‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and why to avoid asking kids this question…

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and why to avoid asking kids this question…

A sixteen-year-old came to my clinic for treatment yesterday and said she was feeling anxious.  As we explored the reasons for her anxiety, it became clear that the nub of it was connected with her fears of the future.  Specifically, she was anxious that she did not know what kind of work she wanted to do.  What struck me most about our conversation was her feeling that she should, at the age of sixteen, know what job she wanted to do as an adult. 

To some degree, childhood, and especially adolescence, has always been a waiting ground for adulthood. Many older children and teens spend their days dreaming of the time when they will be able to make their own decisions, have all the freedom they want and begin real life.  But when dreaming of the future tips over into being anxious of the future, something has gone awry.   

It seems to me that childhood has become a constant race to get to the next stage.  Parents are often desperate to get their young babies to sleep through the night, and see it as a victory when that first happens.  Reward charts are used in an attempt to get kids to potty train, get themselves dressed or eat more vegetables.   Parents say to their twelve-year-old child ‘How are you ever going to cope at university if you can’t get out of the house on time for school without me nagging you?’.  Parental anxiety can mean that we assume if our child cannot do something when they are 12, that they won’t be able to do when they are 19.  

Of course, children need encouragement at times. But they also need to know that they are OK as they are. Of course, it is only natural for teens to think about how they want their future to be.  But not at the expense of making the present OK.   The best way to ensure a child develops in a healthy and timely way, is to meet their emotional, psychological and physical needs at any given moment.  Constantly urging them to be mastering the next skill or thinking about their future potentially has two negative effects.  It gives them the message that they are in some way not enough as they are now, and it can breed anxiety about the future.  

In Chinese medicine, our relationship to the future is governed by the Water Element (click here for more about the Water Element).  The spirit of the Water Element (the zhi) enables us to ‘go with the flow’ of life rather than trying to control it.  Every time we push a child to achieve something that she is not quite developmentally ready for, we are teaching her to override her innate wisdom.  Encouragement is one thing, but pressure is another.  The more we can trust our children’s potential to unfold at its own pace and in its own way, the better.   When the Water Element is not strong, a child will have more of a tendency to be fearful of or catastrophise about the future.  And the more a child is anxious of the future, the more depleted her Water Element will become.   One way to help minimize anxiety building up in older kids and teens, is to allow and support them to make the present as good as it can be, instead of overly focusing on the future.

Growing and developing from a baby to a child to a teen and finally an adult has never been a straightforward, linear path.  It is usually a messy business which involves wrong turns, some pain and a bit of to-ing and fro-ing.  When development is artificially accelerated, it is always precarious.  Childhood is all about building strong foundations, on which our adult self can trust and rely.  When we rush it, the foundations are weakened.  

I endeavoured to bring the conversation with my sixteen-year-old patient back to what makes her feel fired up and evokes her passion, to what lights a spark inside her.  Using this as a guide for decisions she has to make now, provides her with the best chance of a happy and successful future. 

As Sophocles wisely said:

‘Tomorrow is tomorrow.
Future cares have future cures,
And we must mind today.’

When a tummy ache has little to do with the stomach…

In my clinic today, I noticed a theme.  Several children came in with symptoms that had arisen or become worse after an emotional upset.  A ten-year-old girl developed a painfully sore throat after a sleepover which went badly.  A thirteen-year-old girl, who suffers from chronic fatigue (post-viral) syndrome, deteriorated when her mother went away for a few days.  The symptoms of a twelve-year-old boy with severe motor tics became worse after a row with his parents.

It is now widely accepted that our emotions have a profound impact on our physical health, and vice versa. However, it often seems as if we pay lip service to this fact rather than truly understanding and applying it.  

This is especially the case with children.  Many children do not have the awareness or the vocabulary to explain how they are feeling.  This may be because they are simply too young, but also because we, as parents, do not teach them how to do it.  It is all too easy to regard a symptom as a ‘medical’ problem and give a child some Calpol (paracetamol) to relieve it. Often it is well worth taking the time to explore with them what has led to it and if there is an unacknowledged emotion involved. 

The classic example of this is the Monday morning tummy ache.  It is much easier for a child to say she has a tummy ache than it might be to say ‘I am really worried about school today because my new teacher shouts a lot.’  It is not that the child is lying or that the discomfort they feel in their tummy is not real.  But an unacknowledged emotion (in this case, anxiety) often manifests as a physical symptom.  Research in America indicates that in 8 out of 10 primary age children, their tummy ache stems from anxiety. [1]

Chinese medicine has always understood that emotions, when they are unacknowledged, intense or chronic, may cause physical symptoms.  This is because emotions interfere with the smooth flow of qi in our bodies.  Most of us experience this on a regular basis.  Have you ever noticed that your neck and shoulders are tense and painful in the lead up to a particularly stressful event at work?  Or do you literally feel ‘sick with worry’ when your teenager is not back when they should be and is not answering their phone?

We all somatise our emotions at times, and this is especially true for children.  So how can we do it differently?  And, more importantly, how can we support our children to see a physical symptom as a potentially helpful clue or signpost that something in their life might need to be addressed?  

