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

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

It was Tolstoy who wrote that ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.  Much as I hate to argue with one of my literary heroes, I would say that no two families are alike, whether happy or not, even if they appear to be on the surface.  The dynamics within a family are as unique as the individuals who make up that family.  If it is true that no two snowflakes ever have been or ever will be exactly the same, that seems a better metaphor for families!

Members of a family are inextricably linked emotionally and energetically.  The health and happiness of all the members is interdependent.  In Chinese medicine theory, we understand that every individual contains each of the 5 Elements and that each of the Elements is connected.  When we treat somebody with acupuncture, treating one Element has an impact on the other four too.  It is the same in a family.  If one member is ill, stressed or unhappy, it will affect all the other members, even in ways that are often too subtle to immediately notice.

Robyn Skinner and John Cleese, in their book Families and How To Survive Them describe the concept of the family scapegoat.  This is the idea that difficult feelings within the family (e.g anger, frustration, anxiety or sadness) may be subconsciously taken on and carried by one member of the family.  If these feelings are very strong, this person, who may be a parent or child, may manifest this burden by becoming ill, either physically, mentally or emotionally.  

Have you ever heard someone describe a member of the family as being ‘the one with the problems’?  Or to say something like ‘The rest of us are fine but little Johnnie is just always so angry all the time – it’s hard to be around and I just don’t know why he is that way’?  when it’s obvious that a family think of one member as being ‘the difficult/different/sensitive/withdrawn one’, this is a clue that this person may be carrying the burden of feelings on behalf of everybody else. 

Of course, no parent ever sets out for things to be this way.  Families create scapegoats, however, because of subtle dynamics that arise as a result of other family members struggling to resolve their own emotional difficulties. People are not islands, and when they are all thrown together, they ‘land’ in a certain way and each one takes on a role within the group that comes most naturally to them.  The longer each person is stuck in their role, the harder it is to break out of it.  People often resist change and each family member will (unconsciously again) have something invested in each of the other family members playing their particular role. 

So, during lockdown, when the pace of most of our lives has slowed down (apart from the heroic key workers to whom we owe so much), we have the perfect opportunity to bring some of these subtle dynamics into awareness and see if we can transcend them.   Here are a few suggestions of how you might do this:

  • Identify which one of your family is struggling the most, either psychologically or physically
  • Do you have any insights about what emotional load they might be carrying?  Think about when their suffering began, what was going on in their life and in the family at that time?  (For example, did your child’s headaches begin around the time you and your partner were going through a difficult patch?)
  • Even if everyone in your family is essentially ‘ok’, reflect on where the tensions are.  Do you have higher expectations of one child than another?  Do you find yourself always blaming one sibling rather than another when they argue?  Does your partner focus all their worry on one child?
  • Becoming aware of these dynamics is the most important step.  Next time you find yourself cross with one of your children at the end of the day for ‘ruining the atmosphere’, take a few deep breaths and try to see if perhaps the dynamic was not that straightforward.  For example, did one child start acting up because they sensed your easier bond with a sibling?

Watch, notice and take the time to put on a new pair of glasses and understand your family dynamic from a different perspective.  It doesn’t matter that you can’t instantly change everything, and there is no place for becoming overly self-critical either.  But there is great value in taking the time to understand things in a different way.

There is a renowned living practitioner of Chinese medicine called Liu Yousheng.  He summed it up beautifully when he said:

Don’t talk of mysteries, don’t talk of subtlety!  Focus your teaching on the Dao of being human.  And where does this Dao of being human start? It starts with the Five Relationships, it starts with the family.  Family relationships are the crucial step in the Dao!”

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.  

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and why to avoid asking kids this question…

A sixteen-year-old came to my clinic for treatment yesterday and said she was feeling anxious.  As we explored the reasons for her anxiety, it became clear that the nub of it was connected with her fears of the future.  Specifically, she was anxious that she did not know what kind of work she wanted to do.  What struck me most about our conversation was her feeling that she should, at the age of sixteen, know what job she wanted to do as an adult. 

