Easy and effective massages to promote good sleep in your child

Easy and effective massages to promote good sleep in your child

Many parents have told me recently that their babies and children are not sleeping as well as usual.  This might be due to a combination of heightened anxiety in the household due to the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, the longer days and the rising yang qi which is resonant of the arrival of spring.

There are as many reasons why babies and children do not sleep well as there are suggestions of how to get them to sleep better.  However, these simple, easy-to-learn massages can be used on babies and children of all ages, whatever the cause of their bad sleep.  They derive from a system of medical massage called paediatric tui na (xiao er tui na) which has been used in China for approximately 1200 years.  

Please click on the link below to learn how to do the massages.

Massages for promoting good sleep in babies and children

What do young children most need from their parents during this extraordinary time?

For most kids in the UK, this is the start of the second week when they would have been in school.  There are, most likely, many weeks ahead.  So, as parents, how can we best help them to adapt to this time?

Primary school children are, developmentally, still very much focussed on their parents and family.  The world of what is important to them is generally quite small.  This means that whatever is going on in their immediate family and in their home will determine how they feel, much more than what is going on in the wider world.  

There are two main components to this.  One the one hand, the daily rhythm of life in the family has an impact.  Young children, to differing degrees, are often unable to create their own structure, so they rely on that created by others.  It is as if their own internal scaffolding is not yet constructed.  So, simple things like getting up at roughly the same time each day, having regular meals and routines will help them cope with this extended time without the normal rhythm of school.  It supports them in the way that scaffolding supports a building. 

The other key component, however, is a little more complex.  This involves what is going on underneath the surface of family life.  It concerns the emotional vibrations.  Children are like sponges.  They soak up everything that is in their surrounding environment.  Whilst they may hear their parents’ words, they sense the emotion underlying them.  We all know that on a day when we are especially stressed and irritable, our toddlers will be more fractious.  Children are a mirror of the internal state of their parents.  

I am aware that, for many parents, reading something like that evokes feelings of guilt and inadequacy.  It can feel like too much of a responsibility and a burden, and we can too easily criticise ourselves for not doing our parenting job well enough.  One of the best things we can do for our children, however, is to let go of those self-critical inner voices.  The labels of ‘good parent/bad parent’ are unhelpful because they don’t describe the complex reality of parenting.  It is an absolute impossibility for a parent to get it ‘right’ the whole time.  The key thing is that, when we do get it wrong (which we all will, repeatedly) we try to recognise it and then make it right if we can.  The psychotherapist Philippa Perry calls this ‘rupture and repair’.  It’s not ideal but it’s OK that things rupture, as long as we try our best to repair them afterwards. 

So, returning to the idea that our children are a mirror of our own internal state, one of the best ways to help our primary school kids at this time is to do whatever we can to get ourselves into the best internal state possible.  I do not say this lightly.  I understand that this is a time of enormous anxiety – about health, finances, work, the future.  But it is also an opportunity.  An opportunity to model to our children that we can weather difficult times.  An opportunity to show our children that, when life does not go according to plan, we can adapt and find another way through. 

Chinese medicine explains why children are so susceptible to picking up what is going on in their emotional environment.  The ‘protective’ qi at the surface of the body, which helps to create a filter between the child and the environment, is not yet fully formedThe spirit/emotions (shen) are not yet fully ‘rooted’ because the child’s qi is being consumed by the process of growth and development.  So there is less available to ground the emotions.  Like a boat without an anchor, a child will more easily get swept away by a strong wave of emotion.

If you, the parent, are feeling anxious, frustrated and sad, here are some suggestions of how to manage this in a way which is helpful for both you and your primary school children:

  • Acknowledge the feelings.  Feelings are not the enemy – it’s OK to have them.  By acknowledging them, they are less likely to cause you get into an emotional ‘funk’.
  • Find a time each day to do something that you know helps you maintain an emotional even keel – whether that be yoga, going for a walk, meditating or beating up a pillow.  Even if you are juggling home schooling and work, prioritise this.  Put the kids in front of the TV for half an hour if you have to in order to find the time.  They will benefit from having you in a better place more than they will lose out from having a bit of extra TV.
  • Avoid telling your kids that you are fine if you are not.  This is deeply confusing for them because they will hear the word ‘fine’ and, in their sponge-like way, pick up that you are not.  You can say to them something like ‘I am feeling sad at the moment because we can’t visit Granddad, but it’s great that we can chat to him on the phone and this time will pass.’
  • Dig deep.  This truly is an exceptionally difficult time, and each family is affected in a unique and complex way.  But as parents it is up to us to dig deep and steer the ship (our family) through the turbulence to calmer waters. 
  • Arrange Zoom calls with friends or family that you know help you to feel supported, in lieu of being able to see them.

The hardest thing for primary school children at this time will be the impact it has on the adults around them.  Most will not have the cognitive capacity to understand the magnitude of what is going on in the world.  We are their rocks and, despite many of us not feeling solid, they will take their cues from us.  So, dig deep and remember that this time will pass.  And remember, you and your children can come out of this experience with increased strength and resilience. There is a Chinese proverb which sums this up brilliantly:

The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.

Are your teens now at home for the foreseeable future? What will be important to them and how can you support them?

Yesterday I watched the excitement and elation of five pre-teens and young teens as they heard the news that school was going to be out for the next few weeks at least.  One of the first things they did was to download apps to make sure they could easily communicate as a group if they were not able to see each other.  They then began writing their ‘No school bucket lists’, and top of all of them was the resolution to ‘make sure not to become distant from my friends’.

Even in extraordinary times, teenagers are still teenagers. And there is nothing more important to most teens than their friendships.   Whilst as parents, we may look forward to being able to spend more time with our teenage children and to deepen our connection with them, no doubt their main concern will be how they are going to cope with being stuck at home with their parents. It is natural for a teenager to increasingly separate from their parents, to go out and find their own tribe.  It’s a time when they need to explore their identity, and to find out who they are outside of their family.   So, any enforced isolation is likely to jar with their deep drive and instinct to go outwards into the world.  

In Chinese medicine, adolescence is resonant with the Fire Element.  The Fire Element governs how we manage our relationships with other people and ourselves.  The qi of the Fire Element intensifies during adolescence, which is why children of this age tend to feel things very passionately!  This intensity also drives teens to fulfil their developmental role of this time – ie. to make strong connections with others outside the family.

Whilst those of you who regularly read my blog will know that I have written a lot about the potential negatives of screen time and social media, this is one time when the benefits of it will come into their own.  If technology allows our teens to keep those connections with their new-found tribes, it will make this time of uncertainty and disruption a lot easier for them than it otherwise would have been.  

At the same time, although teenagers would rather do just about anything than admit to needing their parents, they really do still need us!  They are in a state of huge internal flux.  Put that together with the enormous external changes they are currently experiencing, and it makes for a potentially anxious time.  The more as parents we can work on managing our own anxieties and fears (which may be great at the moment), the more our teens will benefit.  What they need from us at the moment, more than ever, is to feel that we are solid and stable.  That is not to say we need to pretend that ‘everything is ok’ when it is patently not, but that we need to let them know that, despite all the difficulties, we as a family will come through it.  

So, as well as recognising that over the next few weeks or months, our teens will have a strong need to connect with their peers, it might also be beneficial to ringfence some time each day to put away screens and to connect as a family.  

Here are some other potential benefits for teens of an enforced, prolonged period out of school:

  • Time to catch up on some sleep: teens are growing and changing so fast and good sleep is crucial for this process.  
  • Time to slow down and lean in to a more yin lifestyle: most teens have crazily chaotic lives with little downtime.  Learning how to be still and have downtime at this age will serve them well for the rest of their lives.   Have a look at this blog post – ‘How does a child get real downtime in the 21st century’ – for more thoughts on what actually constitutes ‘downtime’.  
  • Time to reframe what is important: there is a lot of talk about rising anxiety levels at the moment.  But I believe, if dealt with appropriately, this time of crisis could actually help teens to reduce their level of anxiety.   Through conversation, we can help them to see that a lot of things they may worry about, are actually of very little consequence.  One teen, who is prone to huge amounts of anxiety, and who has just found out she won’t be able to take her A levels said to me ‘I was gutted at first but now I’m OK.  It’s made me realise there are more important things in the world.  We will get through this and I trust that my life will work out – maybe just differently to how I expected’.  

William Arthur Ward wrote ‘The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.’ I wish you and your teens, and indeed all your loved ones, all good wishes in adjusting your sails over the coming weeks. 

