This is a day for both practitioners and parents who are interested in how to help children develop into resilient and healthy adults.
Over 1300 years ago, Sūn Sīmião wrote extensively about the importance of nurturing the young. These days, parents are faced with an overwhelming amount of often contradictory advice about how to raise happy and healthy children. Yet somehow, we find ourselves with a generation of children many of whom are unhappy and/or chronically ill.
This online talk will look at why it is vital that babies and children get what they need in the first years of life: what they need and how to go about giving it to them. We will see how the wisdom of Chinese medicine can be applied to today’s children and how it can help them to thrive.
You will come away with:
An understanding of the unique nature of childhood and children according to Chinese medicine
An understanding of aspects of 21st century life that may hinder a child’s growth and development
Practical hints and tips which are easy to implement to promote healthy development
Effective, non-needling methods to help children through acute illnesses
A way of using the 5 element model to create ‘bespoke’ lifestyle advice for every child
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.
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!
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.
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. 
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
Remember that children are especially vulnerable to being ‘knocked out of balance’ by what might seem to us like an insignificant event (especially more sensitive children – see my post ‘Is your toddler a robust or sensitive type?’)
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.
 Campo, J. Pediatrics, April 2004: vol 113; pp 817-824
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!
Conventional wisdom says that exercise is good for children. Period. With rising obesity rates, and leisure time increasingly being filled with screen-based activities, it is understandable and right that children are encouraged to exercise. Having a range of different physical activities is a crucial prerequisite for healthy growth and development. But how much and what type of exercise is right for children? And is there a point at which exercise may become a cause of problems rather than something that prevents them?
The Jin dynasty scholar wrote:
‘The body should always be exercised…yet even in exercise do not go to extremes.’
From an immunological perspective too, there is a dose response to exercise. The right amount helps to reduce inflammation. Too much or too little may encourage inflammation.
A generation or two ago, physical activity was woven into the fabric of life in a way that it is not in the modern, developed world. It was often the norm for children to walk or cycle to school. A large proportion of spare time was spent playing outside. Children were expected to help with the physical work involved in running a household.
Nowadays, parents find themselves having to consciously create opportunities for their children to exercise. It may become something that the child should do, or needs to do and therefore potentially something they rebel against. Exercise often becomes about seeking an adrenaline rush or, in older kids, a way of trying to attain the ‘perfect’ body. In schools, sport is often about competition and winning which, for some kids, can take the fun out of it. One outcome of this is that many children lose the ability to sense what level and type of exercise their body needs.
From the Chinese medicine perspective, children have an abundance of yang energy, which means that they express themselves through movement and need to move frequently. They also have immature yin which means that they need to rest often and take regular breaks. In Chinese texts, the flesh and ligaments of children are described as being not yet fully formed or ‘firm’. So much of a child’s qi fuels their rapid growth and development. If they are exercising excessively too, this can lead to depletion or injury.
So, how do we decide what is the appropriate level of exercise for our children? In general,
Young children thrive off short bursts of activity, interspersed with periods of rest
For the first six or seven years of life, frequent walking, running around, climbing and generally larking about is probably enough exercise for most children
Most children are not constitutionally suited to intensive training in their chosen sport until their growth has slowed down, after the intense growth of puberty
If a child is training in their chosen sport, making sure they train a maximum of every other day can help to prevent injury or depletion
If a young child’s mood changes after intensive exercise (e.g. they become tearful or aggressive) it is a sign that the exercise is excessive for them
If a young child is tired and less able to function for more than an hour or so after exercise, it is a sign they have probably done too much
Every child has a different sweet spot when it comes to exercise. Depending on their constitution, some will thrive on more exercise than others. The best thing we can do for our children is guide them in finding their sweet spot. We can help them to listen to their bodies. We can support them to stop when they need to rest, or encourage them to do more when they are suffering from the effects of inactivity. We can help them understand that what is right for another child may not be right for them, and that it’s ok that we all have different limits.
Once again, the simple yet profound principle of yin-yang is applicable. A child should have a balance of rest (yin) and activity (yang) and this balance will be slightly different for every child.
There are as many different reasons why babies and toddlers don’t sleep as there are approaches to help them to sleep better. I have seen parents losing their minds trying to work out why their baby sleeps well one night and not the next. I have seen strong, capable and calm mothers and fathers cry in desperation at yet another broken night. Theories abound as to why a particular infant is not sleeping – they are too hot, too cold, teething, don’t like the dark, slept too much in the day, didn’t sleep enough in the day…. However, one thing rarely gets mentioned, and that is the link between sleep and the digestive system.
