A few weeks ago, I recorded a one hour webinar for the Singing Dragon library entitled ‘Why do children become ill?’ Chinese Medicine has so much to offer on this topic, at a time when levels of chronic physical illness and mental/emotional illness in children are escalating. Until the end of October, you can purchase the webinar with a 25% discount, by entering the code AWS25 at the checkout. Please go to http://library.singingdragon.com to purchase it.
Discount code for ‘Why do children become ill?’ webinar
Last week, I took part in a live webinar with Julian Scott and Robin Green where we discussed some of the impacts of Covid on the mental health of children. We covered the different way children have responded from a 5 Element perspective, how to support them as they return to the clinic, the use of Bach Flower Remedies and how to support families via Telehealth. Please follow this link for access to the replay: https://www.treatingchildren.com/store/Qh72sYM4
This is a big question which Chinese Medicine has more answers to than any other system of medicine I know. Please join me tomorrow (thursday) at 8pm for this free, one hour webinar, hosted by Singing Dragon where I discuss what makes children ill. To register, go to Singing Dragon’s Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/SingingDragon. I will be answering questions during the live event tomorrow evening. The recorded version will be available to purchase afterwards. I hope to see you there!
Paediatric masterclass: addressing the emotional needs of children according to the 5 personality types
Last week, Julian Scott, Robin Ray Green and I did a short, free webinar where we chatted about the impact on children of Covid 19 and how our society has responded to it. This Tuesday, we are doing a deep dive into how the 5 personality types have responded differently, and how to help each type when they come back to clinic. To register, please follow the link below. https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/4015966248079/WN_wQclmDrLSCav3NKXUKxXAg
At 9pm BST today, I will be doing the first in a series of 3 informal Q & A sessions with Healthy Seminars entitled – What I wish I had included in my Book. This evenings session will focus on treating teenagers. There will be another on 10th September focussing on shonishin and the final one will be on 24th September focussing on eczema. These sessions are all free – please sign up following the link below. I hope to see you there!
Free webinar next week: Dealing with the emotional damage to children: the forgotten victims of Covid 19
Since going back to practice after lockdown, I have become acutely aware of the enormous impact on children of the Covid 19 pandemic and the world’s response to it. Although children are some of the least vulnerable to the physical affects of the virus, many have suffered a lot emotionally and psychologically. Next Tuesday, I am taking part in a live webinar, along with fellow paediatric acupuncturists Julian Scott and Robin Ray Green. We will be discussing how the last few months have impacted children from a Chinese medicine perspective, and what we can do to help. Please click here to sign up.
I was really excited to be invited as a guest on Michael Max’s wonderful Qiological podcast. We had a really wide ranging and interesting discussion on all things adolescent – from the Chinese Medicine view of puberty, to the challenges of being a teen and to working with teenagers in the treatment room. We also focussed on possible reasons for the increase in mental/emotional health problems in teens today. Please do have a listen and share with anybody else who might be interested.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, I have been contacted by parents who are anxious about the impact the situation will have on their child. Many children will be off school for months, unable to see friends or partake in most of their usual activities. There is no getting away from the fact that this time is throwing up enormous challenges, of many different types and to many differing degrees for almost everybody. This is a difficult time, and it is going to continue to be difficult
In the conversations I have had with parents, we have found it helpful to pare things back to basics. What, of their old lives, can our children really not do without? There may be short term, negative impacts from a few months off school, not seeing friends, no extra-curricular activities or normal leisure pursuits. But how many of these effects will last beyond the short term? Providing a few basics are in place, our children can get through this time unscathed and may even develop resilience and learn some other useful life skills along the way. Perhaps a positive outcome of this challenging time is that we will be reminded of how little we really need to remain physically and emotionally healthy. (It is, of course, also important to remember that there are sadly many children around the world who will not even be able to rely on the basics that are described below.)
Over a thousand years ago the Chinese developed a system of medical massage for babies and young children called paediatric tui na. As well as being extremely effective for the treatment of many common childhood problems, one of its advantages is that it is very practical. It is possible to access the five key functional aspects of a child’s physiology on the hand, specifically on each of the fingers. This means the massage can be done while a baby is breastfeeding or without needing to get an older child undressed.
Each finger relates to a different acupuncture channel and function. Looking at these five functions and, crucially, what they need to remain healthy, shows us what the 5 pillars that support a baby or child’s growth and development are.
Thumb – spleen meridian - nourishment
The thumb relates to the digestive system. In order to maintain health, a baby or child needs adequate nourishment. Although what constitutes adequate nourishment is something which could be discussed all day, it can be stripped back to:
- Enough food or milk
- Gaps between meals or feeds
- A good variety of foods
Index finger – liver meridian - movement
The index finger relates to the flow of qi all around the body, which in Chinese medicine is governed by the liver. This enables the emotions to flow freely and for digestion to be rhythmic and comfortable. In order to maintain health in this area, a baby or child needs to be able to move. For a baby this means first kicking their legs, then rolling, sitting up, crawling and finally toddling. For a child, this means having several opportunities a day to be physically active. If, due to lockdown restrictions, this needs to be done in the home rather than outside, it is still beneficial.
For young children, the key is to move little and often. They need to intersperse more sedentary activities with short bursts of movement, for example, a play in the garden (if they are lucky enough to have one) or some star jumps.
Middle finger – heart meridian – connection
The middle finger relates to the Heart meridian which, in Chinese medicine, governs our emotions. In order for this aspect to thrive, the baby or child needs connection and intimacy. This is more than merely being in the presence of other people. It means having an emotional closeness to them, trusting them, receiving physical touch from them, doing activities together and, for verbal children, having conversations with them. Children may deeply miss seeing friends and extended family, but if they remain connected to those they live with, this will sustain them.
