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How to understand your child’s true nature
One doctor’s approach to ADHD using the five-element theory of Chinese Medicine
The rate of diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is skyrocketing – in fact, in the United States, more than 10 million school-age children are medicated to help them focus. Is this a real epidemic or a reflection of the pressures of society and our need for quick fixes? The answer is not so straightforward. Team Tony sits down with Dr. Stephen Cowan to discuss his unique holistic approach to evaluating and treating children with symptoms of ADHD using the five-element theory of Chinese medicine.
Team Tony: When it comes to health, there is an increasing trend amongst Americans to opt for a quick fix of “what’s wrong” – if we have a headache, we take a pill to ease the pain. If we can’t sleep, we take a pill to knock us out. The same mentality also applies to how we treat ADHD in children, which you address in your book, Fire Child, Water Child. Tell us a bit about your message and philosophy surrounding ADHD.
Stephen Cowan: Doctors are trained to deal with emergencies quickly and efficiently. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, our medical system is one of the best at handling emergencies. The problem is, 99% of suffering is NOT a life-threatening emergency, and when you treat it with quick fixes, it provides at best only temporary relief, and, at worst, it adds to suffering – which ultimately becomes frustrating and dissatisfying for both patient and practitioner.
What I experienced many years ago in my pediatric practice was a deep need to help children and parents find a more fulfilling experience of living, rather than simply running from one emergency to the next. ADHD is a perfect example of this problem. As I wrote in Fire Child, Water Child, ADHD is a symptom, not a disease. Good medicine asks what is it a symptom of, rather than just treating the symptom. Much of my work as a holistic developmental pediatrician these days is focused on empowering parents to grow healthy, resilient children in body, mind and spirit. The basis of this empowerment lies in our ability to connect effectively to the world around us. When disconnected, we see symptoms as bad, making us victims of circumstances. What’s needed is a deeper understanding of our personal style, what we use to connect and adapt to the world or change. I call this our “secret power.”
Team Tony: You say that children have 5 adaptive styles, or certain talents and predispositions that characterize the way they learn from their experiences and deal with the stressors of life. What are those adaptive styles?
Stephen Cowan: I adapted the five-element theory of Chinese philosophy to serve as a guide to parents and children that brings greater self-awareness and teaches them how to effectively grow and share their secret powers with the world. The five powers correspond to five archetypal heroes of creativity: Wood, Fire, Earth, Gold, Water.
- The Wood hero has a natural sense of vision, motivated by freedom that seeks challenges in order to encourage others to find their path to fulfillment.
- The Fire hero has a natural sense of joy and optimism, motivated by intuition that inspires others to find creativity by looking on the bright side.
- The Earth hero has a natural sense of teamwork, motivated by empathy that creates the fulfilment of healthy community with others.
- The Gold hero has a natural sense of order, motivated by grace and gratitude that creates the fulfilment of beauty with others.
- The Water hero has a natural sense of calm, motivated by introspection, that brings deep meaning of fulfilment to others.
Team Tony: Why is it important for parents to understand their child’s secret power?
Stephen Cowan: This five-phase model becomes a map for healthy living for anyone, especially parents. I find that when parents stay focused on the inner hero within their child, they can problem-solve more effectively because they know exactly what their child needs at any given moment. This is the basis of empathy that transforms their relationship with their child.
Liberated from expecting their child to be just like them, parents begin to understand the fundamental relationships of the five powers, which powers are “hero-helpers” and which are “hero-challengers” for their child. For example, wood feeds fire: this means a child with Fire power is nourished by wood (planning ahead). Water puts out fire which means water (patience) is an important challenger for a Fire child to become a Fire Hero. These insights make parenting much more fun and fulfilling, because when they effectively empower their child, parents themselves are transformed into heroes.
Team Tony: Why is it important for kids to understand their own secret power?