When teething is a tyranny – and what you can do about it

There is a view that we blame everything on teething.  When a baby or toddler is grouchy, not sleeping or not eating, it is all too easy to say ‘ah, she must be teething’.  But whilst there are, of course, other reasons for our little ones to be unhappy or lose their appetite, the reality is that teething can be a really disruptive process.  Chinese medicine can explain perfectly why this is, and give us some clues as to what to do about it. 

Firstly, the process by which a tooth works its way up through the gum requires a surge of yang qi (heat) in the body.  This is the equivalent to athletes needing to warm up before a race.  In order to run their fastest, their body needs to be warm beforehand.  In order for a tooth to emerge, a baby must produce some extra heat to provide the motive force for the process.  This heat is necessary.  However, it can also explain many of the common ‘symptoms’ of teething, such as:

  • Red cheeks
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Raised temperature
  • Smelly stools

In children who are already a bit too hot, the teething process tends to cause quite a lot of disruption.  But for children who are energetically damp or cold, the extra heat in the body can actually be useful.  It can enable the body to ‘throw off’ damp that has been lingering.  This explains another common teething ‘symptom’ which is:

  • Snotty nose

Secondly, the acupuncture meridians (channels) of the Stomach and the Large Intestine both run through the gums.  When a new tooth is emerging, the qi in these channels temporarily becomes disrupted and blocked.  It can no longer flow smoothly.  This explains some other common ‘symptoms’ of teething, such as:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Loose stools

So, is there anything to be done to help make this transition an easier one?  The answer, thankfully, is a definite yes!  Here are the most common pieces of advice I give to parents whose children are having a difficult time with teething:

  • Trust your child’s instinct to lessen their food or milk intake during this time.  It will help to relieve the stagnation in their digestive system, which comes from the tooth cutting through one of the key digestive meridians.  Babies and children of this age have an innate instinct for survival.  They will make up for it once the tooth has come through!
  • Foods should be kept simple and light.  This means avoiding red meat and spicy foods, and keeping cheese and sugary products to a minimum.  
  • Make sure the baby or child has good breaks (ideally a minimum of 2 hours) between meals or feeds, so they have time to digest one before taking in the next.
  • Massage the acupuncture point LI 4 hegu on the hand.  It really helps to ease the pain of teething.
Acupuncture point LI 4 hegu
  • If your child has red cheeks, feels hotter than normal to touch and is generally restless and irritable, massage this acupuncture point (known as Kidney 1 yongquan) at the bottom of the foot.  It will help to draw the heat down from the top of the body.
Acupuncture point Ki 1 yongquan
  • Whilst hot, restless children may need opportunities to run around outside, most children also need more rest when they are teething.  In Chinese medicine, teething is seen as an outward manifestation of a strong developmental phase.  This means  children need to conserve their energy rather than expend it on too many external activities. 

Teething may be an unpleasant experience (although, thankfully, one that we don’t remember!) but it certainly does not need to be a tyranny.  Having an understanding of the process, and following the simple guidelines above, can enable parents to nurture their children through this developmental stage.  We can’t take away the pain, but we can ease it and, most importantly, be alongside our children through it.  

Eating disorders: how can we help guard against them in our young people?

This week (March 2-8th) is eating disorders awareness week.   It is both sad and shocking that eating disorders amongst young people in the western world seem to be on the rise.  Whilst many in the developing world are starving, more and more children and teens in the developed world are starving themselves.  If they are not starving themselves, many have come to have a disturbed relationship with food and eating.  This may cause a daily misery.

The causes of eating disorders are many and varied.   They are also relatively poorly understood.  Studies point towards a combination of genetic predisposition, psychological and sociological factors.  Trauma and difficult family relationships are known to also play a part.  But in my experience of working with young people, the seeds of an eating disorder lie in emotional dysfunction.  The emotional dysfunction is the root; the disordered eating is the manifestation.  An eating disorder is an expression of internal unhappiness.  It is a misguided, and sometimes dangerous, way of expressing emotions that, for a variety of reasons, are not able to be either managed or expressed verbally.   The young person may not even be conscious of them. 