  • Look at what happened just before the symptom came on.  If it is a recurrent symptom, look to see if there is a pattern in terms of when it arises or gets worse
  • If you suspect your child is feeling an emotion they don’t yet have a word for, name it for them.  Phrases such as ‘Perhaps that has made you feel angry’ or ‘I wonder if you are feeling frightened’ can be helpful 
  • Avoid saying things such as ‘Don’t be sad’ or ‘You shouldn’t be angry about that’.  Don’t make feelings taboo.  We all have them and if we tell our children they shouldn’t, the feeling won’t go away.  It will be suppressed and become even more likely to create physical symptoms (as well as more emotional issues in time)
  • Spend time conversing with your children, and do not wait until they have a physical symptom to do this.  It sounds almost too simple to say but the busy-ness of life can mean that many of us simply do not spent time just chatting with our kids.  If the contact between you and child is good, and they get the sense you are relaxed and unrushed, they are much more likely to share with you how they are feeling.  
  • Talk about your own feelings.  Of course, it would not be appropriate to burden our children with our feelings, and we should always be mindful of what is age-appropriate.  But sometimes saying things such as ‘I am feeling upset today because work didn’t go very well’ lets your child know it is acceptable to experience and talk about lots of different emotions. 

Of course, unacknowledged emotions are only one of many possible causes of physical symptoms.  However, they are the cause that perhaps is most often overlooked in children.  This may be partly because, as parents, we do not like to think of our children as being anything other than happy.  It is more comfortable for us to think that our child is wetting the bed because they drink too much in the evening and have a ‘weak bladder’ than because they feel insecure about something.  In many cases, it is not a matter of ‘either/or’.  It is often when a combination of factors comes together that a physical symptom occurs.  It is of course beyond our control to eliminate all possible causes of physical symptoms in our children’s lives, but supporting them to become emotionally literate is something we can do that has the potential to be of huge benefit.  

[1] Campo, J. Pediatrics, April 2004: vol 113; pp 817-824

Children need to be bored sometimes

Children in affluent societies are often perceived as having everything. Playrooms bursting with toys, technological devices that keep them entertained for hours, and streaming services that mean there is always something to watch.  But does this material abundance mean these children want for nothing or have we as a society misunderstood what it is children really need?

One consequence of all this stimulation is that most children today are rarely bored.  When there is nothing obvious to do, it is all too easy to pick up a phone and play a game, scroll through Instagram or watch something on Netflix (of course it is not only children that this applies to!).  This can lead to every moment of the day being filled without the child needing to employ their imagination or creativity.  Children are missing out on being bored.  But does this really matter?

Well, yes it does.  

Firstly, boredom is a counterbalance to overstimulation.  Boredom could be described as a yin state whilst stimulation is a yang state.  For health and wellbeing, there must always be a balance of both yin and yang. Children are inherently abundant in yang and therefore it is even more important that they have a yinenvironment.   It is vital that children have times in their day when they are doing very little.  Without this, a child may be constantly in a slightly adrenalised state.  What goes up must eventually come down and being over adrenalised will eventually lead to a crash.  

Secondly, it is only when children are given an opportunity to be bored that they may begin to explore another side of themselves.  When day to day life is busy and over-scheduled, children will usually remain in ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ mode.  In Chinese medicine terms, their qi will not be flowing smoothly as they need to steel themselves to get through the day. Think how you feel if you know you have a really busy, slightly stressful few days ahead.  Many people tense their bodies and emotionally feel more uptight.  If a child is never bored, this may be how they feel all the time. 

Lastly, but crucially, a healthy dose of boredom may even help to prevent a child or teenager from becoming depressed.  Chinese medicine understands that each organ houses a ‘spirit’ and is therefore not purely a physical entity.  The spirit of the liver is called the hun, usually translated as the ‘ethereal soul’.  The hun is the source of dreams, vision, inspiration, creativity and ideas.  It enables us to experience this crucial dimension of life, without which life feels bland and sterile.   In order for the hun to thrive, it needs time and space to ‘wander’.  This only happens when a child is not engaged in activities that are primarily rational, intellectual or head-based.  The perfect way to allow the hun to become active is to leave a child without any external stimulation.  From that place of boredom, in time, fantasy and creativity will emerge and the child will learn to explore their inner world.  Without this, life feels flat, one dimensional and, ultimately, lacking in soul.  

So, a healthy dose of boredom may be one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.  In allowing them to become acquainted with their inner world, including all their many hopes, dreams and fantasies we are, ironically, enabling their future life to be anything but boring.

As parents, how can we create opportunities for a bit of boredom in our children’s lives?

  • Have family rules that include no screens on car journeys, and at certain times during the week (E.G Sunday afternoons are screen-free zones).  
  • Reflect on what feelings it evokes in you, the parent, if your children moan about being bored and having nothing to do.   For example, does it mean you feel guilty that you are not doing your job properly? (Note: our parents certainly didn’t feel it was their responsibility to entertain us all the time).  Question whether the feelings you have are misplaced.
  • Sit with the moaning for a little while, and then see what happens.  Of course, your children won’t welcome you telling them they cannot have access to their devices for the rest of the day.  It may even mean they have an adrenaline ‘come down’.  But when that passes, you will be amazed at what might happen!

BAcC Film featuring the Panda Clinic!

I am really excited that paediatric acupuncture takes a lead role in the BAcC’s new film, ‘To The Point’, which highlights the diverse and high-level work of acupuncturists working in different settings throughout the UK.  The BAcC and their film crew came to the Panda Clinic for a day in the Summer and filmed a variety of different children having treatment, from a baby right up to a 16 year old.  The film is going to be presented at a parliamentary reception in the House of Commons on March 11th.  In the meantime, here is a trailer: