Forgotten Victims of Covid 19: dealing with the emotional damage to children of the pandemic

Forgotten Victims of Covid 19: dealing with the emotional damage to children of the pandemic

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

Free webinar next week: Dealing with the emotional damage to children: the forgotten victims of Covid 19

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.

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.  

Summary

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

The Wood Element

This post is an introduction to some of the key themes related to the Wood Element.  Each child has all of the Five Elements within her and therefore a discussion of the Wood 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 Wood Element, then the suggestions at the bottom will be especially relevant for them.    

Key themes related to the Wood Element 

Anger and related emotions; boundaries; power; constraint versus freedom; personal growth and development; compliance vs assertion; movement; fairness.

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Wood Element

Your child may have an imbalance in their Wood 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.

An overly repressive environment

A child will learn from an early age that she exists in a world where there are rules that limit what she can and cannot do.  One of the many challenges of parenting is to constantly decide when, where and what limits should be imposed.  If the culture of the family is to impose very strict limits on freedom and independence, it may have a negative impact on the development of the Wood Element.  Emotional repression may have the same effect.  It is natural for everybody to feel angry or frustrated at times.  Although children need to be taught what behaviour is acceptable or not, finding a way to manage and express angry feelings is important.  If it is  considered unacceptable to express anger, or for siblings to squabble, for example, a child may begin to repress these emotions and this will block the flow of qi in the Wood Element. 

An environment lacking in boundaries, rules and guidance

On the other hand, a child will rarely thrive without clear rules and boundaries.  A child whose parents can never say ‘no’ to him, who is never made to wait or whose every whim is indulged is rarely a happy one. Rules and boundaries help to support the growth and development of the Wood Element, just as a climbing plant needs a trellis to hold it up.  A child left to his own devices may struggle to bring his plans to fruition and achieve his goals.  

An environment that suits the healthy development of the Wood Element for one child, might not be so beneficial for another.  Just as different plants thrive in different soil, the varying nature of a child’s constitution means that a particular approach to discipline and boundaries will be too constraining for one child but not firm enough for another.  The challenge for parents is to try to respond to the needs of each particular child, and to recognise how their own history and circumstances will mean they have a particular bias too.  

Living in an atmosphere of conflict or violence

The Wood Element needs external harmony to be able to thrive.  Within families, and particularly within the parental relationship, conflict is dealt with in different ways.  Some couples will openly and frequently argue and then make up.  As long as there are periods of harmony between the arguments, and also a lot of love, a child will, it is hoped, not be negatively impacted by this.  Problems arise when the conflict between the parents is extreme, constant or even violent.  Equally problematic is an atmosphere of chronic, unspoken resentment and irritation. 

Of course, a child may be exposed to conflict outside the home too.  He may have a teacher who is prone to shouting, become involved in or witness ongoing tension between his peers at school or experience conflict in his neighbourhood or community.  Whatever the nature of an individual child’s response, the Wood Element is particularly susceptible to imbalance when exposed to disharmony and conflict in whatever form.  

How might we recognise that the Wood Element in a child is struggling?

Difficulty with the expression of anger

One of the key signs that the Wood Element is imbalanced is that the child has particular difficulty managing his feelings and his expression of emotions in the anger family.  This can manifest in different ways:

  • He displays frequently aggressive and/or destructive behaviour.  The qi of the Wood Element moves quickly and tends to rise upwards.  It may therefore feel to the child (and to other people) that the anger comes from nowhere and take him over
  • He is constantly irritable or frustrated.  This is usually a sign that the child is ‘stuck’ in her feelings.  It may manifest as constant rolling of the eyes, huffing and puffing and sighing.  
  • He is depressed and apathetic.  Depression may be a sign that the qi of the Wood Element has become blocked, and the natural outward expression of anger has turned inwards.  The child may feel hopeless and as if life has no point to it.  He may have a strong ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude to life.
  • He is overly compliant and unassertive.  It is not a sign of emotional health for a child always to do what she is asked, or always to concede to the wishes of other children with whom she is playing.  It is the qi of the Wood Element that gives a child the strength to assert herself, stand up for herself and to become independent as she grows older. 
  • Many children with an imbalance in the Wood Element oscillate between all the above.  As Aristotle rightly said, ‘Anyone can get angry – that is easy…; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time and with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.’

Difficulty achieving an appropriate level of independence

Another sign of an imbalance in the Wood Element is a child who struggles to achieve an appropriate level of independence.  This may manifest in different ways:

  • A child may feel the need to constantly defy the authority of her parents and/or teachers.   She is compulsively defiant, and always does the exact opposite of what is expected of her.  The degree of defiance she displays begins to hamper her ability to thrive.  She struggles to know when to hold firm and when to concede.
  • A child may, on the other hand, show an inability to grow into independence.  This is often most noticeable around adolescence, when we would expect a child to begin to forge her own path in life and make her own decisions. 