To some degree, childhood, and especially adolescence, has always been a waiting ground for adulthood. Many older children and teens spend their days dreaming of the time when they will be able to make their own decisions, have all the freedom they want and begin real life.  But when dreaming of the future tips over into being anxious of the future, something has gone awry.   

It seems to me that childhood has become a constant race to get to the next stage.  Parents are often desperate to get their young babies to sleep through the night, and see it as a victory when that first happens.  Reward charts are used in an attempt to get kids to potty train, get themselves dressed or eat more vegetables.   Parents say to their twelve-year-old child ‘How are you ever going to cope at university if you can’t get out of the house on time for school without me nagging you?’.  Parental anxiety can mean that we assume if our child cannot do something when they are 12, that they won’t be able to do when they are 19.  

Of course, children need encouragement at times. But they also need to know that they are OK as they are. Of course, it is only natural for teens to think about how they want their future to be.  But not at the expense of making the present OK.   The best way to ensure a child develops in a healthy and timely way, is to meet their emotional, psychological and physical needs at any given moment.  Constantly urging them to be mastering the next skill or thinking about their future potentially has two negative effects.  It gives them the message that they are in some way not enough as they are now, and it can breed anxiety about the future.  

In Chinese medicine, our relationship to the future is governed by the Water Element (click here for more about the Water Element).  The spirit of the Water Element (the zhi) enables us to ‘go with the flow’ of life rather than trying to control it.  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.   When the Water Element is not strong, a child will have more of a tendency to be fearful of or catastrophise about the future.  And the more a child is anxious of the future, the more depleted her Water Element will become.   One way to help minimize anxiety building up in older kids and teens, is to allow and support them to make the present as good as it can be, instead of overly focusing on the future.

Growing and developing from a baby to a child to a teen and finally an adult has never been a straightforward, linear path.  It is usually a messy business which involves wrong turns, some pain and a bit of to-ing and fro-ing.  When development is artificially accelerated, it is always precarious.  Childhood is all about building strong foundations, on which our adult self can trust and rely.  When we rush it, the foundations are weakened.  

I endeavoured to bring the conversation with my sixteen-year-old patient back to what makes her feel fired up and evokes her passion, to what lights a spark inside her.  Using this as a guide for decisions she has to make now, provides her with the best chance of a happy and successful future. 

As Sophocles wisely said:

‘Tomorrow is tomorrow.
Future cares have future cures,
And we must mind today.’

When a tummy ache has little to do with the stomach…

In my clinic today, I noticed a theme.  Several children came in with symptoms that had arisen or become worse after an emotional upset.  A ten-year-old girl developed a painfully sore throat after a sleepover which went badly.  A thirteen-year-old girl, who suffers from chronic fatigue (post-viral) syndrome, deteriorated when her mother went away for a few days.  The symptoms of a twelve-year-old boy with severe motor tics became worse after a row with his parents.

It is now widely accepted that our emotions have a profound impact on our physical health, and vice versa. However, it often seems as if we pay lip service to this fact rather than truly understanding and applying it.  

This is especially the case with children.  Many children do not have the awareness or the vocabulary to explain how they are feeling.  This may be because they are simply too young, but also because we, as parents, do not teach them how to do it.  It is all too easy to regard a symptom as a ‘medical’ problem and give a child some Calpol (paracetamol) to relieve it. Often it is well worth taking the time to explore with them what has led to it and if there is an unacknowledged emotion involved. 

The classic example of this is the Monday morning tummy ache.  It is much easier for a child to say she has a tummy ache than it might be to say ‘I am really worried about school today because my new teacher shouts a lot.’  It is not that the child is lying or that the discomfort they feel in their tummy is not real.  But an unacknowledged emotion (in this case, anxiety) often manifests as a physical symptom.  Research in America indicates that in 8 out of 10 primary age children, their tummy ache stems from anxiety. [1]

Chinese medicine has always understood that emotions, when they are unacknowledged, intense or chronic, may cause physical symptoms.  This is because emotions interfere with the smooth flow of qi in our bodies.  Most of us experience this on a regular basis.  Have you ever noticed that your neck and shoulders are tense and painful in the lead up to a particularly stressful event at work?  Or do you literally feel ‘sick with worry’ when your teenager is not back when they should be and is not answering their phone?

