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

‘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.’

Why we need to slow down the pace of our children’s lives

Many children today live extremely busy lives.  Term time, especially, is often a blur of activities.  After a taxing day at school, many children then have hours of after school and weekend activities.  I hear many parents talk about their children ‘hanging on in there’ or ‘just about holding it together’ as they near the end of a term at school.  We seem to live in a society where ‘doing’ is valued and ‘being’ is not.  Children often grow up deriving their self-esteem from their external achievements.  So, unless they are busy achieving out in the world, they do not know how to feel good about themselves.  This drives them to do more and more. 

But does this matter?  Many people would say that children today are lucky to have so many opportunities to play different sports, learn instruments, do martial arts, learn extra languages, take dance classes or pretty much anything that takes their fancy.  And, of course, on one level they are.  However, as with most things in life, balance and timing are the key. 

One of the most influential Chinese doctors of all time was Sun Simiao, who lived approximately 1500 years ago.  He wrote:

The way of nurturing life is to constantly strive for minor exertion but never become greatly fatigued and force what you cannot endure.’

Ironically, in the 21st century, many of us feel that unless we are greatly fatigued and really ‘digging deep’ that we are simply not working hard enough!  Sun Simiao’s words, however, are especially important for children.  

Children’s yin is said to be ‘immature’.  It is still in a state of development until a child stops growing which, for most children, is some time in the mid-teens.  Yin is essential for the physical body to become strong and for stamina.   Yin also underpins good mental health.  Without it, it is hard for us to feel calm and to be resilient against life’s challenges.  Too much activity depletes the yin energy of the body.  And because children’s yin is not yet fully developed anyway, lots of activity is especially detrimental for them. 

Pushing a young child to become proficient in mandarin, an Olympic gymnast or a highly-skilled musician when they cannot endure it*, is like decorating a house before building strong foundations.  Childhood should be about building the foundations so that they are as strong and robust as possible.  A child then has the rest of their lives to develop refined skills or, as it were, to put the decorations on their house.  

So, if as a parent you feel that your child is constantly tired, or that they have very little opportunity to just ‘be’, it might be worth reflecting on how their schedule can be reduced.  Not only might it help them to grow up physically and mentally strong, it will also teach them an important lifelong lesson.  If, as children, we do not learn how to be still, quiet and reflective at times, we have little hope of doing this as an adult.  

*How to spot the signs that a child may not be enduring what is being asked of them will be the subject of my next blog post.  

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.

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 Wood Element

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

Key themes related to the Wood Element 

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

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Wood Element

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

An overly repressive environment

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

An environment lacking in boundaries, rules and guidance

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

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

Living in an atmosphere of conflict or violence

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

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

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

Difficulty with the expression of anger

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

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

Difficulty achieving an appropriate level of independence

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

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

Other signs the Wood Element may be out of balance

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

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

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

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

Support with the expression of emotions in the anger family

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

Permission to express individuality

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

Provide opportunities for physical activity

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

Summary

Factors that might hinder the healthy development of the Wood Element

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

Signs that the Wood Element may be struggling

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

Support for the healthy development of the Fire Element

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

The Water Element

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

Key themes related to the Water Element

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

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Water Element

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

An atmosphere of fear or anxiety

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

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

An imbalance between rest and activity

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

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

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

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

A child may have an unusual relationship to fear

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

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

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

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

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

Other signs that the Water Element may be compromised

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

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

Create a safe and calm environment in the home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

Factors that hinder the healthy development of the Water Element

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

Signs the Water Element in a child may be struggling

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

Support for the healthy development of the Water Element may include

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

The Fire Element

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

Key themes related to the Fire Element 

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

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Fire Element

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

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

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

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

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

Living in a depressed environment

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

Shock and melodrama

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

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

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

A child may struggle to maintain appropriate levels of joy

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

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

A child may struggle in the realm of relationships

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

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

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

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

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

Try to create an emotional stable and constant environment at home

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

Create opportunities for fun, joy and laughter

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

Permission to be low sometimes

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

Support in managing friendships

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

Summary

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

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

Indications that the Fire Element may be struggling:

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

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

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

The Metal Element

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

Key themes related to the Metal Element

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

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Metal Element

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

Loss

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

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

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

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

The lack of a caregiver who is a symbol of authority

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

Lack of positive acknowledgement or too much criticism

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

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

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

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

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

The child may have a fragile sense of self

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

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

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

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

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

Some other signs that the Metal Element is struggling

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

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

Support a child to deal with loss

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

Give the child meaningful acknowledgement and praise

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

Give your child permission to be less than perfect

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

Provide the right quality and quantity of physical contact

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

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

Create an orderly environment in the home

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

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

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

Summary

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Metal Element

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

Signs the Metal Element in a child may be struggling

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

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

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