Other signs the Wood Element may be out of balance

  • The child is prone to night terrors
  • The child’s mood is always improved when they have a chance for physical activity
  • The child is prone to headaches

How can we help the Wood Element in a child to develop strongly?

Finding a ‘good enough’ balance between boundaries/rules/guidance versus freedom/dependence

We all come to parenting with our own biases.  Some of us tend to parent as a reaction to how we were parented, and others parent as a repetition of how they were parented.  The more we can unpack our biases, and respond to the needs of the unique child in front of us, the better able we will be to find this tricky balance between allowing our child freedom and providing them with rules and boundaries.  Of course, this is an ever-changing feast.  It is something that a parent constantly needs to review as their child grows.  

Support with the expression of emotions in the anger family

Helping a child to manage and express their angry feelings will help to create balance in the Wood Element.  Children have many constraints put upon them, and often very little choice.  Frustration and anger are a natural response to this.  It is important that a child is not made to feel that having these feelings is somehow wrong or shameful.  It is also important to help a child find ways of expressing the feelings, whilst at the same time giving clear messages about what behaviour is or is not acceptable. 

Permission to express individuality

Not allowing a child to express their true nature is a form of repression and, as we have seen, any repression negatively affects the Wood Element.  It can be hard as a parent, if we are not totally secure in who we are, to allow a child to express their unique self. As the author David Solomon noted, ‘Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.’

Provide opportunities for physical activity

In order for the qi of the Wood Element to flow smoothly, a child needs lots of opportunities for movement.  This does not need to be organised sport.  Simply running around in the park is enough. 

Summary

Factors that might hinder the healthy development of the Wood Element

  • An overly repressive environment
  • An environment lacking in boundaries, rules and guidance
  • Living in an atmosphere of conflict or violence

Signs that the Wood Element may be struggling

  • Difficulty with the expression of anger and related emotions
  • Compulsively rebellious and defiant
  • Lacking an age-appropriate level of independence

Support for the healthy development of the Fire Element

  • Finding a ‘good enough’ balance between boundaries/rules/guidance versus freedom/dependence
  • Support with expression of emotions in the anger family
  • Permission to express individuality
  • Providing opportunities for physical activity

The Water Element

This post is an introduction to some of the key themes related to the Water Element.  Each child has all of the five Elements within her and therefore a discussion of the Water 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 she excels and areas she finds more challenging.  If having read this post, you feel that your child has an imbalance in their Water Element, then the suggestions at the bottom will be especially relevant for them.    

Key themes related to the Water Element

Growth and development, assessment of risk; trust; reassurance; drive and motivation; energy reserves

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Water Element

Your child may have an imbalance in their Water 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.

An atmosphere of fear or anxiety

The emotion that resonates with, and causes imbalance within, the Water Element is fear.  Growing up in an environment that induces chronic or repeated feelings of fear will mean that a child will habitually be ‘on red alert’.   A part of her is constantly under threat, waiting for the next frightening thing to happen.  Her habitual state becomes one of being on edge and she may struggle to find a sense of internal stillness.  

There are big and obvious things that induce fear in children, such as a violent parent or living in a war-torn zone.  However, because a child’s psyche is very fragile, she may perceive there to be a threat in something that most of us as adults would consider completely benign.  Although all growth involves uncertainty, and we would not want to over-protect a child from anything that may be potentially fearful, it is the presence of intense or ongoing anxiety or fear that is detrimental to the health of the Water element.  Anxiety in a child is often focused on school, health, the health of family members, exams or any new challenge that needs to be faced. 

An imbalance between rest and activity

The Water Element embodies the quality of stillness.  If the Water Element in a child is strong, she will grow up with the ability to feel still and peaceful inside, and having the ability to know when to stop and when rest is needed.  These are essential qualities that we need in order to maintain both physical and emotional health.  

In order to develop this quality of stillness internally, a child needs a balance between rest and activity.  Exactly what constitutes a good balance will vary from child to child.  Some children are constitutionally built to thrive off more activity than others.  However, if a child grows up in an environment where he and everyone around him are always on the go, it will be very hard for him to embody a quality of stillness.  A vicious cycle may ensue, where he feels agitated when he has nothing to do and he begins to crave constant stimulation.  

The qi of the Water Element fuels a child’s phenomenally fast growth and development that is characteristic of the first few years of life.  It also fuels the huge changes that go on around puberty.  If the child’s life is such that she is always on the go, and rarely just ‘being’, her qi will be expended on meeting the needs of her external life. This may mean that her physical growth and mental development suffer.

How might we recognise that the Water Element in a child is struggling?

