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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire children 

In order to feel loved, Fire children need:

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

Earth children 

In order to feel loved, Earth children need:

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

Metal children 

In order to feel loved, Metal children need:

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

Water children 

In order to feel loved, Water children need:

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

Wood children 

In order to feel loved, Wood children need:

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

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

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

Children need to be bored sometimes

Children in affluent societies are often perceived as having everything. Playrooms bursting with toys, technological devices that keep them entertained for hours, and streaming services that mean there is always something to watch.  But does this material abundance mean these children want for nothing or have we as a society misunderstood what it is children really need?

One consequence of all this stimulation is that most children today are rarely bored.  When there is nothing obvious to do, it is all too easy to pick up a phone and play a game, scroll through Instagram or watch something on Netflix (of course it is not only children that this applies to!).  This can lead to every moment of the day being filled without the child needing to employ their imagination or creativity.  Children are missing out on being bored.  But does this really matter?

Well, yes it does.  

Firstly, boredom is a counterbalance to overstimulation.  Boredom could be described as a yin state whilst stimulation is a yang state.  For health and wellbeing, there must always be a balance of both yin and yang. Children are inherently abundant in yang and therefore it is even more important that they have a yinenvironment.   It is vital that children have times in their day when they are doing very little.  Without this, a child may be constantly in a slightly adrenalised state.  What goes up must eventually come down and being over adrenalised will eventually lead to a crash.  

Secondly, it is only when children are given an opportunity to be bored that they may begin to explore another side of themselves.  When day to day life is busy and over-scheduled, children will usually remain in ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ mode.  In Chinese medicine terms, their qi will not be flowing smoothly as they need to steel themselves to get through the day. Think how you feel if you know you have a really busy, slightly stressful few days ahead.  Many people tense their bodies and emotionally feel more uptight.  If a child is never bored, this may be how they feel all the time. 

Lastly, but crucially, a healthy dose of boredom may even help to prevent a child or teenager from becoming depressed.  Chinese medicine understands that each organ houses a ‘spirit’ and is therefore not purely a physical entity.  The spirit of the liver is called the hun, usually translated as the ‘ethereal soul’.  The hun is the source of dreams, vision, inspiration, creativity and ideas.  It enables us to experience this crucial dimension of life, without which life feels bland and sterile.   In order for the hun to thrive, it needs time and space to ‘wander’.  This only happens when a child is not engaged in activities that are primarily rational, intellectual or head-based.  The perfect way to allow the hun to become active is to leave a child without any external stimulation.  From that place of boredom, in time, fantasy and creativity will emerge and the child will learn to explore their inner world.  Without this, life feels flat, one dimensional and, ultimately, lacking in soul.  

So, a healthy dose of boredom may be one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.  In allowing them to become acquainted with their inner world, including all their many hopes, dreams and fantasies we are, ironically, enabling their future life to be anything but boring.

As parents, how can we create opportunities for a bit of boredom in our children’s lives?

  • Have family rules that include no screens on car journeys, and at certain times during the week (E.G Sunday afternoons are screen-free zones).  
  • Reflect on what feelings it evokes in you, the parent, if your children moan about being bored and having nothing to do.   For example, does it mean you feel guilty that you are not doing your job properly? (Note: our parents certainly didn’t feel it was their responsibility to entertain us all the time).  Question whether the feelings you have are misplaced.
  • Sit with the moaning for a little while, and then see what happens.  Of course, your children won’t welcome you telling them they cannot have access to their devices for the rest of the day.  It may even mean they have an adrenaline ‘come down’.  But when that passes, you will be amazed at what might happen!

Snow plough parenting – what is it and what is its effect?

It’s official.  Snow ploughs are the new helicopters!  Until earlier this week, I was aware that parents could be described as ‘helicopters’ (when they have a tendency to hover over their children) but I didn’t know they could be snowploughs.  Let’s be clear.  None of us get parenting exactly right and that’s OK.  We should hold on to Winnicott’s concept of the ‘good enough’ parent, in this age of perfectionism.  

However, even though these rather derogatory sounding clichés can be overly simplistic, it can also be interesting to reflect on the ideas at their heart.  Snowplough parents are those who have a tendency to remove all obstacles that might get in the way of their child’s progress and success.  With the best of intentions, they try to make their child’s life as easy as possible.  A common example is a parent doing their child’s homework to make sure they get a good grade.  Another is a parent who tries to make sure their child does not experience ‘difficult’ emotions.  I remember being asked by a parent to make sure her child did not take part in ‘pass the parcel’ at my daughter’s birthday party.  The parent was concerned that her child would feel upset if she did not win. 