Ring finger – lung meridian – fresh air
The ring finger relates to the Lung meridian which, unsurprisingly, is related to breathing. In order to thrive, the Lung meridian needs a source of relatively clean air. For children who live in cities or whose opportunity to go outside is currently limited, this is probably the hardest basic pillar of health to achieve. If this is the case, simply doing some basic breathing exercises with your child (if they are old enough) can be beneficial.
Little finger – Kidney meridian – rest
The little finger relates to the Kidney meridian which, in Chinese medicine, governs our reserves of energy. In order to thrive, the Kidney meridian needs an adequate amount of rest and downtime. Even if they are not currently going to school and their lives are less busy than usual, we should remember that children are always hard at work behind the scenes with the mammoth task of growing and developing. This consumes a lot of their qi. Getting adequate rest is therefore even more important for children than it is for adults.
If you are aware that your child is struggling in one of these areas (for example, your toddler is going through a fussy phase and refusing to eat anything other than pasta), you can support that function by doing a simple massage on the relevant finger. Simply rub the pad of that finger in a circular motion (it doesn’t matter which direction) for between 1 -2 minutes, twice a day. You don’t need to use great force – just firm contact is enough. As well as supporting that function, the massage can also enable your child to support it better themselves. For example, with the case given above, by massaging the pad of the thumb on a fussy eater, you may well find that by improving their spleen qi, they then start to eat a wider range of foods.
As parents, we are hard-wired to want the absolute best for our children and it can induce anxiety if we feel we are not able to provide that. This extraordinary time, when the fabric of our children’s lives has been temporarily entirely changed, may stir those anxieties. So it is worth reflecting on these 5 pillars of health and reassuring ourselves that if our children have them in their lives, at least to a large degree even if not completely, then they will be getting what they need. Everything else, that is temporarily missing from their lives, is icing on the cake.
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 , 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!
 Adolescents grow faster than at any other time of life, with the exception of the first year.
It was Tolstoy who wrote that ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Much as I hate to argue with one of my literary heroes, I would say that no two families are alike, whether happy or not, even if they appear to be on the surface. The dynamics within a family are as unique as the individuals who make up that family. If it is true that no two snowflakes ever have been or ever will be exactly the same, that seems a better metaphor for families!
Members of a family are inextricably linked emotionally and energetically. The health and happiness of all the members is interdependent. In Chinese medicine theory, we understand that every individual contains each of the 5 Elements and that each of the Elements is connected. When we treat somebody with acupuncture, treating one Element has an impact on the other four too. It is the same in a family. If one member is ill, stressed or unhappy, it will affect all the other members, even in ways that are often too subtle to immediately notice.
Robyn Skinner and John Cleese, in their book Families and How To Survive Them describe the concept of the family scapegoat. This is the idea that difficult feelings within the family (e.g anger, frustration, anxiety or sadness) may be subconsciously taken on and carried by one member of the family. If these feelings are very strong, this person, who may be a parent or child, may manifest this burden by becoming ill, either physically, mentally or emotionally.
Have you ever heard someone describe a member of the family as being ‘the one with the problems’? Or to say something like ‘The rest of us are fine but little Johnnie is just always so angry all the time – it’s hard to be around and I just don’t know why he is that way’? when it’s obvious that a family think of one member as being ‘the difficult/different/sensitive/withdrawn one’, this is a clue that this person may be carrying the burden of feelings on behalf of everybody else.
Of course, no parent ever sets out for things to be this way. Families create scapegoats, however, because of subtle dynamics that arise as a result of other family members struggling to resolve their own emotional difficulties. People are not islands, and when they are all thrown together, they ‘land’ in a certain way and each one takes on a role within the group that comes most naturally to them. The longer each person is stuck in their role, the harder it is to break out of it. People often resist change and each family member will (unconsciously again) have something invested in each of the other family members playing their particular role.
So, during lockdown, when the pace of most of our lives has slowed down (apart from the heroic key workers to whom we owe so much), we have the perfect opportunity to bring some of these subtle dynamics into awareness and see if we can transcend them. Here are a few suggestions of how you might do this:
- Identify which one of your family is struggling the most, either psychologically or physically
- Do you have any insights about what emotional load they might be carrying? Think about when their suffering began, what was going on in their life and in the family at that time? (For example, did your child’s headaches begin around the time you and your partner were going through a difficult patch?)
- Even if everyone in your family is essentially ‘ok’, reflect on where the tensions are. Do you have higher expectations of one child than another? Do you find yourself always blaming one sibling rather than another when they argue? Does your partner focus all their worry on one child?
- Becoming aware of these dynamics is the most important step. Next time you find yourself cross with one of your children at the end of the day for ‘ruining the atmosphere’, take a few deep breaths and try to see if perhaps the dynamic was not that straightforward. For example, did one child start acting up because they sensed your easier bond with a sibling?
Watch, notice and take the time to put on a new pair of glasses and understand your family dynamic from a different perspective. It doesn’t matter that you can’t instantly change everything, and there is no place for becoming overly self-critical either. But there is great value in taking the time to understand things in a different way.
There is a renowned living practitioner of Chinese medicine called Liu Yousheng. He summed it up beautifully when he said:
Don’t talk of mysteries, don’t talk of subtlety! Focus your teaching on the Dao of being human. And where does this Dao of being human start? It starts with the Five Relationships, it starts with the family. Family relationships are the crucial step in the Dao!”