One particular case illustrates this point.  I treated a 13-year-old girl who had orthorexia (an obsession with eating only extreme ‘health’ foods) and who had rapidly lost an alarming amount of weight.  She was under the care of CAMHS who had put her on a strict weight gain programme.  Whilst this was necessary in order to preserve her physical health, it did not address any underlying, dysfunctional emotional patterns.  What struck me about the girl when she spoke was the mismatch between her words and her demeanour.  She was pathologically polite and did not admit to having any angry feelings at all (even towards her father, who had recently left the family, not responded to her attempts at communication and not acknowledged her thirteenth birthday).  Yet her eyes were hard, her voice clipped and I saw flashes of anger across her face. [1]  Through dialogue and acupuncture treatment to bring balance to the Wood Element (which, in Chinese medicine, is associated with emotions in the anger family), the girl began to recognise that she did in fact feel angry and then to be able to express these feelings.  The more she expressed the feelings, the less she controlled her eating.  

Somewhere along the line, this girl had completely disconnected from her feelings because they felt overwhelming, too painful to sit with or because she had imbibed a value that feeling angry is in some way not ‘good’ or ‘acceptable’.  In her case, the predominant emotion was anger.  But it could be sadness, fear or a feeling of unlovability, and is very often a mix of many different feelings.  When a child disconnects from or ‘packs away’ an emotion over an extended period of time, she will no longer have much consciousness of it being there at all.  At this point, the spirit of the young person becomes compromised and a pathological behaviour often arises.  This may be disordered eating, self-harm, addiction or OCD, for example.  

There are always multiple risk factors for the development of mental illness, as well as multiple protective factors.  As parents, we can influence some of these factors but not others.  For example, we cannot stop our children’s exposure to images of ‘perfect’ bodies on social media and in the press.  But one area where we can have a positive influence is to support our children in becoming comfortable with and adept at verbalising and expressing a wide range of emotions.  Some possible ways of doing this are:

  • With young children, giving them a word for a feeling we think they may be experiencing.  For example, ‘I wonder if you feel jealous that Tommy got that scooter you had been wanting for his birthday’.
  • To avoid ever saying to our children ‘don’t be sad’ or ‘you don’t need to feel angry’.  This conveys the message that the child is somehow wrong to have this feeling.   Sometimes we shut down these emotions in our children because we, the parent, can’t bear the thought that our child is unhappy or because we feel hurt or angry when the emotion is directed at us.  
  • To model to our children that we, the parent, experience a wide range of emotions and are OK nevertheless.  For example, to say that we have had a bad day at work and are feeling frustrated as a result of it, rather than saying ‘I’m fine’ when we are patently not.  We can show them that, despite the frustration, we are fundamentally ‘OK’.  Our frustrated feelings haven’t prevented us from coping, and they will pass.   

Food and eating are so often intertwined with emotion, and eating disorders are especially so. Even though serious eating disorders are mental health conditions, the seeds of them usually lie in emotional dysfunction.  Helping our children to express a wide range of emotions, and supporting them to become more emotionally intelligent, will lessen the chances of them expressing their unhappiness through disordered eating.    

Cicero wrote that ‘diseases of the soul are more dangerous and more numerous than those of the body’. Eating disorders may mean our children’s bodies are poorly nourished but in order to prevent or heal these common and distressing conditions, we need to nurture our children’s souls.

[1] In Chinese medicine, we use subtle signs such as the tone of voice, the subtle hues in the complexion and incongruent expression of emotion to diagnose imbalances in a person’s qi

You love your child, but does your child feel loved?

It is a curious fact that nearly all parents love their children dearly, yet so many children (either during childhood or later on in adulthood) say that they did not feel loved during their childhood.    In the clinic today, I saw a 15-year-old boy who talked of how he felt nothing he did was good enough in his parents’ eyes and how he felt he constantly disappointed them.  At this point in his life, he did not feel that his parents loved him.  Having met both his parents, it was obvious to me how much they did love their son, and also how proud of his many achievements they were.  So how can this discrepancy be explained?  

A child not feeling loved by parents who truly love them is usually down to a mismatch between the parents’ way of expressing their love, and their child’s way of receiving it. Dr Gary Chapman coined the phrase ‘the 5 love languages’.  It is literally as if the parent and child are speaking a different language.  They are both trying to communicate, and want to do so.  But unless they are speaking the same language, the conversation is not going to get very far.  Feeling loved in childhood is, of course, crucial to a children’s future health and happiness.  It will impact the way they feel about themselves, as well as how they negotiate and feel about relationships for the rest of their lives.  So one of the most important things a parent can do is to find the way their child needs them to express their love.

An alternative to Chapman’s ‘5 love languages’, is to approach our understanding of a child through the lens of the Chinese medicine 5 Element system.   This brilliant framework can be an insightful and useful way to make sure we are giving children our love in a way that they can receive.   

The 5 Elements are within everyone.  (For a description of the 5 Elements please click here to see my previous posts on the topic).  However, each child has one Element which predominates and has a profound impact on their personality and behaviour.  It colours how they see the world, how they feel in relation to other people and what they need in order to feel loved.   Whilst it is too simplistic to say a Wood child needs this and a Fire child needs that, the 5 Element system helps to remind us how different we all are.   One sibling may need lots of hugs and physical contact in order to feel loved by his parent.  Another might feel swamped or invaded by too much physical affection.  As a parent, we need to pause and ask ourselves if the way we express our love for our children is truly making them feel loved.  

Imagine a young child is nervous before their first day of a new school.  This is something many children feel, yet each will need a different response.  For example, one child might feel better if their parent listens to them and lets them talk through their worries.  For a different child, this approach might mean their fears escalate.  Another might feel better if their parent lets them know how much they love them and that they will be there waiting for them at the end of the day.  Yet another child might benefit most from the parent organising visits to the school beforehand and from gentle reassurance.  Another child’s fears might be allayed by knowing in advance exactly what is going to happen and how the day is going to be organised.  

It is easy for a parent to assume that what they needed as a child in a particular situation is what their child needs.  However, the more we can withdraw our projections, notice our child’s unique emotional response and then meet their needs accordingly, the more the child will feel loved.  

It takes a fully-trained and skilled acupuncturist to make an accurate diagnosis of which Element is a child’s dominant Element.  However, simply taking some time to reflect on the nature of our children and, crucially, in what ways they are different to us, can guide us to show our love in a way that is meaningful to the child.  The description below of the different Elements should not be read as a ‘prescription’ of how to approach a particular child.  It is more a way of illustrating the fact that every child needs something different and to inspire parents to take a step back and reflect.

Fire children 

In order to feel loved, Fire children need:

  • a lot of warmth
  • a strong emotional connection 
  • time with parents who are emotionally present 
  • fun and laughter

Earth children 

In order to feel loved, Earth children need:

  • attuned mothering (a mother-figure who notices and responds to their needs)
  • to feel listened to
  • to feel understood
  • to have a secure physical home
  • to feel a part of a community/family unit

Metal children 

In order to feel loved, Metal children need:

  • to feel recognised and valued
  • meaningful acknowledgement and praise
  • an orderly home environment
  • permission to have time on their own
  • for their physical space and boundaries to be respected

Water children 

In order to feel loved, Water children need:

  • solidity, reliability and consistency in caregivers
  • reassurance and gentle encouragement when fearful
  • a calm and peaceful home environment
  • permission to develop in their own time and at their own pace

Wood children 

In order to feel loved, Wood children need:

  • Permission to express their individuality
  • An appropriate level of freedom vs boundaries and rules
  • An atmosphere without frequent conflict 
  • Parents willing to take them on adventures and explore the world with them

These are some basic guidelines.  The crucial thing is for a parent to be curious about what their child needs in any given situation and to respond to that as best they can.  Sometimes this will be easy.  The fit between the parent and child is straightforward and the parent’s natural way of expressing love will make the child feel loved.  At other times, it can take a bit more time and work on the parents’ part to work out what it is their child needs.  This does not make them any less of a ‘good’ parent or mean they love their child any the less.  It is simply the case that some relationships need a little bit more work than others. 

One of the most important indicators for good mental health is a strong bond between parent and child.  The more adept we become, as parents, at understanding how each of our children needs us to express our love for them, the better our bond will be.  We don’t need to be psychologists to be able to do this.  We simply need to step back for a while, take a few deep breaths and be curious.  Children are hard-wired to want a deep emotional connection with their parents.  As long as we are willing to truly see and listen, they will usually find clever ways of letting us know how they need us to be.  

‘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: