A few weeks ago, I recorded a one hour webinar for the Singing Dragon library entitled ‘Why do children become ill?’ Chinese Medicine has so much to offer on this topic, at a time when levels of chronic physical illness and mental/emotional illness in children are escalating. Until the end of October, you can purchase the webinar with a 25% discount, by entering the code AWS25 at the checkout. Please go to http://library.singingdragon.com to purchase it.
Discount code for ‘Why do children become ill?’ webinar
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
Paediatric masterclass: addressing the emotional needs of children according to the 5 personality types
Last week, Julian Scott, Robin Ray Green and I did a short, free webinar where we chatted about the impact on children of Covid 19 and how our society has responded to it. This Tuesday, we are doing a deep dive into how the 5 personality types have responded differently, and how to help each type when they come back to clinic. To register, please follow the link below. https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/4015966248079/WN_wQclmDrLSCav3NKXUKxXAg
At 9pm BST today, I will be doing the first in a series of 3 informal Q & A sessions with Healthy Seminars entitled – What I wish I had included in my Book. This evenings session will focus on treating teenagers. There will be another on 10th September focussing on shonishin and the final one will be on 24th September focussing on eczema. These sessions are all free – please sign up following the link below. I hope to see you there!
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.
I was really excited to be invited as a guest on Michael Max’s wonderful Qiological podcast. We had a really wide ranging and interesting discussion on all things adolescent – from the Chinese Medicine view of puberty, to the challenges of being a teen and to working with teenagers in the treatment room. We also focussed on possible reasons for the increase in mental/emotional health problems in teens today. Please do have a listen and share with anybody else who might be interested.
Are your teens now at home for the foreseeable future? What will be important to them and how can you support them?
Yesterday I watched the excitement and elation of five pre-teens and young teens as they heard the news that school was going to be out for the next few weeks at least. One of the first things they did was to download apps to make sure they could easily communicate as a group if they were not able to see each other. They then began writing their ‘No school bucket lists’, and top of all of them was the resolution to ‘make sure not to become distant from my friends’.
Even in extraordinary times, teenagers are still teenagers. And there is nothing more important to most teens than their friendships. Whilst as parents, we may look forward to being able to spend more time with our teenage children and to deepen our connection with them, no doubt their main concern will be how they are going to cope with being stuck at home with their parents. It is natural for a teenager to increasingly separate from their parents, to go out and find their own tribe. It’s a time when they need to explore their identity, and to find out who they are outside of their family. So, any enforced isolation is likely to jar with their deep drive and instinct to go outwards into the world.
|In Chinese medicine, adolescence is resonant with the Fire Element. The Fire Element governs how we manage our relationships with other people and ourselves. The qi of the Fire Element intensifies during adolescence, which is why children of this age tend to feel things very passionately! This intensity also drives teens to fulfil their developmental role of this time – ie. to make strong connections with others outside the family.|
Whilst those of you who regularly read my blog will know that I have written a lot about the potential negatives of screen time and social media, this is one time when the benefits of it will come into their own. If technology allows our teens to keep those connections with their new-found tribes, it will make this time of uncertainty and disruption a lot easier for them than it otherwise would have been.
At the same time, although teenagers would rather do just about anything than admit to needing their parents, they really do still need us! They are in a state of huge internal flux. Put that together with the enormous external changes they are currently experiencing, and it makes for a potentially anxious time. The more as parents we can work on managing our own anxieties and fears (which may be great at the moment), the more our teens will benefit. What they need from us at the moment, more than ever, is to feel that we are solid and stable. That is not to say we need to pretend that ‘everything is ok’ when it is patently not, but that we need to let them know that, despite all the difficulties, we as a family will come through it.
So, as well as recognising that over the next few weeks or months, our teens will have a strong need to connect with their peers, it might also be beneficial to ringfence some time each day to put away screens and to connect as a family.
Here are some other potential benefits for teens of an enforced, prolonged period out of school:
- Time to catch up on some sleep: teens are growing and changing so fast and good sleep is crucial for this process.
- Time to slow down and lean in to a more yin lifestyle: most teens have crazily chaotic lives with little downtime. Learning how to be still and have downtime at this age will serve them well for the rest of their lives. Have a look at this blog post – ‘How does a child get real downtime in the 21st century’ – for more thoughts on what actually constitutes ‘downtime’.
- Time to reframe what is important: there is a lot of talk about rising anxiety levels at the moment. But I believe, if dealt with appropriately, this time of crisis could actually help teens to reduce their level of anxiety. Through conversation, we can help them to see that a lot of things they may worry about, are actually of very little consequence. One teen, who is prone to huge amounts of anxiety, and who has just found out she won’t be able to take her A levels said to me ‘I was gutted at first but now I’m OK. It’s made me realise there are more important things in the world. We will get through this and I trust that my life will work out – maybe just differently to how I expected’.
