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
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!
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.
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.
Most children today survive, but many do not thrive.
Childhood is about laying down the best possible roots, so that as adults we can flower and blossom. A ‘good-enough’ childhood is the greatest gift a child can have. Every parent wants the best for their child. Yet still, so many children are struggling physically or emotionally.
This blog will not tell you what the best type of child care is, or how to get your children to sleep through the night. It will not give you a list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. Neither will it tell you how many hours per day you should allow your teenager to be on a screen.
What it will do is discuss the nature of children. How every one of them differs and has their own unique needs. It will put a spotlight on common practices and ask questions about whether or not they are serving our children. It will focus on underlying principles and philosophies, rather than the day to day minutiae of children’s lives.
How do we raise children so that they grow up physically healthy and emotionally robust?
Bringing up children has become overly complicated. Well-intentioned parents struggle to make sense of the huge amounts of conflicting advice. Many forego their parental instincts due to societal pressure to parent in a certain way. In regards to the health of our children, it seems that every day there is a new recommendation, often one which contradicts yesterday’s.
This means that we often end up putting our focus on the micro details of our children’s daily lives, at the expense of the overall picture. For example, we worry about our child’s current reluctance to eat broccoli, rather than supporting him or her to create a lifelong healthy relationship with food and eating.
Despite the wealth of advice available, we somehow find ourselves with a generation of children, many of whom are unhappy and/or chronically ill.
Thanks to improved living conditions and the progress of modern medicine, childhood mortality rates in the developed world have fallen dramatically. At the same time, chronic health problems in children are on the rise. Many children are beleaguered by respiratory and food allergies, asthma, stomach ache, headaches or chronic fatigue syndrome. The rise in childhood mental health problems is exponential.
I believe that the best thing we can do for our children is lay the strongest physical, psychological and emotional foundations we can. This gives them the greatest chance of living their best life as an adult.
Nurturing the Young is informed by the philosophy underpinning Chinese medicine. It explores what application this has to 21st century Western childhoods and, where relevant, backs it up with modern research and science. It is not prescriptive but puts forward considerations and, I hope, will inspire reflection.
This evening, I will be giving a free, live webinar for acupuncturists about treating food allergies in children with acupuncture, hosted by www.treatingchildren.com. It will be a good introduction for anyone who has paediatric patients who have allergies or intolerances to foods. I will outline:
- the main types of food allergies and intolerances
- causes of food allergies
- key pathologies seen in food allergies
- treatment of these pathologies
- practicalities of treating children with food allergies.
If you would like to watch the replay, please go to: https://www.treatingchildren.com/p/rebecca-avern-food-allergies
Someone asked me the other day what the most common piece of advice is that I give to the parents of children I treat. Without doubt, it is to suggest that they reduce their child’s commitments and create more downtime in their schedule. It has become the accepted norm for many school children to have a whole host of organised clubs and activities after school and at weekends. Most people consider this to be ‘a good thing’ so why is it that I so frequently suggest children do less?
The Chinese medical classic text known as ‘the Simple Questions’ (Su Wen) describes different cycles of life, each cycle lasting for approximately seven or eight years. The purpose of the first cycle is considered to be laying down the foundations of physical and emotional health, which can then be built upon in the next few cycles. This is akin to building strong foundations of a house, which will then provide a strong and solid base for years to come for whatever structure is built on top.
In order for the foundations of a child’s health to be strong, their qi needs to be available for the huge job of growing and developing. If it is expended by rushing around, being on the go and activities that stimulate the mind and body, it may mean that there is not enough left available for the child’s ‘foundations of health’ to become strong and resilient. It is easy to forget that the job of growing as fast as children do in the first years of life, and developing in so many myriad ways, consumes a lot of energy. Of course, children also need to be stimulated and benefit from being exposed to a wide range of activities but this should always be balanced with time to be still and lots of rest. Many of the health conditions that bring children to acupuncture are rooted in the fact that their qi has become depleted as a result of their daily schedule.
In the longer term, if we don’t teach our children how to be quiet and still, and to take breaks, then there is little chance of them being able to do this as adults. It can be hard as a parent to go against the tide but sometimes saying ‘no’ to a child who wants to take part in every activity can benefit their health but also teach them the lifelong lesson of the importance of balance in their approach to activity and rest.