It is a curious fact that nearly all parents love their children dearly, yet so many children (either during childhood or later on in adulthood) say that they did not feel loved during their childhood. In the clinic today, I saw a 15-year-old boy who talked of how he felt nothing he did was good enough in his parents’ eyes and how he felt he constantly disappointed them. At this point in his life, he did not feel that his parents loved him. Having met both his parents, it was obvious to me how much they did love their son, and also how proud of his many achievements they were. So how can this discrepancy be explained?
A child not feeling loved by parents who truly love them is usually down to a mismatch between the parents’ way of expressing their love, and their child’s way of receiving it. Dr Gary Chapman coined the phrase ‘the 5 love languages’. It is literally as if the parent and child are speaking a different language. They are both trying to communicate, and want to do so. But unless they are speaking the same language, the conversation is not going to get very far. Feeling loved in childhood is, of course, crucial to a children’s future health and happiness. It will impact the way they feel about themselves, as well as how they negotiate and feel about relationships for the rest of their lives. So one of the most important things a parent can do is to find the way their child needs them to express their love.
An alternative to Chapman’s ‘5 love languages’, is to approach our understanding of a child through the lens of the Chinese medicine 5 Element system. This brilliant framework can be an insightful and useful way to make sure we are giving children our love in a way that they can receive.
The 5 Elements are within everyone. (For a description of the 5 Elements please click here to see my previous posts on the topic). However, each child has one Element which predominates and has a profound impact on their personality and behaviour. It colours how they see the world, how they feel in relation to other people and what they need in order to feel loved. Whilst it is too simplistic to say a Wood child needs this and a Fire child needs that, the 5 Element system helps to remind us how different we all are. One sibling may need lots of hugs and physical contact in order to feel loved by his parent. Another might feel swamped or invaded by too much physical affection. As a parent, we need to pause and ask ourselves if the way we express our love for our children is truly making them feel loved.
Imagine a young child is nervous before their first day of a new school. This is something many children feel, yet each will need a different response. For example, one child might feel better if their parent listens to them and lets them talk through their worries. For a different child, this approach might mean their fears escalate. Another might feel better if their parent lets them know how much they love them and that they will be there waiting for them at the end of the day. Yet another child might benefit most from the parent organising visits to the school beforehand and from gentle reassurance. Another child’s fears might be allayed by knowing in advance exactly what is going to happen and how the day is going to be organised.
It is easy for a parent to assume that what they needed as a child in a particular situation is what their child needs. However, the more we can withdraw our projections, notice our child’s unique emotional response and then meet their needs accordingly, the more the child will feel loved.
It takes a fully-trained and skilled acupuncturist to make an accurate diagnosis of which Element is a child’s dominant Element. However, simply taking some time to reflect on the nature of our children and, crucially, in what ways they are different to us, can guide us to show our love in a way that is meaningful to the child. The description below of the different Elements should not be read as a ‘prescription’ of how to approach a particular child. It is more a way of illustrating the fact that every child needs something different and to inspire parents to take a step back and reflect.
In order to feel loved, Fire children need:
- a lot of warmth
- a strong emotional connection
- time with parents who are emotionally present
- fun and laughter
In order to feel loved, Earth children need:
- attuned mothering (a mother-figure who notices and responds to their needs)
- to feel listened to
- to feel understood
- to have a secure physical home
- to feel a part of a community/family unit
In order to feel loved, Metal children need:
- to feel recognised and valued
- meaningful acknowledgement and praise
- an orderly home environment
- permission to have time on their own
- for their physical space and boundaries to be respected
In order to feel loved, Water children need:
- solidity, reliability and consistency in caregivers
- reassurance and gentle encouragement when fearful
- a calm and peaceful home environment
- permission to develop in their own time and at their own pace
In order to feel loved, Wood children need:
- Permission to express their individuality
- An appropriate level of freedom vs boundaries and rules
- An atmosphere without frequent conflict
- Parents willing to take them on adventures and explore the world with them
These are some basic guidelines. The crucial thing is for a parent to be curious about what their child needs in any given situation and to respond to that as best they can. Sometimes this will be easy. The fit between the parent and child is straightforward and the parent’s natural way of expressing love will make the child feel loved. At other times, it can take a bit more time and work on the parents’ part to work out what it is their child needs. This does not make them any less of a ‘good’ parent or mean they love their child any the less. It is simply the case that some relationships need a little bit more work than others.
One of the most important indicators for good mental health is a strong bond between parent and child. The more adept we become, as parents, at understanding how each of our children needs us to express our love for them, the better our bond will be. We don’t need to be psychologists to be able to do this. We simply need to step back for a while, take a few deep breaths and be curious. Children are hard-wired to want a deep emotional connection with their parents. As long as we are willing to truly see and listen, they will usually find clever ways of letting us know how they need us to be.