A child may have an unusual relationship to fear

When the Water Element is compromised, a child may find it hard to have a balanced relationship with the emotion of fear and related emotions (e.g. anxiety and panic).  This may manifest in a number of ways:

  • She may have ongoing low-grade anxiety.  She may perceive the world as a place full of potential dangers, and imagine threats where there are none.  She may be fearful in situations that we would not expect or torment herself with thoughts of future catastrophes. 
  • At the other end of the spectrum, she may have an inability to assess risk to an age-appropriate level.  This may lead her to take unusually risk-taking behaviour.  These are the children whose parents you hear say ‘she has no sense of danger’, when they climb to the top of a tall tree without hesitation.  It may be an older child who seeks out activities that include an element of thrill or danger.  Although this is somewhat normal in adolescence, if this trait is particularly pronounced or has been a theme running through much of the child’s life, it might indicate an imbalance in the Water Element.  
  • A child may oscillate between the two above extremes but struggle to have what most of would perceive to be a healthy relationship to the emotion of fear.  She may be overly-fearful in some areas of her life, and lack an ability to appropriately assess risk in other areas. 

A child may struggle to find a balance between rest and activity

When the Water Element is compromised, a child may struggle to attain a good balance with being active and being restful.  This may manifest in a number of ways:

  • She may be always on ‘over-drive’ and find it very difficult to ever stop or be still.  She may have a constant, underlying agitation within her.  She may be very competitive and want to take part in everything.  She will resist being urged to rest or have ‘quiet time’. She may struggle to get off to sleep and wake up early in the morning, however tired she is.  (It is worth noting that, in Chinese medicine terms, an imbalance in the Water Element is not the only possible cause of this).
  • At the other end of the spectrum, she may be constantly lethargic, resist doing any kind of activity and lack appropriate will-power.  Her only mode is doing nothing.  She will resist being urged to get out and be active. 
  • A child may oscillate between the two above extremes.  She may have periods where she is unable to stop, and periods where she struggles to get going.  She will struggle to find a good balance somewhere in the middle where she is able to balance exerting herself and then recuperating. 

Other signs that the Water Element may be compromised

  • The child may struggle to trust others
  • The child may have a dark colour under their eyes
  • The child may be late to toilet train or prone to bedwetting

How can we help the Water Element in our children to grow strongly?

Create a safe and calm environment in the home

This will enable to a child to relax and not be ‘on red alert’.  Children are like sponges and pick up on the emotions of others who are around them.  So if we, as parents, are chronically anxious it is likely to affect our children.  Finding ways to manage our own anxiety is therefore important. 

When possible, try to choose caregivers and teachers who are solid, reliable and trustworthy

This will also help a child to feel safe and to develop confidence that the world is a safe and secure place.  On this note, it is also worth considering how much bad news we expose our children to.  Whilst it would not be appropriate to closet them from the realities of the world as they grow older, neither might it be wise for young children to have constant reminders of atrocities.  

Allow a child to develop at her own speed and in her own time

Every time we push a child to achieve something that she is not quite developmentally ready for, we are teaching her to override her innate wisdom.  Encouragement is one thing, but pressure is another.  The more we can trust our children’s potential to unfold at its own pace and in its own way, the better.  

Support a child to learn to ‘tune in’ to her body, so that she knows when she needs rest and when she has fuel in the tank

One child will need encouragement to be more active, another will need encouragement to have some downtime in her schedule.  Probably the best way to help a child in this area is to model getting a good balance in this way ourselves.  If we as parents are constantly rushing around and never taking breaks, we can only expect our children to do the same. 

Summary

Factors that hinder the healthy development of the Water Element

  • Living in a climate of fear or anxiety
  • Lack of balance between rest and activity

Signs the Water Element in a child may be struggling

  • A child is overly fearful
  • A child is especially reckless and unable to adequately assess fear
  • A child oscillates between these two extremes
  • A child finds it hard to stop and rest, and prefers to be always on the go
  • A child resists engaging with any activity and is chronically lethargic

Support for the healthy development of the Water Element may include

  • Creating a safe, calm environment in the home
  • Working to reduce our own anxiety levels
  • Choosing caregivers who are solid, reliable and trustworthy
  • Allow a child to ‘go with the flow’ and take things at her own pace whenever possible
  • Helping a child to follow her body’s signals which indicate she needs to rest or move

The Fire Element

This post is an introduction to some of the key themes related to the Fire Element.  Each child has all of the five Elements within him and therefore a discussion of the Fire 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 Fire Element, then the suggestions at the bottom will be especially relevant for them.    

Key themes related to the Fire Element 

Appropriate levels of joy; relationships; intimacy; speech; enthusiasm; excitement; emotional vitality; emotional stability

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Fire Element

Your child may have an imbalance in their Fire 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.

A lack of love, warmth, attention, intimacy and communication

The Fire Element is nourished and sustained by healthy contact with other people.  There are very few people who can maintain a sense of joy in life without feeling connected to others.  For a child to grow up with this feeling of connection she needs an abundant supply of ongoing love and warmth.  

This seems almost too obvious to state.  Yet it is quite possible, and very common, for a child to have parents who love them more than anything in the world yet not to feel loved.  Busy lives, work pressures and relationship problems are just a few examples of the everyday reality of many parents, which makes it difficult for them to communicate their love to their children.  