Stephen Cowan: Self-knowing or self-awareness is the key to fulfilment in life. But, if you remember the awkwardness of middle school, the bridge to self-awareness is self-consciousness, the feeling of not quite fitting in. I find the language of the five powers liberates children from the burden of negative labels, diagnoses and judgments. When a child grows up knowing how to grow his or her secret power, a heroic path opens to personal freedom, joy and grace.
Team Tony: This holistic approach to helping children understand their true nature, strengths, and weaknesses would be incredibly beneficial in an academic environment. Is this something that you are implementing in schools?
Stephen Cowan: We created the non-profit Tournesol Kids program to make this holistic perspective accessible to children and teachers in schools because that’s where children spend most of their day. Teachers and kids are under enormous stress these days. I want to enhance their learning experience by offering an alternative to the depersonalized one-size-fits-all approach that exists in most schools today.
When teachers learn to recognize the inner hero in each child, they have a practical guide to empowering that child. This injects fresh energy into their job, making it much more fulfilling. Our goal is to get a 12-month pilot program off the ground in an underserved community school and a suburban school in 2019 to measure long-term outcomes of this approach.
Team Tony: What other ways do you have to make this approach fun and interactive?
Stephen Cowan: All children learn through play. The whole Tournesol Kids program I developed is based on games that grow your power. We’ve created a box set of 52 activity cards that children and adults can play at home or in the classroom. The idea is to break down the components of empowerment into short easy fun interactive activities that will round out each child’s secret power, growing executive functions they need for academic, social and emotional success.
Team Tony: While the majority of your work has been with children, you recently spoke at the Tony Robbins Platinum Partner event to a group of adults. How can this method be beneficial to adults that are trying to understand more about themselves?
Stephen Cowan: What I always say is this: kids are not little adults, but adults are big kids. I find that the very same powers are at play in adult relationships. When we know who we are, we bring greater awareness to our relationship to others. We had a lot of fun at the Platinum Partner event playing out these dynamics as people began to recognize who encourages them to grow and who challenges them to grow. That brings the freedom to see that no one is an obstacle to our growth.
Team Tony: What are some examples of famous people and the element you think that they are?
Stephen Cowan: I often use examples of celebrities who manifest a balance of powers that makes them a true hero to help kids identify with the healthy hero. For example, Michael Jordan is an epic Wood Hero who can balance his competitiveness with the two challenger powers of Gold (practice) with Earth (teamwork). Oprah is an epic Fire Hero who can balance her optimism with the two challengers of Water power (introspection) and Gold power (grace). Bill Gates is a classic Gold Hero who balances his perfectionism with Wood (visionary drive) with Earth (humanitarian).
Team Tony: Can you give an example of a person you’ve worked with personally whose understanding of themselves in this context has catalyzed an important change in their lives – their perspective, their actions, their impact on their immediate environment?
Stephen Cowan: I see the transformations taking place every day in my office as children learn to develop skills that round out their power. Some I’ve written about in Fire Child, Water Child. There was 12-year-old boy Adam who was struggling with what was called mental illness, rage, ADHD, and insomnia, and he was heavily medicated. Working together, he and his parents reframed his “problems” within the context of his secret power, and there was a complete transformation of his sense of self. He was able to wean off all his medications, and he’s now found his passion as a successful executive in the music business.
About Dr. Stephen Cowan
Stephen Cowan, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician with over 30 years of clinical experience working with children. He is the author of Fire Child Water Child: How Understanding the Five Types of ADHD Can Help You Improve Your Child’s Self-Esteem and Attention. Dr. Cowan has developed a unique holistic approach to evaluating and treating children struggling with chronic physical, emotional and cognitive disorders that integrates the holistic principles of Chinese medicine. He is the medical director of the non-profit Tournesol Kids that envisions a world where all children are heroes, inspired to grow and discover wellbeing by celebrating their unique powers and learning to share them with the world.
Videos courtesy of Dr. Stephen Cowan
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