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

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  when it’s obvious that a family think of one member as being ‘the difficult/different/sensitive/withdrawn one’, this is a clue that this person may be carrying the burden of feelings on behalf of everybody else.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!”

The Earth Element

This post is an introduction to some of the key themes related to the Earth Element.  Each child has all of the Five Elements within her and therefore a discussion of the Earth Element is relevant for every child.  However, for some children it will be more relevant than for others.  We are all born with varying innate tendencies, and each child will have areas of life in which they excel and areas they find more challenging.  If having read this post, you feel that your child has an imbalance in their Earth Element, then the suggestions at the bottom will be especially relevant for them.    

Key themes related to the Earth Element 

Needs; nurturing; feeding and food; mother and mothering; caring for oneself; caring for others; study and concentration.

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Earth Element

Your child may have an imbalance in their Earth Element without having experienced any of the factors described below. We are all born with an innate, constitutional imbalance in one of the Five Elements.

Lack of nurture

The Earth Element is resonant with bodily needs, comforts and securities which are often associated with the home, domesticity and the mother.  Apart from pregnancy, breastfeeding and childbirth, these needs may of course be met by an adult figure of either gender.  

For the Earth Element to become strong, a baby and child require ‘good enough’ mothering.  This is more than simply being given enough food, bathed or being put to bed on time.  A baby is sensitive to whether he is being held tenderly or mechanically.  He can sense if the arms that hold him are offering only vague and disinterested support.  It is the quality, as well as the content, of the mothering he receives that is all important.  And whilst perfection is neither possible nor desirable, the Earth Element requires that nurture is good enough most of the time.  

Smothering/overly dominant mothering

The ultimate role of parents is to bring up a child who is eventually capable of independence.  It sometimes feels a cruel irony that the heart of a mother’s role is to create a child who will eventually want to separate from her.  

Ideally, a mother’s care will be a response to the needs of the child.  Sometimes, however, a mother’s need to care is so strong that it overshadows the needs of the child.  As a child strives for independence, his mother unwittingly discourages this because of her strong need for her child to remain dependent on her.  A child who is not allowed age-appropriate independence, or who feels smothered, will grow up without a clear sense of how to look after his own needs.  This will impede the healthy development of the Earth Element.  When the Earth Element is balanced, a child will develop a good sense of how and when to look after himself, and when to ask for help.  

Lack of a stable home environment

The Earth Element also symbolizes stability.  When strong, it enables a child to feel secure, stable and centred.  The more stable a child’s environment is, the more she is able to internalise this sense of stability.  If a child lives with a sense that life is about to change in some way, it will be difficult for her to remain internally centred and relaxed.  

A child’s security depends above all on strong connections with her family.  But it also extends beyond this to her home and community.  Regularly moving home, or even school, may have a profound effect on a child. 

Worry in the family

One of the emotions associated with the Earth Element is the Chinese word si, which is often translated as ‘worry’ or ‘overthinking’.  If a child is surrounded by worry, she will imbibe this and it will become her own.  Worry is said to ‘knot’ the qi of the Earth Element.  The more this happens, the more a child’s thoughts or worries become stuck, and go around and around in her mind.  

Too much intellectual stimulation

It goes against the grain to describe intellectual thinking as a possible cause of imbalance.  However, in Chinese medicine terms, it is the organs related to the Earth Element (the Stomach and Spleen) that digest, not only food, but also information.  So that means when a child is asked to study, memorise things, concentrate or focus, or even when she reads, it uses a lot of qi from these organs.  The Earth Element in a child, just like all the other Elements, is immature and needs time to develop.  It also has a big job to do because it is responsible for digesting the enormous amount of food a baby or young child must consume relative to her size.  So, if a child is being asked to use her mind a lot at a young age, it can deplete the Earth Element.  

It is interesting to consider that in many countries, for example Germany, children do not start school until the age of 7, as opposed to 4 as is usual in the UK.  From the Chinese medicine perspective, starting school at this later age would be considered far more health-promoting.  By 7 or 8, a child’s Earth Element has matured and become stronger, and so is better able to stand more intellectual strain. 

Manifestations of an imbalanced Earth Element

A tendency to worry

One of the key ways in which an Earth imbalance manifests is a propensity to worry and overthink.  The worry may focus on something that has happened in the family, such as an argument she has overheard between her parents.  She may worry about school the next day because a child was unkind to her and it may happen again.  Older children typically worry a lot around exam time.  The child’s thoughts are liable to go around and around in her head and it may be hard for the parent to find a way of reassuring her.  Things often become worse at bedtime when the qi of the Earth Element is at its weakest. 

Difficulties in finding a balance between dependence and independence

A child whose Earth Element is not strong may have a particular struggle in the following ways:

  • She may find it hard to achieve a level of independence appropriate to her age.  In a young child, this may manifest by routinely becoming upset when she has to separate from her mother at the school gates.   An older child or teenager may want constant contact with her mother, via texting or talking, when she is not with her.  Or she may experience a great deal of worry or anxiety before going away or feel homesick when she is away.  
  • She may struggle to ask for or accept help when she needs it.  She may place very high expectations on herself about needing to ‘be a grown up’ and feel that she is somehow failing if she asks for help
  • She may oscillate between these two ends of the spectrum.  One minute, she may be excessively needy and the next she may be entirely rejecting of support.   

An unhealthy relationship with food

The way a child looks after herself in the realm of food may reflect the state of her Earth Element.  It may be that the child has a very poor appetite, or is a fussy eater.  At the extreme end of the scale, eating disorders always include some imbalance of the Earth Element.  Another child may overeat in a misguided attempt to create a feeling of security. 

Some other signs that the Earth Element is struggling

  • She easily feels hard done by or that ‘nobody understands’
  • She is prone to tummy aches

How we can help the Earth Element in our children to develop strongly?

Provide as much consistent, responsive and nurturing care as possible

The more a child’s needs are met when she is young and entirely dependent, the more she will become adept at being able to look after herself when she is an adult.  Otherwise, she may go through life always seeking what she did not get as a child. 

The ‘right’ amount of mothering

Every parent will know that it is impossible to always make the best decision about when to step in, and when to step back and allow a child to work something out herself.  But if, as parents, we reflect on whether or not we have a tendency to err particularly on the side of being too hands off or of intervening too much, this can help us to moderate the tendency and achieve more of a middle way.

Allow a child to feel heard and understood

The Earth Element will grow stronger if a child feels that she is really listened to and that parents really understand how she feels.  In a rushed moment, it can be all too easy to respond to a child with a comment such as ‘there is no need to feel like that’ or ‘it can’t be that bad’.  Whereas if we respond with true empathy, by acknowledging how the child is feeling rather than denying it, it can help her to move through that feeling state more easily.

Provide a consistent rhythm and routine

The Earth Element thrives by having a rhythm to life.  This can be having meals at regular times, regular bedtimes and consistent patterns to the daily routine.  It is not about being rigid and inflexible.  But having some kind of rhythm and flow to daily life helps most children to feel secure and stable.  

Moderate amounts of intellectual or ‘head-based’ activities

For the Earth Element to thrive, a child needs to have times when she is not thinking or needing to apply her intellect.  School work cannot be avoided, but it should be balanced with physical activity, creative pursuits or imaginative play.  


Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Earth Element

  • Lack of nurture
  • Smothering or overly-dominant mothering
  • Lack of a stable home environment
  • Worry in the family
  • Too much intellectual stimulation

Signs the Earth Element in a child may be struggling

  • A tendency to worry
  • Difficulty in finding a balance between dependence and independence
  • An unhealthy relationship with food

Support for the healthy development of the Earth Element may include

  • Consistent, responsive and nurturing care
  • The ‘right’ amount of mothering
  • Allowing a child to feel heard and understood
  • Providing a consistent rhythm and routine
  • Moderate amounts of intellectual or ‘head-based’ activities

Treating a child changes the family

I recently read a wonderful book by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz called ‘The Examined Life’.  In it, he tells the story of a 10-year old girl who was brought to him for therapy because she was chaotic, messy, dishevelled and wet herself both day and night.  The rest of her family were all exceptionally well-dressed, high-achieving and ‘together’.  Grosz writes that, over the year he was seeing the girl, she gradually began to put her hair up and generally take more care over her appearance, as well as stopping having accidents.  He also noted that, at the same time, the other members of her family who brought her to the clinic became more scruffy and chaotic.  His receptionist pointed out to him that ‘It happens a lot here – as the children get well, their families change too.’

This mirrors my own experience of treating children with acupuncture.  It seems to me that it is often one member of the family who ‘carries’ a pathology for the whole family.  It happens frequently that as the child I am treating gets better, a sibling starts manifesting a physical or emotional symptom.  If they then start having treatment and become well, then another sibling or a parent may then develop a symptom.   Sometimes each member of the family comes in turn for treatment.  It is when the parent asks if you can treat the family dog that you know your work is done!

I often think of the family unit as being similar to the 5 Elements.  Each member is intimately connected to the other members, and when a change goes on in one it has an impact on all the others.  It is as if some pathology or imbalance is passed around.  In order for it to be finally ‘expelled’ from the family unit, sometimes a shift needs to take place in their daily life or structure.  Treatment is often a catalyst for this to happen.  For example, an 11-year old boy came for treatment for alopecia.  The condition had begun after his maternal grandmother died.  As the boy began to get better, his mother told me that she had been signed off work because she had been overwhelmed by delayed grief for her mother’s death.  I saw her son’s alopecia as a sign that he had been carrying the grief for his mother.  When he began to be supported by treatment, his mother was able to experience her grief.

The power of acupuncture treatment for children goes far behind helping the child, and that is one of the many wonderful reasons why it is such a joy to treat children!