Just when you thought you figured it out, everything changes!
One of the profound wonders I get to witness everyday is the way children transform throughout their lives. Preparing parents and children for these changes can help them navigate the deep mysteries of growing up. Nowhere is this more important than in the dramatic transitions through adolescence. Chinese medicine gives us a special lens through which we can support our children and discover the hidden significance of these changes.
The Book of Changes (yijing) is the basis upon which all the classics of Chinese medicine are founded. Bianhua, 變化(transition and transformation) captures the spirit of adolescence that can cause fear and confusion for children and parents living through it. Bian – meaning “transition” – is the pause that permits a kind of necessary chaos that will shake things up in order for transformation and maturation into adulthood to take place. One minute our child wants a hug, the next minute she doesn’t want to be seen in public with us. The pictogram above of hua – “transformation” – shows a person flipping upside down. This topsy-turvy quality of adolescence perfectly illustrates the yin–yang principle embodied in Tai-Chi – that is, when things are pushed to extremes, they will flip to their opposite.
The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath your feet
The first step in preparing to help your child move through the stages of adolescence is to embrace the spirit of change yourself. We are all creatures of habit, and as parents we may sometimes fall into ruts of parenting that assume our children are always going to do things the way we taught them. Growing up is an experiment with life. Parenting is a spiritual practice that begins right in the middle of your life. When we take the time to notice the subtle changes in our child with an open heart, we become role models that can guide her through the stages of adolescence naturally and safely without embarrassment or shame.
The stages of adolescence unfold like the seasons. Chinese medicine offers a unique, ecological understanding of transformation based on seasonal cycles. Winter (Water phase) transforms into spring (Wood phase). Spring (Wood phase) transforms into summer (Fire phase). Summer (Fire phase) transforms into late summer (Earthphase), the season of the Harvest. Late summer (Earth phase) transforms into autumn (Metal phase). Each phase has deep physiological and psychological resonance in our lives. Over the course of many years in pediatric practice, I have found this Five Phase model very useful in generating practical advice for parents in the midst of raising their children.
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. Change comes in different ways to different kids. 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. Read more…
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. Read more…
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, which will shape his interests and desires. Read more…
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. Read more…
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. Read more…
Dr. Cowan is a board-certified pediatrician and certified medical acupuncturist with more than 25 years of clinical experience working with children. We’d like to thank him for his contributions to and support of TCM World Foundation as we continue to educate the public about mind-body-spirit medicine. For more info on Dr. Cowan, please visit his website at www.stephencowanmd.com.
Somewhere between the age of seven and ten years old (depending on your child’s nature)the winter to spring cycle of transformation begins. Change comes in different ways to different kids. 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. Children do most of their growth at night and the spurts of growth hormone tend to energize a child in the evening and tire him during the day. 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 of the adolescents I treat 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. School schedules compound this problem by failing to accommodate adolescent changes. In fact, preteens and teens are typically expected to get to school earlier than younger children. Studies have shown that chronic sleep deprivation puts undue stress on the growing child’s metabolism, and may contribute to excessive mood swings, poor attention, and immune dysregulation. There is evidence that these stressors may be factors associated with the increasing shift towards earlier puberty that we are witnessing in this country.
- 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.)
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. Children often cannot imagine that you understand what they are experiencing. They may be frightened or confused, feeling isolated and easily influenced by outside opinions. Sudden shifts in their emotional life can drive impulsive cravings and risk-taking behavior. Poor dietary habits contribute to these mood swings. Junk food, excessive sugar, carbohydrates and the recent popularity of stimulant beverages, all 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.
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, which will shape 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 during adolescence can be challenging for any parent and child. Forced interactions never work, but it is critically important to create opportunities for a teen’s voice to be heard. This will create 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.
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. Why is it that one minute you’re popular and the next you’re not? The advertising media capitalize on this, creating unnatural distortions in a young person’s self-image. “Early bloomers” may feel the urge to dress in more sexually mature styles. This can place them in situations they are not emotionally ready or able to handle, and may have lasting effects on a child’s emotional health and identity.
Teenagers are very concrete in their thinking. They have 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. An anthropologist happened to come by and asked, “Hey where did you get the Neanderthal brains?” He noticed that the part of the prefrontal cortex that enables us to plan ahead was underdeveloped, just like the brains of cavemen 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. So how do you deal with a Neanderthal?
- 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.
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.