We all somatise our emotions at times, and this is especially true for children.  So how can we do it differently?  And, more importantly, how can we support our children to see a physical symptom as a potentially helpful clue or signpost that something in their life might need to be addressed?  

  • Look at what happened just before the symptom came on.  If it is a recurrent symptom, look to see if there is a pattern in terms of when it arises or gets worse
  • If you suspect your child is feeling an emotion they don’t yet have a word for, name it for them.  Phrases such as ‘Perhaps that has made you feel angry’ or ‘I wonder if you are feeling frightened’ can be helpful 
  • Avoid saying things such as ‘Don’t be sad’ or ‘You shouldn’t be angry about that’.  Don’t make feelings taboo.  We all have them and if we tell our children they shouldn’t, the feeling won’t go away.  It will be suppressed and become even more likely to create physical symptoms (as well as more emotional issues in time)
  • Spend time conversing with your children, and do not wait until they have a physical symptom to do this.  It sounds almost too simple to say but the busy-ness of life can mean that many of us simply do not spent time just chatting with our kids.  If the contact between you and child is good, and they get the sense you are relaxed and unrushed, they are much more likely to share with you how they are feeling.  
  • Talk about your own feelings.  Of course, it would not be appropriate to burden our children with our feelings, and we should always be mindful of what is age-appropriate.  But sometimes saying things such as ‘I am feeling upset today because work didn’t go very well’ lets your child know it is acceptable to experience and talk about lots of different emotions. 

Of course, unacknowledged emotions are only one of many possible causes of physical symptoms.  However, they are the cause that perhaps is most often overlooked in children.  This may be partly because, as parents, we do not like to think of our children as being anything other than happy.  It is more comfortable for us to think that our child is wetting the bed because they drink too much in the evening and have a ‘weak bladder’ than because they feel insecure about something.  In many cases, it is not a matter of ‘either/or’.  It is often when a combination of factors comes together that a physical symptom occurs.  It is of course beyond our control to eliminate all possible causes of physical symptoms in our children’s lives, but supporting them to become emotionally literate is something we can do that has the potential to be of huge benefit.  

[1] Campo, J. Pediatrics, April 2004: vol 113; pp 817-824

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.  

What is the unspoken harm of screen time for children?

There are many documented reasons why excessive screen time may be harmful for children.  Those most commonly cited are its negative impact on sleep and its contribution to rising obesity levels, as well as educational and/or behavioural problems.  While these are all valid issues, a far more detrimental effect is rarely mentioned. 

When children spend a lot of time on screens, they miss the opportunity to go inwards and find out how they are feeling.  A bus journey that might have been spent gazing out of the window and noticing how they feel, may now be spent catching up with the latest posts on Instagram.  Instead of sitting with feelings of anger induced by an argument with a sibling, a child now often escapes this feeling by turning straight to their phone.  I have often seen teenagers pick up their device because something made them feel anxious.  By turning their attention to watching YouTube videos, they can escape the discomfort that their anxious feelings cause. 

Why is this such a problem?  Since Socrates implored people to ‘know thyself’ and Aristotle proclaimed that ‘knowing thyself is the beginning of all wisdom’, it has become widely accepted that good mental health involves developing a certain level of self-awareness.  From a Chinese medicine perspective, emotions become a cause of disease when they are prolonged, intense or repressed.  When a child loses themselves online to escape a feeling of sadness, for example, the sadness does not go away.  On the contrary, it will most likely fester inside them and have a negative impact on their flow of qi.  This can lead to physical symptoms.  But it can also create the unwelcome situation of the child not feeling content or well in themselves, but not really knowing why.  This disconnection from emotions means that the spirit of the young person is no longer thriving.

It is not helpful to demonise screens.  If we do that, we risk destroying rapport with our children, for whom screens are a part of the fabric of their lives.  But when they become a means by which a young person avoids or detaches from the wide range of emotions that are a necessary part of being human, they begin to do real harm.  As Proust said in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, ‘We are healed of our suffering only by experiencing it to the full.’  