This concept reminds me of a Chinese proverb.  A farmer wants his crop of sprouts to grow as tall as possible as fast as possible.  So he decides to pull them up through the soil himself.  As a result, his crop dies.  The farmer does not trust his sprouts in their ability to work their way up through the soil in their own time, and in trying to do their work for them, he kills them. 

From a Chinese medicine perspective, all aspects of a child’s physical, mental and emotional self grow strong through being used.  Muscles become strong through being exercised and waste away when they are not used.  But so do other aspects of a child.  If a child is always removed from any source of anxiety, they won’t learn that they can manage the emotion.  If they experience anxiety for the first time as a teenager, when their parents can no longer shield them from it, they are more likely to be overwhelmed by the emotion.  If a child has always been allowed to spend their time doing only enjoyable activities, they may find that when they have to do things they don’t want to do, their willpower fails them.  

Psychologists talk of a concept called ‘stress inoculations’. Children build resilience through small, repeated exposures to stress during childhood.

Life inevitably involves challenges.  The Wood Element within us enables us to react to obstacles that we meet with flexibility, to find a way through rather than give up.  The Water Element also gives us the drive to push through all manner of difficulties    If these two Elements are not exercised during childhood, by being faced with challenges and obstacles, they will not enable a person to face difficulties in adulthood in a robust and resilient way. 

As with almost everything, balance is the key.  Of course, a parent would not want to artificially create challenges for their child.  But supporting a child to deal with challenges that naturally arise, rather than snow ploughing them out of the way, may be the kindest approach in the long run.  

Routine: to have or not to have, that is the question!

For my mother’s generation, deciding how to manage the first months of a baby’s life was comparatively straightforward.  There was one book out there to be guided by – Dr Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare which, according to some sources, is considered to be the second best-selling book after the Bible!  Nowadays, parents are faced with a multitude of different books, advocating a multitude of different approaches.  At one end of the spectrum, there is the Gina Ford philosophy of putting a strict routine above all else.  At the other end, there is Jean Liedloff’s the Continuum Concept advocating a completely ‘baby-led’ approach to child-rearing. 

What does Chinese medicine have to say on the matter and can it help us to see beyond these approaches to find a little more balance?  Can it help parents respond to their individual baby’s needs whilst simultaneously not losing sight of their own?

Chinese medicine is very clear that young children are, by their very nature, full of yang energy.  This means that they have a need to move a lot, a certain exuberance and often volatility.  Whilst this abundance of yang is physiological, rather than pathological, and is necessary to fuel their extraordinarily rapid growth, it also can easily become ‘out of control’.  Therefore, it needs tempering.  The best way to temper it, is by creating a strongly yin environment.  

yin environment is one where there is consistency, predictability and repetition.  Babies and young children have not had time to build an internal sense of structure, and are therefore often comforted and made to feel safe by an external structure.  Having a certain rhythm to their daily routine is often calming and helps to keep the exuberant yang in check.  For many, having meals and going to sleep at around about the same time each day, is a way of creating this rhythm. 

However, we should differentiate between predictability and inflexibility.  Life itself is certainly not completely predictable, and babies and young children will have slightly different needs from one day to the next.  Trying to impose too much routine does not allow for this, and a too rigid approach may create stress or conflict for both parent and child.  A toddler who has no flexibility in their schedule may struggle to develop the resilience necessary to cope with the unpredictable nature of life.  

Another consideration is that stress, in either child or parent, is one of the most common reasons for yang energy to rise up in the body.  When this happens, children may display more intense emotions, be inclined towards digestive disturbances and sleep less well.  Therefore, it’s probably not worth rushing home in a fluster purely to make sure we can get our baby off to sleep on the dot of 7pm. The anxiety this may induce is most likely more detrimental than going to bed slightly later than usual.  

The vast majority of children will benefit from having some rhythm and routine in their life most of the time.  Beyond this basic premise, each parent and child must find a way through the first years of life which creates the most ease for both of them.  Pronouncements about one approach being ‘right’ and another ‘wrong’ are missing the point.   A more helpful way to look at it is to assess the unique needs of each parent and child, and to respond to that as best as possible.  

How does a child get real ‘downtime’ in the 21st century?

Why is downtime important?

Everybody benefits from downtime.  From the Chinese medicine perspective, however, downtime is not a luxury but a necessity for children. The first years of life are primarily concerned with laying down strong foundations for the child’s long term physical and mental health.  If a child’s schedule is overly demanding, it means that their resources of qi (vital energy) will be consumed by having to manage all these external activities.  There will then be less available to fuel the extraordinarily rapid physical and mental development that takes place during the first years of life.  This principle applies until after puberty, when the growth rate finally slows down.   

How can parents create downtime for their children?

However, many parents struggle to create an opportunity for their children to have downtime.  Many children ‘relax’ by looking at an electronic device of some sort.  Depending on what the child is doing on the device, this is often anything but relaxing.  Many video games are highly adrenalizing, and time spent on social media can cause agitation and anxiety.  So, what is the solution?

