Someone asked me the other day what the most common piece of advice is that I give to the parents of children I treat. Without doubt, it is to suggest that they reduce their child’s commitments and create more downtime in their schedule. It has become the accepted norm for many school children to have a whole host of organised clubs and activities after school and at weekends. Most people consider this to be ‘a good thing’ so why is it that I so frequently suggest children do less?
The Chinese medical classic text known as ‘the Simple Questions’ (Su Wen) describes different cycles of life, each cycle lasting for approximately seven or eight years. The purpose of the first cycle is considered to be laying down the foundations of physical and emotional health, which can then be built upon in the next few cycles. This is akin to building strong foundations of a house, which will then provide a strong and solid base for years to come for whatever structure is built on top.
In order for the foundations of a child’s health to be strong, their qi needs to be available for the huge job of growing and developing. If it is expended by rushing around, being on the go and activities that stimulate the mind and body, it may mean that there is not enough left available for the child’s ‘foundations of health’ to become strong and resilient. It is easy to forget that the job of growing as fast as children do in the first years of life, and developing in so many myriad ways, consumes a lot of energy. Of course, children also need to be stimulated and benefit from being exposed to a wide range of activities but this should always be balanced with time to be still and lots of rest. Many of the health conditions that bring children to acupuncture are rooted in the fact that their qi has become depleted as a result of their daily schedule.
In the longer term, if we don’t teach our children how to be quiet and still, and to take breaks, then there is little chance of them being able to do this as adults. It can be hard as a parent to go against the tide but sometimes saying ‘no’ to a child who wants to take part in every activity can benefit their health but also teach them the lifelong lesson of the importance of balance in their approach to activity and rest.
I have seen several babies and toddlers in the clinic this week who have all been in the middle of what can only be described as ‘outpourings of snot’! They are not ‘ill’, as such, and their parents report that they are happy and energetic. However, they have an almost permanent stream of mucus running from their nose.
It is easy to jump to the assumption that this is inherently ‘a bad thing’, and a sign of ill health in some way, and certainly something that we should try to put an end to. From a Chinese medicine perspective, however, there is another way of understanding this process. The great physician Sun Simiao talked about the fact that babies and toddlers must go through phases of intense growth and development, which both enable them to become more ‘grounded’ in the world and also to throw off toxins that they have been born with. Periods of ‘snotty-ness’, when the child is otherwise well, are often a sign of one of these intense phases of development.
So, rather than reaching for the Calpol and worrying that something is wrong, the best way to help a child through such a phase is to nurture them as best we can, provide them with lots of opportunity for rest and avoid over-stimulating them. Parents often notice that, once this phase is over, their child has made some important developmental leaps. For example, an eight month old baby may start sleeping through the night for the first time, or a three year old may decide they do not want to wear nappies anymore and take to toilet-training easily. An older child may start speaking or engaging with others more confidently.
Growth and development are not linear, constant processes. They happen in fits and starts, with regressions and big leaps forwards along the way. The physical body may become temporarily out of kilter for a time. It’s important to acknowledge and encourage acceptance of this process, rather than to always jump in and try to ‘fix’ it. As practitioners, we can encourage parents to tune in to their intuition, so that they can recognise the difference between illness and development.
Almost every week there is a disturbing news item about the detrimental effects too much time on social media is having on our teenagers. In my clinic, I often perceive that a young person’s symptoms are, at least in part, related to their social media use. But why is this so and what can we do about it?
The two symptoms that, in my clinical experience, most often arise in young people (predominantly girls, but not exclusively) as a result of social media overuse are anxiety and insomnia. The anxiety may arise while using social media because of what other people say, how the child feels they are being perceived and whether or not they are being included. But it also arises when a child is not on social media because she worries about what is going on that she is not a part of (in today’s language ‘fomo’ or ‘fear of missing out’). So she finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place. On top of this, being at school all day, then coming home and continuing to interact with friends for hours at home is simply over-stimulating. The child then has little time in the day when she is peaceful and relaxed.
In Chinese medicine terms, this constant anxiety disturbs the shen (spirit), and makes the person feel agitated. Overtime, this depletes the ‘Blood’ which is no longer able to ‘root’ the shen. Not only does this lead to anxiety – where the mind is constantly buzzing around and around like a bee – but it makes restful sleep difficult to come by. Being on social media in the evening and in the lead up to bedtime is particularly detrimental. This is a time when the brain and body should ideally be winding down in preparation for sleep.
So while there are, without doubts, detrimental affects of over-use of social media, or using at the wrong time of day, it would be wrong to demonise it altogether. One of the purposes of the adolescent phase is to learn to interact and have relationships outside of the family, and social media can be an important aid in doing this. As long as social media forms a part of the young person’s world, alongside relating to friends in person, relating to family members and pursuing other activities (such as sport, cooking, drama etc etc), and as long as the child comes off social media a couple of hours before bedtime, then it will probably be a positive in their lives.
A friend of mine sent me this gorgeous clip of his baby daughter laughing. As well as making me smile, it made me think about babies and emotions. The relationship that babies have with their emotions is so different to that which we have as adults.
The first thing that struck me is how wonderfully spontaneous the baby’s laugh is. There is no part of her that is questioning whether she should laugh or not, looking at how others might respond to her laughing or wondering whether she should not be doing it. She is laughing because she finds something funny, and she stops when it no longer is. It is her amazing lack of self-consciousness that enables her to do this. When self-consciousness begins to emerge in children, they often start to inhibit their natural, emotional response to things. In Chinese medicine, emotions are seen as a potential cause of disease. One way that an emotion becomes a cause of disease is when it is repressed or held on to for too long. If we could all continue to be as emotionally spontaneous as babies, we would all be much healthier (as well as happier).
The other thing that struck me watching the video is how the baby almost becomes the emotion. When she is laughing, it is as if the whole of her is laughing. This made me think about the strong connection in babies and toddlers between their body and their emotions. If a baby’s body is uncomfortable because, for example, her tummy is too full of food or milk, she is likely to be grouchy and unhappy. Conversely, if she is feeling lonely because she wakes up to find she is alone in her cot, then she will often feel and manifest the distress in her body. Chinese medicine does not really distinguish between the mind and the body, but babies are a fantastic example of how truly inter-connected these two parts of us really are.
This is the view in front of my house at the moment! Very beautiful but very damp! Wolvercote is always a particularly damp part of Oxford – nestled on the flood plain between the river and the Canal, with the odd lake thrown in to boot. But the amount of water at the moment is exceptional.
Deeply embedded in Chinese culture and thinking is the idea that the external environment has a big effect on the internal workings of our body. So when it’s damp outside, we become more Damp on the inside.
In children, Dampness most commonly manifests in any of the following symptoms: a snotty and running nose, a mucousy cough, puffiness, bloated tummy, mucous in the stools, flabby limbs, the needs for lots of sleep.
There are various simple things that we can do to help prevent our children becoming too Damp – and these things are especially important when the external environment is so damp. The first thing is to avoid Damp forming foods. The worst culprits are dairy products (milk, cheese and yoghurt), refined sugar, bananas and peanuts! The second thing is to keep moving! It’s tempting when there are rain and wind storms outside to hunker down, watch more TV than usual and not really move much. And although it is appropriate at this time of year to hibernate a little and conserve our energy, we do need to balance this with movement.
So, get the kids well dressed up in hats, coats and scarfs and take them out to do some splashing around in puddles. Just make sure they don’t stay in damp clothes for any length of time though………!!
Most of us feel a mixture of relief and happiness when the first signs of spring appear. We get a bounce in our step and sometimes a surge in vitality too. In Chinese Medicine, spring is a time when yang (the warm and active part of our energy) rises.
One would think that the end of winter would herald the end of pale, pasty and snotty children. And it often does. However, over the last couple of weeks I have had a lot of children come through the doors of the Panda Clinic with “spring diseases”. In Chinese Medicine terms, when spring arrives pathogens that have been lurking in our bodies throughout the winter, are often brought to the surface. Just as, in nature, bulbs flower and blossom appears on the trees, the extra heat brings things to the surface of the body. Yang is rising, but in children it sometimes rises a bit too much and a bit too quickly!
This manifests in different ways in different children. There is an increased incidence of febrile diseases, such as chicken pox, at this time of year. The pock marks are literally a manifestation of heat that has been lurking in the body coming to the surface. Children with skin diseases such as eczema may have a temporary flare up.
I have heard a lot of parents recently saying they “don’t know what has got in to” their child. They aren’t sleeping so well, are more ratty, cross and irritable. Springtime is related to the Liver organ in Chinese medicine. The Liver Qi (energy) has to work quite hard to adapt to the change in the external conditions that come in spring. What’s more, as if often the case in the UK, there is often a period of a few weeks when it’s warm one day, and cold again the next. This constant fluctuation in temperature puts the Liver Qi under more strain. These emotional changes that parents notice are a reflection of the Liver Qi trying, but struggling, to adapt. In Chinese Medicine theory, we say that “the Liver hates change.”
In a few week time, however, both the weather and our children should be more settled. The heat that is coming to the surface needs to be expelled and it is the sign of a robust child that their body is trying to do this. The Yang will have risen, the Liver energy settled back down and calm will once more reign!!
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Ask any primary school teacher and they will tell you that children go wild in the wind! Last week we had some unusually windy weather, and some very excitable and irritable children. In Chinese Medicine, we believe that people’s energy often responds to and reflects what is going on in the external environmental. Wind is very yang in nature – it is quick, changeable, unpredictable, suddenly flares up and then dies down again. And we often see children doing exactly this when they are out in the wind! As I’ve mentioned before, children are very yang in nature anyway (compared to adults) and so they particularly resonate with the wind. For most children, we hope that their response to the wind will, at worst, just mean their parents and teachers feel a bit more exhausted than normal at the end of the day. But for children with chronic conditions, such as hyperactivity, ADHD, headaches and skin diseases, particularly windy weather can mean a temporary flare up in their symptoms. We can’t change the weather, but there are a few things we can do to counterbalance the effect of the wind. Reducing any activities that generally stimulate and excite children, making sure that children wrap up when they go outside (particularly protecting their head, ears and neck), and making sure we keep sugar and additives to a minimum can all make a difference. Other than that, sit tight and wait for the wind to die down!