Is your toddler a ‘robust’ or ‘sensitive’ type?

It barely needs stating that every single child in the world is a complete individual, with their own unique combination of traits, tendencies and quirks.  It is important to be mindful of this fact whenever we start talking about types or categories of children.  Although I am about to describe two broad categories of young children, please bear in mind that within each category there are an infinite number of nuances!

Chinese medicine understands that children may be born with one of two constitutional tendencies.  Neither type is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other.  Children in both categories will have their own set of challenges and strengths.  However, understanding which type your child is, may help to guide you in how you parent them.  This is most applicable in  children up to the age of about four.  

The robust child

The robust child is born with a surplus of qi.  They will look physically robust, often have red cheeks and a huge appetite.  They perceive the world as a place that needs exploring.  Every new place they go or new person they meet is a wonderful opportunity to express their natural inquisitiveness.  They make their presence strongly felt and are often impossible to ignore!  

The robust child will thrive off having a full and varied daily routine, with lots of stimulation and activity.  They will hate being constrained and will often show a strong level of independence for their age. 

When they become ill, they tend to have strong symptoms and high fevers.  They may be very ill but throw off the illness as quickly as they succumbed to it.  

The sensitive child

The sensitive child is born with not quite enough qi.  They will often be physically slight or thin, have a pale complexion and tend to eat small amounts of a smaller range of foods.  They may need time and the support of an adult to adjust to new places or people.  They may need to ‘warm up’ before revealing their true nature in situations that they are not entirely familiar with. 

The sensitive child will thrive off having a quieter lifestyle.  They will need a balance of activity and stimulation, with rest and downtime.  They may rely on the presence of a parent to help them feel secure when they are going to a new place or doing a new activity.  

They tend to get mild illnesses, that may last a while but rarely amount to anything.  

Some children fall very clearly into one category, whilst others seem to sit somewhere in the middle of the two.   This way of classifying children has some overlaps with the system developed by paediatric health researcher William Boyce.  He differentiates between ‘dandelions and orchids’.  He writes that dandelions are able to thrive in a wide variety of environments, whereas orchids need a more specific environment in which to thrive.  I would say that the kind of society most children in urban environments are brought up in does indeed favour the robust type child.  This is unfortunate, as the majority of children born in the West today are the sensitive type (the reasons for this will be the subject of another post!).  Below are some tips that might help parents, who clearly identify their child as being strongly one type or other, meet their needs.  

Robust children need:

  • A lot of movement and physical activity (although rest of course too)
  • Opportunities for lots of exploration and adventure
  • Sometimes help with knowing when they are full 
  • Guidance to know when to step back and allow other children to take centre stage!
  • Lots of love (of course) but firm, clear boundaries

Sensitive children need:

  • Smaller amounts of activity interspersed with rest
  • Encouragement to explore and try new things
  • Encouragement to eat a wide range of food
  • To be allowed to take their time to feel their way into new situations or relationships
  • Lots of love (of course) and a gentle, tender approach

It is very easy, as a parent, to be concerned that our child is a particular way.  For example, we may worry that our really robust child dominates when playing with other children and that this means as an adult they will be perceived as over-bearing or bossy.  Or we may worry that our sensitive child is never going to make their mark in the world and will be over-looked.  But this worry is usually misplaced.  Both robust and sensitive children, as they grow and mature, will have the ability to find a path in life where they can express their true nature and excel.  If we try to turn a child into something they are not, we are likely to cause them harm.  If we respect their individuality, and meet their needs accordingly, they are likely to emerge into adulthood with the confidence to manifest their true nature in the world.  

Nurturing the Young webinar: coming up this Saturday

I wanted to alert you to my upcoming webinar this Saturday.  It is a three hour webinar for practitioners, but also interested parents, titled “The Importance of Nurturing the Young to raise healthy, happy children.”  This short introduction interview with Lorne Browne, of Healthy Seminars (who are hosting the webinar) will tell you all you need to know about it.

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