William Arthur Ward wrote ‘The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.’ I wish you and your teens, and indeed all your loved ones, all good wishes in adjusting your sails over the coming weeks.
This week (March 2-8th) is eating disorders awareness week. It is both sad and shocking that eating disorders amongst young people in the western world seem to be on the rise. Whilst many in the developing world are starving, more and more children and teens in the developed world are starving themselves. If they are not starving themselves, many have come to have a disturbed relationship with food and eating. This may cause a daily misery.
The causes of eating disorders are many and varied. They are also relatively poorly understood. Studies point towards a combination of genetic predisposition, psychological and sociological factors. Trauma and difficult family relationships are known to also play a part. But in my experience of working with young people, the seeds of an eating disorder lie in emotional dysfunction. The emotional dysfunction is the root; the disordered eating is the manifestation. An eating disorder is an expression of internal unhappiness. It is a misguided, and sometimes dangerous, way of expressing emotions that, for a variety of reasons, are not able to be either managed or expressed verbally. The young person may not even be conscious of them.
One particular case illustrates this point. I treated a 13-year-old girl who had orthorexia (an obsession with eating only extreme ‘health’ foods) and who had rapidly lost an alarming amount of weight. She was under the care of CAMHS who had put her on a strict weight gain programme. Whilst this was necessary in order to preserve her physical health, it did not address any underlying, dysfunctional emotional patterns. What struck me about the girl when she spoke was the mismatch between her words and her demeanour. She was pathologically polite and did not admit to having any angry feelings at all (even towards her father, who had recently left the family, not responded to her attempts at communication and not acknowledged her thirteenth birthday). Yet her eyes were hard, her voice clipped and I saw flashes of anger across her face.  Through dialogue and acupuncture treatment to bring balance to the Wood Element (which, in Chinese medicine, is associated with emotions in the anger family), the girl began to recognise that she did in fact feel angry and then to be able to express these feelings. The more she expressed the feelings, the less she controlled her eating.
Somewhere along the line, this girl had completely disconnected from her feelings because they felt overwhelming, too painful to sit with or because she had imbibed a value that feeling angry is in some way not ‘good’ or ‘acceptable’. In her case, the predominant emotion was anger. But it could be sadness, fear or a feeling of unlovability, and is very often a mix of many different feelings. When a child disconnects from or ‘packs away’ an emotion over an extended period of time, she will no longer have much consciousness of it being there at all. At this point, the spirit of the young person becomes compromised and a pathological behaviour often arises. This may be disordered eating, self-harm, addiction or OCD, for example.
There are always multiple risk factors for the development of mental illness, as well as multiple protective factors. As parents, we can influence some of these factors but not others. For example, we cannot stop our children’s exposure to images of ‘perfect’ bodies on social media and in the press. But one area where we can have a positive influence is to support our children in becoming comfortable with and adept at verbalising and expressing a wide range of emotions. Some possible ways of doing this are:
- With young children, giving them a word for a feeling we think they may be experiencing. For example, ‘I wonder if you feel jealous that Tommy got that scooter you had been wanting for his birthday’.
- To avoid ever saying to our children ‘don’t be sad’ or ‘you don’t need to feel angry’. This conveys the message that the child is somehow wrong to have this feeling. Sometimes we shut down these emotions in our children because we, the parent, can’t bear the thought that our child is unhappy or because we feel hurt or angry when the emotion is directed at us.
- To model to our children that we, the parent, experience a wide range of emotions and are OK nevertheless. For example, to say that we have had a bad day at work and are feeling frustrated as a result of it, rather than saying ‘I’m fine’ when we are patently not. We can show them that, despite the frustration, we are fundamentally ‘OK’. Our frustrated feelings haven’t prevented us from coping, and they will pass.
Food and eating are so often intertwined with emotion, and eating disorders are especially so. Even though serious eating disorders are mental health conditions, the seeds of them usually lie in emotional dysfunction. Helping our children to express a wide range of emotions, and supporting them to become more emotionally intelligent, will lessen the chances of them expressing their unhappiness through disordered eating.
Cicero wrote that ‘diseases of the soul are more dangerous and more numerous than those of the body’. Eating disorders may mean our children’s bodies are poorly nourished but in order to prevent or heal these common and distressing conditions, we need to nurture our children’s souls.
 In Chinese medicine, we use subtle signs such as the tone of voice, the subtle hues in the complexion and incongruent expression of emotion to diagnose imbalances in a person’s qi.
It is a curious fact that nearly all parents love their children dearly, yet so many children (either during childhood or later on in adulthood) say that they did not feel loved during their childhood. In the clinic today, I saw a 15-year-old boy who talked of how he felt nothing he did was good enough in his parents’ eyes and how he felt he constantly disappointed them. At this point in his life, he did not feel that his parents loved him. Having met both his parents, it was obvious to me how much they did love their son, and also how proud of his many achievements they were. So how can this discrepancy be explained?
A child not feeling loved by parents who truly love them is usually down to a mismatch between the parents’ way of expressing their love, and their child’s way of receiving it. Dr Gary Chapman coined the phrase ‘the 5 love languages’. It is literally as if the parent and child are speaking a different language. They are both trying to communicate, and want to do so. But unless they are speaking the same language, the conversation is not going to get very far. Feeling loved in childhood is, of course, crucial to a children’s future health and happiness. It will impact the way they feel about themselves, as well as how they negotiate and feel about relationships for the rest of their lives. So one of the most important things a parent can do is to find the way their child needs them to express their love.
An alternative to Chapman’s ‘5 love languages’, is to approach our understanding of a child through the lens of the Chinese medicine 5 Element system. This brilliant framework can be an insightful and useful way to make sure we are giving children our love in a way that they can receive.
The 5 Elements are within everyone. (For a description of the 5 Elements please click here to see my previous posts on the topic). However, each child has one Element which predominates and has a profound impact on their personality and behaviour. It colours how they see the world, how they feel in relation to other people and what they need in order to feel loved. Whilst it is too simplistic to say a Wood child needs this and a Fire child needs that, the 5 Element system helps to remind us how different we all are. One sibling may need lots of hugs and physical contact in order to feel loved by his parent. Another might feel swamped or invaded by too much physical affection. As a parent, we need to pause and ask ourselves if the way we express our love for our children is truly making them feel loved.
Imagine a young child is nervous before their first day of a new school. This is something many children feel, yet each will need a different response. For example, one child might feel better if their parent listens to them and lets them talk through their worries. For a different child, this approach might mean their fears escalate. Another might feel better if their parent lets them know how much they love them and that they will be there waiting for them at the end of the day. Yet another child might benefit most from the parent organising visits to the school beforehand and from gentle reassurance. Another child’s fears might be allayed by knowing in advance exactly what is going to happen and how the day is going to be organised.
It is easy for a parent to assume that what they needed as a child in a particular situation is what their child needs. However, the more we can withdraw our projections, notice our child’s unique emotional response and then meet their needs accordingly, the more the child will feel loved.
It takes a fully-trained and skilled acupuncturist to make an accurate diagnosis of which Element is a child’s dominant Element. However, simply taking some time to reflect on the nature of our children and, crucially, in what ways they are different to us, can guide us to show our love in a way that is meaningful to the child. The description below of the different Elements should not be read as a ‘prescription’ of how to approach a particular child. It is more a way of illustrating the fact that every child needs something different and to inspire parents to take a step back and reflect.
In order to feel loved, Fire children need:
- a lot of warmth
- a strong emotional connection
- time with parents who are emotionally present
- fun and laughter
In order to feel loved, Earth children need:
- attuned mothering (a mother-figure who notices and responds to their needs)
- to feel listened to
- to feel understood
- to have a secure physical home
- to feel a part of a community/family unit
In order to feel loved, Metal children need:
- to feel recognised and valued
- meaningful acknowledgement and praise
- an orderly home environment
- permission to have time on their own
- for their physical space and boundaries to be respected
In order to feel loved, Water children need:
- solidity, reliability and consistency in caregivers
- reassurance and gentle encouragement when fearful
- a calm and peaceful home environment
- permission to develop in their own time and at their own pace
In order to feel loved, Wood children need:
- Permission to express their individuality
- An appropriate level of freedom vs boundaries and rules
- An atmosphere without frequent conflict
- Parents willing to take them on adventures and explore the world with them
These are some basic guidelines. The crucial thing is for a parent to be curious about what their child needs in any given situation and to respond to that as best they can. Sometimes this will be easy. The fit between the parent and child is straightforward and the parent’s natural way of expressing love will make the child feel loved. At other times, it can take a bit more time and work on the parents’ part to work out what it is their child needs. This does not make them any less of a ‘good’ parent or mean they love their child any the less. It is simply the case that some relationships need a little bit more work than others.
One of the most important indicators for good mental health is a strong bond between parent and child. The more adept we become, as parents, at understanding how each of our children needs us to express our love for them, the better our bond will be. We don’t need to be psychologists to be able to do this. We simply need to step back for a while, take a few deep breaths and be curious. Children are hard-wired to want a deep emotional connection with their parents. As long as we are willing to truly see and listen, they will usually find clever ways of letting us know how they need us to be.
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.