This is a day for both practitioners and parents who are interested in how to help children develop into resilient and healthy adults.
Over 1300 years ago, Sūn Sīmião wrote extensively about the importance of nurturing the young. These days, parents are faced with an overwhelming amount of often contradictory advice about how to raise happy and healthy children. Yet somehow, we find ourselves with a generation of children many of whom are unhappy and/or chronically ill.
This online talk will look at why it is vital that babies and children get what they need in the first years of life: what they need and how to go about giving it to them. We will see how the wisdom of Chinese medicine can be applied to today’s children and how it can help them to thrive.
You will come away with:
An understanding of the unique nature of childhood and children according to Chinese medicine
An understanding of aspects of 21st century life that may hinder a child’s growth and development
Practical hints and tips which are easy to implement to promote healthy development
Effective, non-needling methods to help children through acute illnesses
A way of using the 5 element model to create ‘bespoke’ lifestyle advice for every child
This afternoon I am giving a 4 hour webinar (4 CEUs) with Healthy Seminars, entitled ‘Acupuncture for childhood and teen anxiety‘. I do not know of a better way of helping anxious children than with acupuncture. It can transform a child’s life from being difficult to enjoyable. In the webinar, I will discuss what makes a child anxious, how we should go about making a diagnosis and how to treat effectively. Anxiety levels in children were high pre-Covid. They are now even higher. As acupuncturists, we are in a position to really be able to help and make a difference. It is my wish that more practitioners feel confident and competent to do that.
A few weeks ago, I recorded a one hour webinar for the Singing Dragon library entitled ‘Why do children become ill?’ Chinese Medicine has so much to offer on this topic, at a time when levels of chronic physical illness and mental/emotional illness in children are escalating. Until the end of October, you can purchase the webinar with a 25% discount, by entering the code AWS25 at the checkout. Please go to http://library.singingdragon.com to purchase it.
Last week, I took part in a live webinar with Julian Scott and Robin Green where we discussed some of the impacts of Covid on the mental health of children. We covered the different way children have responded from a 5 Element perspective, how to support them as they return to the clinic, the use of Bach Flower Remedies and how to support families via Telehealth. Please follow this link for access to the replay: https://www.treatingchildren.com/store/Qh72sYM4
This is a big question which Chinese Medicine has more answers to than any other system of medicine I know. Please join me tomorrow (thursday) at 8pm for this free, one hour webinar, hosted by Singing Dragon where I discuss what makes children ill. To register, go to Singing Dragon’s Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/SingingDragon. I will be answering questions during the live event tomorrow evening. The recorded version will be available to purchase afterwards. I hope to see you there!
Last week, Julian Scott, Robin Ray Green and I did a short, free webinar where we chatted about the impact on children of Covid 19 and how our society has responded to it. This Tuesday, we are doing a deep dive into how the 5 personality types have responded differently, and how to help each type when they come back to clinic. To register, please follow the link below. https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/4015966248079/WN_wQclmDrLSCav3NKXUKxXAg
Since going back to practice after lockdown, I have become acutely aware of the enormous impact on children of the Covid 19 pandemic and the world’s response to it. Although children are some of the least vulnerable to the physical affects of the virus, many have suffered a lot emotionally and psychologically. Next Tuesday, I am taking part in a live webinar, along with fellow paediatric acupuncturists Julian Scott and Robin Ray Green. We will be discussing how the last few months have impacted children from a Chinese medicine perspective, and what we can do to help. Please click here to sign up.
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!”
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.