Healthy attachment and the Fire Element

The psychological theory of attachment

The nature of the relationship a child has with her primary caregiver is hugely influential in her subsequent development.  It also goes a long way to determining how she will form and maintain relationships with friends and partners as an adult.  The psychologist John Bowlby, who developed ‘attachment theory’ in the 1950’s, defined attachment as ‘a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’

How can attachment be understood from a Chinese medicine perspective?

Broadly speaking, strong attachment tends to produce some key characteristics in children:

  • A desire to go out into the world, be independent and explore
  • A lack of anxiety
  • The ability to manage separation within friendships and relationships
  • Good cognitive skills

From the Chinese medicine perspective, these characteristics are often connected with the health of the Fire Element. If you are not familiar with the theory of the Five Elements, you might want to read ‘What do we mean by the Five Elements?‘ before reading on.

The Fire Element and attachment

The Fire Element, to a large degree, determines how well a child will manage relationships of all kinds.  If the Fire Element is healthy, it means that the child will be able to carry an inner sense of being loved, even when not in the presence of loved-ones.  She will not need constant validation from others that she is loveable. 

A strong Fire Element will mean she is able to risk the vulnerability that is a part of intimacy.  She will also be able to manage social situations that involve relating to people she may not know so well or even at all, without experiencing too much anxiety.  She will not veer too far from her innate self purely in order to make sure she is loved and adored by others. 

What might help to promote a strong and healthy development of the Fire Element?

Every child is born with a unique emotional nature and will therefore have different needs.  However, there are certain things that will benefit the Fire Element of all children.

Being present 

It is possible to be physically present 24 hours a day without being truly psychologically or emotionally present.  For the Fire Element to really thrive, a child needs interaction and to be responded to.  When a baby first smiles, she needs to see her caregiver smile back at her.  She needs her mother to make eye contact with her in order to feel connected.  She needs to be related to rather than merely having her physical needs attended to in a perfunctory way. Many would argue that being related to is just as much of a biological necessity as being fed.

It is much more about quality than it is quantity of time that caregivers are able to spend with their babies and children.  Two or three hours of real connection and intimacy in the evening will benefit the Fire Element more than a whole day of being physically in the presence of a caregiver who is distracted or preoccupied.  

Attending to the health of our own Fire Element

It is much easier for a parent to be psychologically present for their child when their own Fire Element is in a balanced state.  If the parent feels loved in her relationship and/or friendships, and has people or activities in her life that spark joy, she will be better able to connect with her child.  Of course it is not possible for parents to magically create this. In fact, parenting can be a lonely job. However, parents often feel so much guilt when they are tending to their own needs. In actual fact, making sure their needs are not neglected will benefit their children more than almost anything else they do.

Busy-ness is the enemy of intimacy

It is really difficult to foster intimacy and connection when our focus is on external activity.  Learning to ‘be’ with our children rather than always ‘do’ with them, creates an opportunity for deep relating, which will nourish the Fire Element.  We need some breathing space in our hectic schedules – time to sit and listen, to get to know each other, to allow a connected dialogue to evolve.  


Making time for play, getting down on the floor and entering our children’s worlds will help the Fire Element in a child to develop strongly.  We cannot and should not expect children to enter our adult world (and would not want them to). So it is up to us to reconnect with how it felt to be a child.  This will help to create real connection and joy, and will support the Fire Element.  

Aim for authenticity not perfection

The Fire Element is resonant with the quality of spontaneity.  Just as the flames of a fire move in a free and natural way, the Fire Element in a child needs to be allowed the same kind of free movement.  If a child’s behaviour and even the way they play is over-scrutinised, if there is no room for her to express the many different parts of her personality (even the less likeable ones), the flames of the Fire Element will wane.  

Similarly, children have a sixth sense for inauthenticity in adults.  Modelling to our children that we all have good days and bad days, things we find frustrating, times we feel sad, moments where we don’t want to engage, will show them that it is acceptable to be authentic.

Allow some emotional space between us and our children

In Chinese medicine, each of the Five Elements contain an emotional, psychological and spiritual aspect usually called a ‘spirit’.  The spirit of the Fire Element is called the shen.  The shen enables a child to begin to have insight and awareness of their individual character and destiny.  It helps a child to manifest his true potential in the world that will have a completely unique character to it.  The shen is not something that sits hidden within a child, but is related with how she shows herself to the world.  

Therefore, if a child lacks ‘emotional space’, her shen will suffer.  In the same way that a young tree whose light is blocked by bigger trees around it will not grow, a child needs some space in order to flourish.  This means that, as carers, we need to find a balance between providing a child with the nurture they require but also allowing them space to express their individuality.  


From a Chinese medicine perspective, in order for attachment to be strong the Fire Element needs to be given an opportunity to develop strongly.  In order for this to happen, children need:

  • Caregivers who are emotionally and psychologically present
  • Time with caregivers just being rather than doing
  • Adults who are able to enter their world and play with them on their level
  • To be allowed to be authentic, and to have role models who are able to be authentic
  • Some emotional space in order for their unique character to be able to blossom and shine

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