When a baby is born, their digestive system goes from being completely dormant (in the womb the baby receives all its food via the umbilical cord) to working overtime. Babies usually double their birth weight in the first five or so months of life. In order to do this, they need to ingest and digest an enormous number of calories. Assuming their basic needs are being met, how a baby manages this task dictates more than anything else how they will feel. If their digestive system is working well, they are likely be happy and settled. If it is not, they are likely to be grouchy and unsettled.
One of the most common ways for things to go awry, is for food (which includes breast milk) to accumulate somewhere in the baby’s digestive tract. In Chinese Medicine paediatrics, this is known as Accumulation Disorder. The baby or toddler simply does not have enough digestive qi to keep the food moving through, so it lingers around and festers. When this happens, the food starts to ferment and generates extra heat in the body. This heat rises up and affects the shen, which is often translated as ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ and which governs the ability to sleep.
In adults, the equivalent is what I call ‘Great Uncle John on Christmas Day syndrome’. After eating an enormous meal, much of it rich, heavy food, not moving around and with some heightened emotions added into the mix too (family all together having not seen each other all year), Great Uncle John will start burping, farting and becoming irritable, and will often not sleep well that night. He may complain of gripey pains in his stomach and feel much better after he’s taken some antacids and then had a good evacuation of his bowels. This is similar to how a baby or toddler with Accumulation Disorder feels. Unlike Great Uncle John however, due to his immature digestive system, an infant is prone to this on a daily basis, not just Christmas day.
In order to minimise the chances of Accumulation Disorder developing, there are a few general dietary guidelines that should be followed:
The baby/toddler should have gaps between feeds and/or meals, even when solely breastfed. This is to make sure they have fully digested one feed without running the risk of ‘overloading’ their system with the next. Every child is different, but a rough guideline is to allow 2 hours minimum between the end of one feed and the start of the next.
The baby/toddler should not eat too many raw, rich, heavy or greasy foods. They will be better able to digest foods that have been cooked, such as rice congee. This is so that the first part of the digestive process has been done for them, during the cooking process, and their immature digestive systems do not have to work quite so hard.
Some kids have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs! While it goes against most people’s instincts to limit what a baby eats, some robust types do not know when to stop (to read more about this, take a look ‘Is your toddler a robust or sensitive type?). This means they cannot process the amount of food they take in, and their system becomes clogged up. So making sure the child does not over-eat will lessen the chances of Accumulation Disorder developing.
Try to ensure that the baby or toddler is as relaxed as possible when they are feeding or eating, and that the environment is calm. In Chinese medicine, we talk about good digestion needing the ‘smooth flow of qi’ to the stomach and intestines. Being relaxed helps this.
The Chinese have a saying that goes ‘if the stomach is not harmonised, sleep will not be restful’. Of course, there can be other reasons for poor sleep, but this is one that should be considered and is often ignored. Look out for more blogposts on sleep in babies, children and teenagers!
The simple fact is that growing and developing is extraordinarily hard work. For this reason, children very easily become tired. Yet I believe that we often miss the signs of tiredness in our children. Many physical symptoms, emotional patterns and behavioural tendencies arise from or become exacerbated when a child is tired. I have seen many children in my clinic whose symptoms go away when they start getting an hour’s more sleep each night, or when their hectic daily schedule is reduced. And fatigue can look different in a child to how it might look in an adult. In this blogpost, I am going to focus on pre-teen children and I will discuss teenagers in another post.
Tiredness and energy levels
One of the key ways in which a young child’s tiredness may manifest differently to that of an adult is that it does not necessarily mean that they want to sit around and do nothing. Young children are hard-wired to please their parents, on whom they entirely depend for their survival. If a child knows, albeit unconsciously, that their parents approve of them doing lots of sport or pushing themselves hard to learn an instrument, it is easy for them to ignore any signals their body may be sending them that what they actually need to do is rest.
It is also easy for parents not to recognise the signs of tiredness in their children. Children’s bodies are rather like batteries. They may give no obvious signals that they are about to run out until they moment they do. One minute they keep going on full pelt; the next minute they are completely flat.
Tiredness and hyperactivity
Many toddlers and young children become more hyperactive the more tired they are. They find it difficult to be still and resist anything that might require them to stop moving (e.g going to bed!). Their emotions are often expressed more strongly when they are tired and it can feel to the parent as if everything ‘ramps up’. Ironically, tired children can be exhausting to be around because adults often experience them as being especially frenetic.
There is a clear reason for this in Chinese medicine terms. The balance of yin (calming energy) and yang (active energy) is different in children than it is in adults. Children’s yin is ‘insubstantial’ and has not yet fully matured. At the same time, a young child has an excess of yang energy. The more tired a child becomes, the less yin there is available to ‘root’ their abundant yang. If yang is not rooted, it rises up to the head. This causes agitation, intense expression of emotion and the child may feel as if they have just had a strong coffee!
Tiredness and sleep
Ironically, the more tired a child is, the worse they may sleep. This is for the same reason that children become more hyperactive when tired too, as described above. An overtired child may take longer to get off to sleep in the evening, have more disturbed sleep during the night and wake up earlier in the morning.
Other signs of tiredness in a young child
There are of course many other ways in which a child may reveal their fatigue. Some of the most common are:
saying ‘I’m bored’
heightened emotions of any kind, for example becoming more anxious, more fearful, more worried or more angry.
saying ‘I don’t feel well’ or ‘I’ve got a tummy-ache’
increased clinginess: young children do not only feed off their mother’s milk. They rely on the qi of their main caregivers in order to keep going. This is because their own qi system has not yet fully-developed. When a child becomes tired they then rely on another’s qi even more in order to keep going. This is often the root of a child’s clinginess.
So, of course we should not put everything down to tiredness, but it may help both parents and children to be able to more accurately spot the ‘hidden’ signs of tiredness in a child. I have heard many a parent say that their child just does not seem to need much sleep. The reality is that the child has become so tired that they just cannot sleep, and they are ‘running on empty’. Looking at how to promote sleep in children will be the subject of another post. In the meantime, if you think your child is chronically tired, a first simple step can be to start putting them to bed half an hour or an hour earlier in the evening. You may be surprised at just what a difference it can make!
Many children today live extremely busy lives. Term time, especially, is often a blur of activities. After a taxing day at school, many children then have hours of after school and weekend activities. I hear many parents talk about their children ‘hanging on in there’ or ‘just about holding it together’ as they near the end of a term at school. We seem to live in a society where ‘doing’ is valued and ‘being’ is not. Children often grow up deriving their self-esteem from their external achievements. So, unless they are busy achieving out in the world, they do not know how to feel good about themselves. This drives them to do more and more.
But does this matter? Many people would say that children today are lucky to have so many opportunities to play different sports, learn instruments, do martial arts, learn extra languages, take dance classes or pretty much anything that takes their fancy. And, of course, on one level they are. However, as with most things in life, balance and timing are the key.
One of the most influential Chinese doctors of all time was Sun Simiao, who lived approximately 1500 years ago. He wrote:
‘The way of nurturing life is to constantly strive for minor exertion but never become greatly fatigued and force what you cannot endure.’
Ironically, in the 21st century, many of us feel that unless we are greatly fatigued and really ‘digging deep’ that we are simply not working hard enough! Sun Simiao’s words, however, are especially important for children.
Children’s yin is said to be ‘immature’. It is still in a state of development until a child stops growing which, for most children, is some time in the mid-teens. Yin is essential for the physical body to become strong and for stamina. Yin also underpins good mental health. Without it, it is hard for us to feel calm and to be resilient against life’s challenges. Too much activity depletes the yin energy of the body. And because children’s yin is not yet fully developed anyway, lots of activity is especially detrimental for them.
Pushing a young child to become proficient in mandarin, an Olympic gymnast or a highly-skilled musician when they cannot endure it*, is like decorating a house before building strong foundations. Childhood should be about building the foundations so that they are as strong and robust as possible. A child then has the rest of their lives to develop refined skills or, as it were, to put the decorations on their house.
So, if as a parent you feel that your child is constantly tired, or that they have very little opportunity to just ‘be’, it might be worth reflecting on how their schedule can be reduced. Not only might it help them to grow up physically and mentally strong, it will also teach them an important lifelong lesson. If, as children, we do not learn how to be still, quiet and reflective at times, we have little hope of doing this as an adult.
*How to spot the signs that a child may not be enduring what is being asked of them will be the subject of my next blog post.