As a child grow older, it becomes more important for them to feel connected to people outside of the family.  If things are not going well at school for a child, it can have a damaging effect on the Fire Element.

Living in a depressed environment

The Fire Element is also nourished by a joyous and happy atmosphere.  Of course, it is not possible (or desirable) for the environment to always be happy. But a lack of laughter in the family, or one or both parents having a chronically low mood, will often make it hard for the Fire Element in a child to develop in a healthy way.  Children are like sponges and internalise the atmosphere in which they grow up.  If the household is lacking in joy, the child may begin to feel this as her default, emotional state.

Shock and melodrama

Chinese medical texts explain that the Heart (by which we mean the energetic function of the Heart meridian – not the physical organ itself) is the first to be affected by shock.  The Heart belongs to the Fire Element.  

Shock may come in the form of a one-off event or may be a more chronic situation.  A one-off event such as a parent abruptly leaving may have such an impact on the child’s Fire Element that she never really recovers from it.  But an environment where there is constant melodrama can have a similar effect.  For example, a parent who is repeatedly threatening to leave, or a family where every week there is some kind of crisis which evokes intense emotions, can lead to a child’s Fire Element receiving repeated blows.  

How might we recognise that the Fire Element in a child is struggling?

A child may struggle to maintain appropriate levels of joy

In the usual course of life, a child will have a wide range of moods.  There are good days and bad days, happy and sad moments.  However, a child whose Fire Element is imbalanced, may struggle in any one of the following ways:

  • She struggles to feel joyful and buoyant when she is on her own or not involved in an exciting activity.  Sometimes, she fails to light up even when with a good friend or engaged in something she loves.
  • She is compulsively cheerful and is unable to connect with any sad feelings.  She fears rejection if she is not constantly entertaining everyone.  She may be ‘the class clown’ at school.
  • She swings between these two states and tends to be either lacking in joy or excessively jolly, and struggles to find a place of balance between the two extremes.

A child may struggle in the realm of relationships

The Fire Element underlies a child’s ability to form meaningful connections with other people.  If the Fire Element is not healthy, it may mean that relationships of every variety is the area a child finds the most challenging.  The difficulties may manifest in any of the following ways:

  • She is closed off and unable to form intimate friendships.  She feels too vulnerable to risk intimacy.  She may have a big group of ‘friends’ but not be able to develop a close friendship with any one person.  
  • She may be desperate for people contact all the time.  This may lead her to count someone she has just met as a new ‘best friend’, leaving her open to being hurt and rejected when this is not reciprocated. She may only feel happy when she is relating to others, and therefore struggle to spend any time on her own.
  • She may feel excessively vulnerable.  She may be devastated when a sibling says they do not want to play with her or a classmate plays with another child.  She may dread big, family gatherings where she is expected to interact with many different people.  

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

Provide as much love, warmth, communication and intimacy as possible

These are such basic things but it needs saying!  Being busy is the enemy of intimacy.  Sometimes just ensuring there are times throughout the week when we are not rushing or distracted, and have time to really listen to our children can make an enormous difference.

Try to create an emotional stable and constant environment at home

Of course, there are times in life when this is not possible and periods of emotional intensity are not usually detrimental to a child.  However, the atmosphere in the household one of ongoing, chronic emotional volatility, it is worth exploring ways to mitigate this wherever possible.  For example, there may be something that a parent can change in their own life that will relieve some strain. 

Create opportunities for fun, joy and laughter

Modern family life can feel pressured and hectic.  Parents can easily feel burdened by their various commitments and responsibilities.  Sometimes we need to make a conscious effort to remember to laugh.  Laughter, humour and fun all nourish a child’s Fire Element (as well as our own of course).  So it is important for our children for us to ‘check in’ and remind ourselves of the lighter side of life. 

Permission to be low sometimes

At the same time, emotional health means being able to connect with our melancholic  feelings too.  Even children, who to some degree epitomise joy and vitality, have times when they feel sad.  If a child gets the feeling they are expected to always have a smile on their face, it will strain the Fire Element within them. 

Support in managing friendships

Having good relationships is known to be one of the key factors to achieve robust physical and mental health. It is particularly important for the health of the Fire Element.  However,  creating and managing friendships is not something we are good at teaching.  When a child gets to the age of creating connections outside of the family, supporting them to navigate this area well is crucial.  Giving a child an opportunity to talk about what they are finding difficult, and modelling good relationship skills will both be beneficial.  

Summary

Factors that might hinder the healthy development of the Fire Element:

  • A lack of love, warmth, attention, intimacy and communication
  • Living in a depressed environment
  • Shock and melodrama

Indications that the Fire Element may be struggling:

  • A child struggles to be joyful 
  • A child finds creating and maintaining healthy relationships of all kinds particularly challenging.  

Support for the healthy development of the Fire Element may include:

  • Provide as much love, warmth, communication and intimacy as possible
  • Try to create an emotional stable and constant environment at home
  • Create opportunities for fun, joy and laughter
  • Permission to be low sometimes
  • Support in managing friendships

The Metal Element

This post is an introduction to some of the key themes related to the Metal Element.  Each child has all of the five Elements within him and therefore a discussion of the Metal 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 Metal Element, then the suggestions at the bottom will be especially relevant for them.    

Key themes related to the Metal Element

Skin; touch; breathing; loss; grief; acknowledgement; sense of self-worth; letting go; taking in the new

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Metal Element

Your child may have an imbalance in their Metal 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.

Loss

Chinese medical texts explain that loss and grieving consume the qi of the Metal Element.  Many people who have recently suffered a bereavement talk of how physically depleted they feel.  Physical tiredness can be a symptom of depleted qi in the Metal Element. 

Of course, loss is a part of life and no child will escape some kind of loss throughout his childhood.  A young child may appear to carry on with life after a bereavement as he always has done, yet he may still have been profoundly affected.  

Loss comes in many forms.  It may as a result of the death of a relative or a pet, which are widely acknowledged to cause sadness.  However, leaving behind a group of friends, a school or a community, dealing with the break-up of her family or an older sibling leaving home, for example, may also induce feelings of loss.  

At some point during the teenage years, most children will also have to face the loss of their previously unquestioning belief in their specialness.  A child may grow up with the dream of scoring a goal on the football pitch in front of their adoring fans but few will ever achieve this.  

The lack of a caregiver who is a symbol of authority

In order to develop a strong internal framework, which is necessary in order to be able to deal with the chaos of the outside world, a child needs a figure in her life who represents the arbiter of right and wrong.  Whilst a child’s fundamental needs are for love and security, she also needs teaching and guiding to be able to navigate the society that she happens to grow up in.  In Chinese medicine, having someone who provides this role in their life, will help to support the healthy development of the Metal Element. 

Lack of positive acknowledgement or too much criticism

For the Metal Element to develop strongly, a child needs to be supported in the process of connecting with her own internal sense of self-worth.  The Chinese character for Metal includes the image of ‘nuggets of gold’ that are buried deep within the ground.  These symbolise the part within all of us that feels of value.  In order for a child to grow up connected to these nuggets of gold, she needs parents and teachers who recognise her value and support her to recognise it herself. 

How might we recognise that the Metal Element in a child is struggling?

The child may struggle to manage their feelings of sadness and grief 

A child with an imbalance in her Metal Element may find it harder than most to manage emotions in the sadness family.  In health, a child will be able to feel sad when she has lost something or someone that was of value to her but not get ‘stuck’ in this emotion.  When the Metal Element is not strong, she may:

  • Have a demeanour of chronic sadness, as if she is carrying around a heavy burden
  • Wear a mask that says to the world she is ‘ok’ and struggle ever to connect with or reveal any sad feelings, even after a loss
  • Oscillate between the above two behaviours

The child may have a fragile sense of self

A child with an imbalance in her Metal Element may be ‘thin-skinned’.  She may feel that she has no ‘armour’ to protect herself.  Her response to this may be:

  • To withdraw and become a loner 
  • To put on a front of being somewhat arrogant or a ‘know it all’ as a cover for her deep vulnerability

The child may be extremely self-critical and constantly strive for perfection

A child with an imbalance in her Metal Element, and who is not connected with her ‘nuggets of gold’ may never feel that she, or what she does, is good enough.  Her response to this may be:

  • To be constantly striving yet never recognise her achievements
  • To give up, or not attempt something in the first place, because it is too frightening to risk failing
  • To be overly critical of others as a way of trying to make herself feel better

Some other signs that the Metal Element is struggling

  • The child is hyper-sensitive to everything in her environment, e.g noise, strong emotions in others, the cold, the texture of clothes, the taste and texture of foods…
  • Her complexion may have a noticeable white hue to it
  • She may catch more than her fair share of coughs and colds
  • She may resist physical exercise and become easily tired by it
  • She may be disconnected from her body and overly reliant on her intellect

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

Support a child to deal with loss

This may involve allowing a child to express her sad feelings as opposed to telling her to ‘cheer up’ when she does not feel cheerful inside.  In younger children, art therapy can be useful.

Give the child meaningful acknowledgement and praise

Throw away comments or platitudes, such as telling a child we love the picture she has just drawn whilst we are barely looking at it, will not help the child to connect with her nuggets of gold.  It is usually best to save praise for when we really feel praise is due so that we deliver the praise authentically.  Asking a child how she feels about something she has done rather than always telling her what we think can also teach her how to rely on her internal sense of worth rather than always needing external validation

Give your child permission to be less than perfect

A good way of doing this is to model to a child the concept of ‘good enough’ in all that we do and to acknowledge to them when we have done something less than perfectly.  A child with an imbalance in his Metal Element may have a very strong ‘internal critic’.  It does not usually serve him well if parents and carers add their own criticisms of him or his behaviour on top of this.  