The key point is to look at the impact any activity has on a child, in order to decide whether or not it truly constitutes downtime.  For an introverted child, spending time alone will probably be relaxing and calming, whereas for another child, it may cause anxiety and they would be more able to relax by spending time with other people.  For one child, playing a game of football will help them to unwind more than doing a jigsaw puzzle might, because it gets them ‘out of their head’ and into their body.  For another, any competitive sport might wind them up and stress them out.  

In general, there are some common characteristics that we can look out for, that might indicate a particular activity is true downtime.  They are:

The activity nurtures the child’s feelings of attachment

One of the most universally reliable ways for a child to truly relax is to be with a person or people with whom they feel safe and connected, and for that person or those people to be themselves relaxed and present.  

The activity allows the child’s qi to flow

This means it has an effect similar to taking a big, slow deep breathe.  Their body and mind relax as opposed to tense up.  

The activity does not trigger an adrenaline surge

Anything that causes adrenaline to pump around the body is the antithesis of downtime.  Adrenaline is the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, so it is produced in response to a threat.  For a child, that might be the threat of losing a match or not bettering a previous score on a video game. Or it might be the threat of being alone or, conversely, of being with too many people.  You will know an activity has produced an adrenaline surge if the child is grumpy or moody when the activity stops. 

The activity helps the child’s qi to ‘descend’

Anything that causes a child’s qi to flare upwards will not be relaxing.  There are two aspects to this.  Firstly, something that requires a child to have to exert their brain power beyond what is easy for them will mean their qi collects in their head.  So, for some children, even reading might not constitute downtime, when it is a struggle for them.  Secondly, an activity which is extremely exciting will mean that the child’s qi rises upwards.  This could be going to a party or watching a particularly thrilling movie. 

Balance is the key

As with most things, balance should be the guiding principle and the philosophy of yinyang is a good way to understand this.  If a child has had a period of physical activity, then it makes sense to follow this with something that allows their body to rest.  If a child has been working hard at school all day whilst sitting in a classroom, then it makes sense to follow this with an opportunity for them to run around.  If a child has been in a crowded, noisy shopping mall for a few hours, then it makes sense to find an opportunity for them to be somewhere quiet and get some fresh air.  Every child will have different ways of relaxing.  The key is for the parent to attempt to recognise what achieves this effect in their child, and to find ways to try to incorporate it into the child’s life as frequently as possible. 

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

Kids and phones: a cause of mental health problems or a storm in a teacup?

If there is one thing that parents of pre-teens and teenagers are likely to struggle with it is knowing how to manage their child’s phone use.  And looking for science to help clarify whether or not kids’ phone usage really is something to worry about, can create further confusion.  One study will find a supposedly definite link between time spent on social media and mental health problems, whilst another claims the exact opposite. 

So, how can parents navigate their way through this minefield?  And how can the ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine help with such a modern phenomenon?

Children are unique

One person’s medicine is another’s poison, as the old saying goes.  Just as with everything else in life, each child will have a different capacity to cope with technology and the online world.  Rather than making blanket rules about the number of hours kids should be allowed to spend on their various devices each day, it can be more helpful to observe the individual. 

  • What is triggering a child to use her device?

Does she use it to deflect from emotions that she finds challenging, such as anger or anxiety?  Disconnecting with an emotion by doing something on a phone or other device, does not mean the emotion will go away. Strong emotions create imbalances of qi that can cause physical symptoms.

  • What is she doing when she is on her device?

Many children use their devices for really positive ends, for example, connecting with others to fight a cause, creative pursuits or keeping abreast of important world events.  Others use their devices only to play violent games, or to try to find validation from others on social media that they are not getting in their ‘real’ life, for example. 

  • What is her mood like when she comes off her device?

If a child is regularly grumpy, angry or agitated when she comes off her device, it is a sign that she is either too reliant upon it, has been on it too long or whatever she is doing on it is having a negative effect on her qi

  • Has technology replaced other activities in the child’s life?

Whilst technology is going to be a central and important part of our children’s lives, whether we like it or not, it is not usually health-promoting if this is to the exclusion of other activities.  Extremes of anything are rarely beneficial, whereas balance and variety usually are. I often use the American psychologist Dan Siegel’s idea of the Healthy Mind Platter, as a way of explaining to older kids and teenagers the importance of having variety in their activities (https://www.drdansiegel.com/resources/healthy_mind_platter/)

What are the energetic effects of time spent on screens?

Overstimulation

At the very heart of Chinese medicine philosophy is the concept of yin and yang.  To maintain health, there needs to be balance between these two poles.  Yin corresponds to rest and yang corresponds to activity.  Over a twenty-four period, there will be a constant flux between this duality of yin and yang.  Night time is predominantly yin and day time is predominantly yang.  To grow and remain healthy, children and teenagers need a balance of yin (restful) and yang (active) elements to their day.

Even though they don’t involve physical movement, most activities that kids and teens do on their devices are yang in nature.  Repeatedly checking social media or playing adrenalizing video games tend to agitate and stimulate a child’s qi.  Children often go on their devices to ‘relax’ and ‘switch off’ yet, ironically, it can have the opposite effect.  It may be that the child’s body can relax but often their mind becomes more stimulated.  If a child’s day consists of mental stimulation at school, and then mental (and often emotional) stimulation at home on screens, then the balance of yin and yang will go awry.  

Agitation

Chinese medicine describes the Heart (by which we mean the energetic function of the Heart channel) as responsible for the overall state of the emotions.  The Heart is also the part of us which is most affected by strong or prolonged emotions.  In particular, Heart qi will only thrive when the emotions are peaceful, quiet and calm.    

One of the common effects of a child getting a phone, is that it becomes much harder for her to achieve this necessary calm state.  A part of the child’s psyche, whatever else she may be doing, is tuned in to whatever happens to be going on at that moment with her friends. This is usually being played out on a Whatsapp group or Instagram or similar.  The drive to be accepted and become part of a tribe that is typical of this age makes it very hard for the child to ignore the chat of the moment.  She is never able to enter a truly relaxed state because she is agitated or slightly hyped-up by the constant contact. Even if the contact is positive, kind and friendly, it will often still have this effect. 

Of course, enabling contact and communication with friends is a benefit of having a phone.  Kids no longer have to fight to use the landline with other family members to make social arrangements.  But, when it prevents them from ever tuning out or switching off, constant engagement with people online can create agitation and be a cause of imbalance, particularly in the mental-emotional realm.  

Stagnation

While time spent on devices may agitate the mind, it tends to cause stagnation in the body purely by virtue of the fact that it means the child is usually stationary for long periods of time.  Movement is even more important for kids than it is for adults.  Their very nature is yang, which needs expression in the form of movement.  From the Chinese medicine perspective, stagnation of qi can be involved in a wide variety of health problems from headaches and gut problems to depression.  

Yang rising to the head

The natural direction of yang is to rise upwards, like heat or the flames of a fire.  The tendency for this in children is even greater than it is in adults.  Too many activities that encourage this upward movement to become even greater can become problematic.  They can mean that a child becomes out of kilter, with too much energy stuck in her head and not enough in her body.  Symptoms that may arise as a result of this may include insomnia or headaches.  

So, are there any rules of thumb?

Our job as parents is to help guide our children so that the use of technology remains a positive in their life rather than becoming something that makes them ill or unhappy.  Just as we would not dream of letting our child run into the sea on their own before learning to swim, kids need some ‘training’ on how to learn to be safe on devices.  

Is technology preventing your child from having a balance of different activities in their daily life?

If a child is spending the vast majority of her time on devices, it is very unlikely to be health-promoting.  If she is spending some time on devices, as well as seeing friends in person, doing some physical activity, having true ‘downtime’, relating to family and, crucially, getting enough sleep, it is probably nothing to worry about. 

Is your child retreating into the online world as a way of avoiding something difficult in the real world?

If a child connects with people online because she is too anxious to meet up with them face-to-face, then her social anxiety needs to be addressed.  If she is turning to a device every time she feels angry instead of expressing her anger, it will not help her to learn how to manage emotions in a health-giving way. 

Is your child regularly grumpy or agitated when she comes off her screens?

If so, it is probably worth reviewing whether what she is doing on a screen is promoting balance in her body and mind.  Or it could be that the time she is spending on a screen is too much for her (remembering that what is fine for one child might be too much for another). 

Is your child finding it increasingly difficult to be calm, present and peaceful?

If so, it may be because she is too ‘hooked in’ to whatever is going on in her online world.  This can prevent a child from being able to enjoy being in the moment, taking note of how they feel or what is going on around them.  Although children may, on the surface, be furious when a parent imposes limits on their device usage, deep down they may even be grateful for it!  Whilst phones themselves are not addictive, platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as often as possible.  (If you don’t believe me, have a look at this TedX talk ‘Cell phones, dopamine and development’ by Dr Barbara Jennings.)

So, if it is possible to draw any firm conclusions at all, one may be that it is probably not helpful to say categorically that ‘phones and technology are all bad’ or, equally to say that they are ‘really nothing to worry about’.  When used in the right way, and to the right degree, phones can add useful dimensions to a child’s life and increase her happiness.  When used in the wrong way, or to an excessive degree, phone usage can contribute to a child’s ill health or unhappiness. The key is to look at each individual child and ask which is true for them.