Phase 1: Water to Wood: Where Am I going?
Somewhere between the age of seven and ten years old (depending on your child’s nature) the winter to spring cycle of transformation begins. Often one of the earliest signs of adolescence we may notice in our child is that his sleep habits change. Your child may begin having difficulty falling asleep at the usual times. Likewise, he may have trouble waking up in the morning. Perhaps your child is showing signs of wanting more privacy for sleep. These are the first stirrings of Wood’s need for separation and independence.
In our modern, mechanized society, we don’t always allow for subtle changes in our children. Most adolescents are chronically sleep deprived. At night they are plugged into high-energy screens (TV, cell phone, video games) that trick the brain into thinking that it’s daytime, and the brain fails to increase the natural melatonin levels that signal sleep. Schools schedule earlier start times, leading to sleep deprivation, which studies have shown puts undue stress on the growing child’s metabolism, and may contribute to excessive mood swings, poor attention, and immune dysregulation.
- Look for subtle changes in sleep cycles and explain (without judgment) the meaning of these natural shifts in growth rates.
- Allow your teen to make up sleep on the weekend. He will thank you for this!
- Come up with a plan to turn off video screens well before sleep time to allow for an easier transition into sleep. This is a good time to do some breathing exercises together, to promote physical and mental relaxation.
- Practice what you preach! Make sure you turn off your video screens and get enough sleep as well. You’re going to need it in order to deal patiently with your teenager.)
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Phase 2: Wood to Fire: What’s New?
As your child moves further into adolescence, her moods may become more intense and volatile. Inwardly your child is asking, “What’s happening to me?”, as physical changes begin to manifest outwardly. These are the first flames of hormonal fire. Frightened and confused, children often cannot imagine that you understand what they are experiencing. Sudden shifts in their emotional life can drive impulsive cravings and risk-taking behavior. Poor dietary habits contribute to these mood swings. Junk food and sodas only feed these erratic behaviors, and exacerbate physical changes such as acne, obesity and blood sugar instability that, taken together, exaggerate vicious cycles of emotional instability.
- Expect and respect volatility in your teen. During intense episodes, there is a refractory period during which reasoning with your child simply will not work. Give your child space and time to recover from mood shifts, and then acknowledge her ability to recover. This will empower her rather than humiliate her.
- Don’t lose your sense of humor. Laugh with your child not at her! This may be one of the best ways to lessen the drama.
- Leave reading material in your child’s room for her to explore on her own that offers accurate information about the physical changes she’s experiencing. Create opportunities to discuss privately what’s happening, but don’t force your child to discuss things if she’s not ready.
- Practice what you preach! Developing healthy eating habits begins with you.
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Phase 3: Fire To Earth: How Do I Fit In?
One of the natural ways children move through the transitions of adolescence is by building new bonds outside the family. The loyalty of friends takes on increasingly important meaning in a teenager’s life. This is a subtle sign of Earth’s uniting power. Fitting in takes on a sense of urgency for survival within the emerging subculture of the teen, shaping his interests and desires. As your child moves out into his own peer group, he may become less willing to share his thoughts with you. Maintaining open communication can be challenging. Forced interactions never work, but it is critically important to create opportunities for a teen’s voice to be heard – a safe haven that solidifies bonds of trust between you.
- Develop a tradition of storytelling in your family. This is one the most powerful ways we solidify family bonds and honor our ancestors. Telling stories about your experience and childhood can help your children feel less alone and develop confidence by connecting to the big picture of their lives.
- Go for a walk or a drive with your child. Occasions that do not require eye contact allow your child to open up naturally without feeling coerced.
- Remember, there is a lot of misinformation being passed around between teenagers. Be a voice of compassionate reason, not judgment, in listening to your child’s thoughts and feelings. Create a field of security in your conversations by exploring answers together.
- Practice what you preach! If you want your child to bond with you, consider asking his opinion about a problem you are having. This is a great way to gain his respect and let him feel like he’s an important member of the family.
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Phase 4: Earth to Metal: Why?
As children move further into the complexities of adolescence, bodily changes trigger increasing concerns about their personal appearance. Your child’s styles of clothing and hair may begin to take on quasi-religious importance. A teen’s “look” is an outer expression of her emerging personal identity. The power of Metal inspires children to question rules, values and group dynamics. The advertising media capitalize on this, creating unnatural distortions in a young person’s self-image. This can place them in situations they are not emotionally ready for, causing lasting effects on a child’s emotional health and identity.
Teenagers are very concrete in their thinking, with difficulty anticipating consequences. I once had a conversation with an adolescent specialist who had been doing an MRI study of the typical teenage male brain. His anthropologist acquaintance noticed that the part of the prefrontal cortex that enables us to plan ahead was underdeveloped, just like the brains of Neanderthal they had discovered. When I explain to parents that they have a Neanderthal living in their house, suddenly their child’s inflexible behavior makes sense.
- Never tell a Neanderthal that he’s acting like a Neanderthal! No teenager wants to be told they’re acting like a teenager. This only engenders humiliation and resentment.
- Every teenager feels like he’s not being heard. When your teenager growls, “I don’t want to do my homework!”, for example, don’t try to reason with him. First try repeating what he said back to him: “You don’t want to do your homework!” You may find this is a much more effective way of getting him to shift, trust and reconnect with you by validating his resistance.
- Help your teen discover shades of emotions. This takes practice. Try asking your teenager to grade his feelings on a scale of 1 – 3. This allows him to learn how to say, “I’m just a little angry.” That’s a major breakthrough.
- Practice what you preach! Your own spiritual practice can have a profound influence on your child’s life. Teaching your children how to work with themselves through such arts as qi-gong, meditation or yoga, can be wonderfully empowering, nurturing their self-esteem and helping regulate metabolic functions that are key to good health.
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Phase 5: Metal Returns to Water: Who Am I?
During the great upheaval of change that is the journey of adolescence, we can help our children discover their own secret powers of wisdom and compassion. Identity begins to regain some sense of stability around 15 years of age. In traditional cultures this is a time for moving out into the world and establishing one’s own family responsibilities. Because we now delay this process through high school, many teenagers feel unsure of their purpose and direction in life, manifested by identity crises and distorted self-images. This can lead to unhealthy and dangerous habits that dissipate a teenager’s energy, resilience and adaptability. When as a parent you pay attention to the subtle signs of change, you honor the powerful physiological and psychological processes that are taking place within your child as she becomes an adult. When you remain mindful of the balance of outside forces that are influencing her life, you can promote long-lasting harmony between you. This is one of the keys to a good life for the child and for the family.
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