Provide the right quality and quantity of physical contact

Every child will have different needs in terms of physical touch but touch is especially important for the Metal Element.  At the same time, if the Metal Element in a child is imbalanced, the child may shun physical contact more than most.  This creates a dilemma for parents.  The aim should be to respond to the child’s cues in terms of when and what kind of physical contact he feels comfortable with, and to take every opportunity that is presented.   

For a more detailed discussion of the important of touch, please read ‘Is there more to a quick cuddle with our child than meets the eye?

Create an orderly environment in the home

The development of the Metal Element in a child will be supported by an stable and secure external environment.  A child whose Metal Element is struggling may even find it hard if there is too much untidiness or messiness.  Living in an ordered environment helps the child to feel ordered internally.  

Create opportunities for the child to be outside in the fresh air

The internal Organ related to the Metal Element is the Lungs.  In order to grow strong, the Lungs need to be ‘exercised’.  Allowing a child a run around outside inhaling clean air is a key ingredient for the health of the Metal Element.  

Summary

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Metal Element

  • Loss
  • Lack of a caregiver who is a symbol of authority
  • Lack of positive acknowledgement or too much criticism

Signs the Metal Element in a child may be struggling

  • The child may struggle to manage their feelings of grief and sadness
  • The child may have a fragile sense of self
  • The child may be extremely self-critical and constantly strive for perfection

Support for the healthy development of the Metal Element may include:

  • Supporting a child to deal with loss
  • Giving a child meaningful acknowledgement or praise
  • Giving a child permission to be less than perfect
  • Providing the right quality and quantity of physical contact
  • Creating an orderly home environment
  • Create opportunities for the child to be outside in the fresh air

Is there more to a quick cuddle than meets the eye?

We all know there is nothing better than a big hug. However, being touched as babies and children is a biological necessity.  This is according to Professor Francis McGlone, of Liverpool John Moores University, who has spent his career researching the effects of touch. Professor McGlone believes that some of the key benefits of touch are: 

  • It promotes healthy brain development, particularly those parts of the brain which help us to manage social interaction
  • It plays a role in reducing both anxiety levels and pain
  • It is one way in which we establish a boundary between ourselves and the external world
  • It helps us to inhabit our physical body and to feel comfortable in it

(If you are interested in finding out more about Professor McGlone’s work, you can listen to him being interviewed by Dr Rangan Chatterjee on the Feel Better Live More podcast)

What exactly does touch do?

From a scientific perspective, touch activates specific nerve fibres on the skin (called CT afferents) which stimulate different parts of the brain.  Research has shown that pleasant, nurturing touch (such as skin-to-skin contact between a baby and mother) can stimulate the brain, whilst unpleasant touch (such as certain medical procedures) reduces brain activity.  

A different perspective on touch

Touch is associated with the Metal Element in Chinese medicine

In Chinese medicine, the skin and touch are related to the Metal Element.  If you are not familiar with the Metal Element, you might find it helpful to read about it here before reading on. 

Skin is the part of us that meets the outside world

Chinese medicine can help us to understand touch in a different way.  The Metal Element houses the Lungs (by which we mean the energetic function of the Lungs from a Chinese medicine perspective).  One of the functions of the Lungs is to send what we call defensive qi to the surface of the body.  The skin, nourished by this defensive qi, forms a boundary between a child’s internal body and the external environment. In health, this boundary will be sufficiently open to allow a child to feel connected to and affected by their external environment.  However, at the same time, it will be sufficiently closed to keep out what we would not want to allow in.  This may be pathogens such as cold viruses but also less tangible aspects of life, such as intense emotional atmospheres.

For example, a child with insufficient defensive qi on the surface of the body may succumb to more than his fair share of coughs and colds.  Or there may be a more emotional manifestation.  He may feel especially vulnerable to criticism.  The harsh words of a ragged parent at bedtime might feel as if they penetrate right to the core of his being.  His degree of upset might, to the parent, feel exaggerated in response to the trigger.  

Another child might manifest an imbalance of defensive qi at the other end of the spectrum.  He may be especially closed off, be hard to make contact with and may appear unmoved by events in his life that we might expect would induce particular emotion.  For the child, to be in this state may feel isolating.

The right kind of touch (suggestions of which are below) can help to regulate the amount of defensive qi at the surface of the body.  It can promote balance so that a child is adequately, but not overly, protected from outside influences.

Skin and the nervous system

When a child feels under stress, the body will respond by readying itself for battle.  From a Chinese medicine perspective, one way of doing this is by sending its resources (in this case, defensive qi) to the surface of the body.  This is akin to sending troops to the front in preparation to defend against potential attackers.  This is a useful response when there really is a threat.  However, to live in a constant state of ‘red-alert’ is not health-giving.  It means that too many of the body’s resources are employed in defending itself from attack and there is less available to fuel our internal processes, growth and development.  What’s more, it is simply tiring to be in this state for any length of time.  

The right kind of touch can help to ‘de-stress’ a child by signalling that a threat is no longer present.  This will help them to achieve a more relaxed state. 

Touch helps us to feel ‘at home’ in our bodies

Another interesting aspect of Professor McGlone’s work is his finding that touch can help us to feel embodied and generate a sense of feeling comfortable in and connected with our bodies.  This idea very much overlaps with the Chinese medicine concept of the po, which is related to the Metal Element and is often translated as ‘the corporeal soul’.  When the po is well regulated, a child will be at ease in his body and have an awareness of bodily sensations.  It will make him less likely to somatise emotions, which might then manifest as pain or other bodily symptoms.  

What is the right kind of touch?

As with everything, parents should always respond to the unique nature of their child.  For some children, lots of cuddles all the time feels overwhelming or even violating.  For others, there is no such thing as too many cuddles!  Bearing this in mind, the following are suggestions of ways in which parents might bring more nurturing touch into their relationships with their children.

Skin to skin contact

Babies, particularly premature babies, benefit enormously from skin-to-skin contact with their mother in the hours and weeks after birth.  This has been shown to reduce mortality, severe illness, infection and the length of hospital stays.  Professor McGlone’s work suggests that it may also help to promote emotional regulation.

Using slings instead of buggies

Carrying babies and toddlers in slings means we are more likely to stroke their heads, hands or feet.

Baby massage

Next time you think about giving your baby a little massage, remember that it may help him to regulate his emotions as he grows, feel ‘at home’ in his body and lower his stress levels!

Loving touch

Simply incorporating as much spontaneous, loving touch as feels right whenever we are with our children is beneficial.  Just a comforting pat on the shoulder or back can have a beneficial impact. 

Animals

Therapeutic touch is not limited to human touch.  There is an increasing amount of evidence that stroking and cuddling animals has a stress-reducing and calming effect.  This can be most clearly seen in children who are on the autistic spectrum, whose lives can literally be transformed by the presence of a support dog.  However, any child will benefit from contact with cuddly animals!

And finally, of course, lots of cuddles

We know that cuddles help us to connect with our children, but next time your child asks for a cuddle, you can also remember of the other myriad benefits it can bring them – and you!

What do we mean by the Five Elements?

Introduction to the Five Elements

The Five Elements in the Chinese system are:

  • Wood (Spring)
  • Fire (Summer)
  • Earth (Late Summer)
  • Metal (Autumn)
  • Water (Winter)

As you can see, each Element is associated with a particular season. Just as the natural world contains all these different Elements, each person has all five elements within them too.  They can be understood as different aspects of a person’s being.  Each Element describes a different quality in a person, just as each season brings a different quality to the natural world.  For example, Spring (the season associated with the Wood Element) is a time of rapid growth in nature.  In a person, the energy of the Wood Element may manifest as a strong ability to move forward in their life and generate change. 

The Five Elements in children

During the first years of life, the Five Elements within a child are slowly developing.  The circumstances of a child’s life, in combination with their innate nature, will influence how smoothly and strongly this development happens.  In an ideal world (if there were such a thing), the growth and development of each Element within a child would be wholly supported by the events and circumstances of their early life.  In reality, life is never quite ideal and the development of the Five Elements becomes distorted.  Big events or trauma, for example, prolonged separation from a parent or serious illness, will obviously have an impact on growth and development.  However, less obvious things influence the development of the Five Elements within a child too.  For example, subtle dynamics within the family or not getting enough downtime over a long period may be enough to create imbalance. 

Particular aspects of life tend to affect a particular Element.  For example, the quality of the relationships a child has in her life will predominantly (although not exclusively) impact her Fire Element.  The degree to which she gets the nurture she needs will predominantly impact her Earth Element.  

How do we know if one of the Elements within a child is struggling?

If your child went to see an acupuncturist, they would diagnose by observing subtle signs related to the child’s facial colour, the sound of their voice, the way they expressed certain emotions and even the specific quality of their odour.  However, it takes many years to train in this subtle art of diagnosis. 

Thankfully, there are easier ways to ascertain if something is going awry.  Certain behaviours may point towards a particular Element within a child struggling.  Looking at which emotions a child tends to get stuck in, or conversely avoids altogether, can also be useful.  This is because, just as there is a season associated with each Element, there is also an emotion.  The emotion resonates with the qi of the season.  For example, the emotion connected with summer is joy, and with autumn is sadness.  

Please have a look at the separate posts related to each Element to understand more about how each Element may manifest in a child.

Healthy attachment and the Fire Element

The psychological theory of attachment

The nature of the relationship a child has with her primary caregiver is hugely influential in her subsequent development.  It also goes a long way to determining how she will form and maintain relationships with friends and partners as an adult.  The psychologist John Bowlby, who developed ‘attachment theory’ in the 1950’s, defined attachment as ‘a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’

How can attachment be understood from a Chinese medicine perspective?

Broadly speaking, strong attachment tends to produce some key characteristics in children:

  • A desire to go out into the world, be independent and explore
  • A lack of anxiety
  • The ability to manage separation within friendships and relationships
  • Good cognitive skills

From the Chinese medicine perspective, these characteristics are often connected with the health of the Fire Element. If you are not familiar with the theory of the Five Elements, you might want to read ‘What do we mean by the Five Elements?‘ before reading on.

The Fire Element and attachment

The Fire Element, to a large degree, determines how well a child will manage relationships of all kinds.  If the Fire Element is healthy, it means that the child will be able to carry an inner sense of being loved, even when not in the presence of loved-ones.  She will not need constant validation from others that she is loveable. 

A strong Fire Element will mean she is able to risk the vulnerability that is a part of intimacy.  She will also be able to manage social situations that involve relating to people she may not know so well or even at all, without experiencing too much anxiety.  She will not veer too far from her innate self purely in order to make sure she is loved and adored by others. 

What might help to promote a strong and healthy development of the Fire Element?

Every child is born with a unique emotional nature and will therefore have different needs.  However, there are certain things that will benefit the Fire Element of all children.

Being present 

It is possible to be physically present 24 hours a day without being truly psychologically or emotionally present.  For the Fire Element to really thrive, a child needs interaction and to be responded to.  When a baby first smiles, she needs to see her caregiver smile back at her.  She needs her mother to make eye contact with her in order to feel connected.  She needs to be related to rather than merely having her physical needs attended to in a perfunctory way. Many would argue that being related to is just as much of a biological necessity as being fed.

It is much more about quality than it is quantity of time that caregivers are able to spend with their babies and children.  Two or three hours of real connection and intimacy in the evening will benefit the Fire Element more than a whole day of being physically in the presence of a caregiver who is distracted or preoccupied.  

Attending to the health of our own Fire Element

It is much easier for a parent to be psychologically present for their child when their own Fire Element is in a balanced state.  If the parent feels loved in her relationship and/or friendships, and has people or activities in her life that spark joy, she will be better able to connect with her child.  Of course it is not possible for parents to magically create this. In fact, parenting can be a lonely job. However, parents often feel so much guilt when they are tending to their own needs. In actual fact, making sure their needs are not neglected will benefit their children more than almost anything else they do.

Busy-ness is the enemy of intimacy

It is really difficult to foster intimacy and connection when our focus is on external activity.  Learning to ‘be’ with our children rather than always ‘do’ with them, creates an opportunity for deep relating, which will nourish the Fire Element.  We need some breathing space in our hectic schedules – time to sit and listen, to get to know each other, to allow a connected dialogue to evolve.  

Play

Making time for play, getting down on the floor and entering our children’s worlds will help the Fire Element in a child to develop strongly.  We cannot and should not expect children to enter our adult world (and would not want them to). So it is up to us to reconnect with how it felt to be a child.  This will help to create real connection and joy, and will support the Fire Element.  

Aim for authenticity not perfection

The Fire Element is resonant with the quality of spontaneity.  Just as the flames of a fire move in a free and natural way, the Fire Element in a child needs to be allowed the same kind of free movement.  If a child’s behaviour and even the way they play is over-scrutinised, if there is no room for her to express the many different parts of her personality (even the less likeable ones), the flames of the Fire Element will wane.  

Similarly, children have a sixth sense for inauthenticity in adults.  Modelling to our children that we all have good days and bad days, things we find frustrating, times we feel sad, moments where we don’t want to engage, will show them that it is acceptable to be authentic.

Allow some emotional space between us and our children

In Chinese medicine, each of the Five Elements contain an emotional, psychological and spiritual aspect usually called a ‘spirit’.  The spirit of the Fire Element is called the shen.  The shen enables a child to begin to have insight and awareness of their individual character and destiny.  It helps a child to manifest his true potential in the world that will have a completely unique character to it.  The shen is not something that sits hidden within a child, but is related with how she shows herself to the world.  

Therefore, if a child lacks ‘emotional space’, her shen will suffer.  In the same way that a young tree whose light is blocked by bigger trees around it will not grow, a child needs some space in order to flourish.  This means that, as carers, we need to find a balance between providing a child with the nurture they require but also allowing them space to express their individuality.  

Summary

From a Chinese medicine perspective, in order for attachment to be strong the Fire Element needs to be given an opportunity to develop strongly.  In order for this to happen, children need:

  • Caregivers who are emotionally and psychologically present
  • Time with caregivers just being rather than doing
  • Adults who are able to enter their world and play with them on their level
  • To be allowed to be authentic, and to have role models who are able to be authentic
  • Some emotional space in order for their unique character to be able to blossom and shine