you feel jealous that Tommy got that scooter you had been wanting for his birthday’.
  • To avoid ever saying to our children ‘don’t be sad’ or ‘you don’t need to feel angry’.  This conveys the message that the child is somehow wrong to have this feeling.   Sometimes we shut down these emotions in our children because we, the parent, can’t bear the thought that our child is unhappy or because we feel hurt or angry when the emotion is directed at us.  
  • To model to our children that we, the parent, experience a wide range of emotions and are OK nevertheless.  For example, to say that we have had a bad day at work and are feeling frustrated as a result of it, rather than saying ‘I’m fine’ when we are patently not.  We can show them that, despite the frustration, we are fundamentally ‘OK’.  Our frustrated feelings haven’t prevented us from coping, and they will pass.   

Food and eating are so often intertwined with emotion, and eating disorders are especially so. Even though serious eating disorders are mental health conditions, the seeds of them usually lie in emotional dysfunction.  Helping our children to express a wide range of emotions, and supporting them to become more emotionally intelligent, will lessen the chances of them expressing their unhappiness through disordered eating.    

Cicero wrote that ‘diseases of the soul are more dangerous and more numerous than those of the body’. Eating disorders may mean our children’s bodies are poorly nourished but in order to prevent or heal these common and distressing conditions, we need to nurture our children’s souls.


[1] In Chinese medicine, we use subtle signs such as the tone of voice, the subtle hues in the complexion and incongruent expression of emotion to diagnose imbalances in a person’s qi

You love your child, but does your child feel loved?

It is a curious fact that nearly all parents love their children dearly, yet so many children (either during childhood or later on in adulthood) say that they did not feel loved during their childhood.    In the clinic today, I saw a 15-year-old boy who talked of how he felt nothing he did was good enough in his parents’ eyes and how he felt he constantly disappointed them.  At this point in his life, he did not feel that his parents loved him.  Having met both his parents, it was obvious to me how much they did love their son, and also how proud of his many achievements they were.  So how can this discrepancy be explained?  

A child not feeling loved by parents who truly love them is usually down to a mismatch between the parents’ way of expressing their love, and their child’s way of receiving it. Dr Gary Chapman coined the phrase ‘the 5 love languages’.  It is literally as if the parent and child are speaking a different language.  They are both trying to communicate, and want to do so.  But unless they are speaking the same language, the conversation is not going to get very far.  Feeling loved in childhood is, of course, crucial to a children’s future health and happiness.  It will impact the way they feel about themselves, as well as how they negotiate and feel about relationships for the rest of their lives.  So one of the most important things a parent can do is to find the way their child needs them to express their love.

An alternative to Chapman’s ‘5 love languages’, is to approach our understanding of a child through the lens of the Chinese medicine 5 Element system.   This brilliant framework can be an insightful and useful way to make sure we are giving children our love in a way that they can receive.   

The 5 Elements are within everyone.  (For a description of the 5 Elements please click here to see my previous posts on the topic).  However, each child has one Element which predominates and has a profound impact on their personality and behaviour.  It colours how they see the world, how they feel in relation to other people and what they need in order to feel loved.   Whilst it is too simplistic to say a Wood child needs this and a Fire child needs that, the 5 Element system helps to remind us how different we all are.   One sibling may need lots of hugs and physical contact in order to feel loved by his parent.  Another might feel swamped or invaded by too much physical affection.  As a parent, we need to pause and ask ourselves if the way we express our love for our children is truly making them feel loved.  

Imagine a young child is nervous before their first day of a new school.  This is something many children feel, yet each will need a different response.  For example, one child might feel better if their parent listens to them and lets them talk through their worries.  For a different child, this approach might mean their fears escalate.  Another might feel better if their parent lets them know how much they love them and that they will be there waiting for them at the end of the day.  Yet another child might benefit most from the parent organising visits to the school beforehand and from gentle reassurance.  Another child’s fears might be allayed by knowing in advance exactly what is going to happen and how the day is going to be organised.  

It is easy for a parent to assume that what they needed as a child in a particular situation is what their child needs.  However, the more we can withdraw our projections, notice our child’s unique emotional response and then meet their needs accordingly, the more the child will feel loved.  

It takes a fully-trained and skilled acupuncturist to make an accurate diagnosis of which Element is a child’s dominant Element.  However, simply taking some time to reflect on the nature of our children and, crucially, in what ways they are different to us, can guide us to show our love in a way that is meaningful to the child.  The description below of the different Elements should not be read as a ‘prescription’ of how to approach a particular child.  It is more a way of illustrating the fact that every child needs something different and to inspire parents to take a step back and reflect.

Fire children 

In order to feel loved, Fire children need:

  • a lot of warmth
  • a strong emotional connection 
  • time with parents who are emotionally present 
  • fun and laughter

Earth children 

In order to feel loved, Earth children need:

  • attuned mothering (a mother-figure who notices and responds to their needs)
  • to feel listened to
  • to feel understood
  • to have a secure physical home
  • to feel a part of a community/family unit

Metal children 

In order to feel loved, Metal children need:

  • to feel recognised and valued
  • meaningful acknowledgement and praise
  • an orderly home environment
  • permission to have time on their own
  • for their physical space and boundaries to be respected

Water children 

In order to feel loved, Water children need:

  • solidity, reliability and consistency in caregivers
  • reassurance and gentle encouragement when fearful
  • a calm and peaceful home environment
  • permission to develop in their own time and at their own pace

Wood children 

In order to feel loved, Wood children need:

  • Permission to express their individuality
  • An appropriate level of freedom vs boundaries and rules
  • An atmosphere without frequent conflict 
  • Parents willing to take them on adventures and explore the world with them

These are some basic guidelines.  The crucial thing is for a parent to be curious about what their child needs in any given situation and to respond to that as best they can.  Sometimes this will be easy.  The fit between the parent and child is straightforward and the parent’s natural way of expressing love will make the child feel loved.  At other times, it can take a bit more time and work on the parents’ part to work out what it is their child needs.  This does not make them any less of a ‘good’ parent or mean they love their child any the less.  It is simply the case that some relationships need a little bit more work than others. 

One of the most important indicators for good mental health is a strong bond between parent and child.  The more adept we become, as parents, at understanding how each of our children needs us to express our love for them, the better our bond will be.  We don’t need to be psychologists to be able to do this.  We simply need to step back for a while, take a few deep breaths and be curious.  Children are hard-wired to want a deep emotional connection with their parents.  As long as we are willing to truly see and listen, they will usually find clever ways of letting us know how they need us to be.