The yin and yang of adolescence: WHAT is going on with my child?

I hear the same story time and time again in my paediatric clinic.  The basic theme is – one moment a parent felt connected to their child, needed and loved.  Suddenly, they feel as if their child hates them, doesn’t want to be around them and that they have lost their connection with them.  When listening to heartbroken and concerned parents, I have found it usually helps if I explain, from a Chinese medicine perspective, the underlying process that is causing the change in their child.  

Adolescence is an in between phase, when the young person is no longer a child but not yet an adult.  It marks a transition between one stage of life and the next.  A caterpillar does not become a butterfly with the click of a finger.  They build a chrysalis around themselves, retreat inside it, dissolve their previous form and, sooner or later, emerge as a butterfly.  There are many similarities between this process and the human one.  Young people in the height of the adolescent change are akin to the chrysalis stage.  They often build a protective shell around them and retreat from loved ones, before emerging as a beautiful butterfly and spreading their wings!

One of the ways in which this analogy stops being helpful, however, is that in humans the change from child to adult tends to be a much less smooth and linear process.  Most young people go back and forth a few times – one minute retreating into a childlike state, the next leaping forwards to ‘test out’ being an adult.  Parents can become easily bewildered by a child who one minute is screaming at them to get off their back and the next is not wanting to go to sleep without them at night.  It is reassuring and useful to be able to remind parents that this is absolutely normal and, in itself, does not indicate any kind of pathology.

So, how on earth do we explain what underpins this massive process of transformation?  I have found the Chinese medical perspective is a really helpful way to understand it, even for those without any prior knowledge.  

In order for young people at this age to grow and develop as fast as they do [1], to start breaking free from their parents and become more independent, there is an enormous surge of yang in the body. Yang is powerful, transformative, hot and volatile qi.  It is resonant with the energy of the Spring – when all of a sudden plants and trees begin to shoot up, blossom and sprout green leaves.  It is yang which initiates and drives the internal processes of a young person so that they gradually leave behind childhood and head towards being an adult.  

Imagine what it must feel like to suddenly have this surge of yang within you.  It is as if a small flame has fuel poured on it and suddenly flares up into a roaring fire.  It is the feeling you would get if you were put behind the wheel of a powerful sports car when you had been used to driving an old banger.  It feels powerful, at times frightening, at times out of control and at times hugely exciting.  It can feel to the young person like surfing a big wave. 

Moreover, if you have constraints put on you when this powerful yang is roaring inside, you will feel them incredibly strongly.  This is why young teenagers often act as if they have just been put in prison when you ask them to be home for supper!  Yang also surges up towards the Heart (which, in Chinese medicine, is the seat of emotions).  This is why teenagers feel things so strongly.  It intensifies and brings to the surface feelings that were previously  lurking around in the background. 

In order to counterbalance this surge of yang, there is also a strengthening and consolidation of yin that goes on at the same time.  Yin encourages retreat, sleep and calm.  It explains why teenagers need so much sleep, and why they have a tendency to want to spend so much time in their bedrooms and are often less willing to interact with the family. This is the equivalent of the chrysalis stage for the caterpillar.  In order for any change to take place, there has to be a period of retreat.  Explaining this to the parent of a teenager who may be feeling hurt by their child’s disinclination to engage, can help them to understand it’s an important part of the process and not a personal rejection.  

There are numerous books and articles for parents offering advice about how to manage living with teenagers.  I am not going to add more advice, too much of which can estrange a parent from their instinctual, natural parenting instincts.  But I urge parents to just bear in mind this explanation of what is going on, in order to better understand their child.  There are three key points to remember:

  • Your teenager has not suddenly stopped loving you
  • They are fulfilling their job description if they are beginning to separate from you
  • This time will pass and, if you let them spread their wings, they will fly back to you as a loving adult when they are through the transition!

[1] Adolescents grow faster than at any other time of life, with the exception of the first year.

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