As a paediatric acupuncturist, I spend my days with babies, children and teenagers who are all struggling. Sometimes this is because of a physical symptom, however, usually it is because the child is struggling with their mental-emotional health. Time and time again, I see how applying the wisdom of Chinese medicine to a child’s situation can bring about extraordinary change. It relieves the child’s anxiety or lifts their mood. Chinese medicine contains so much insight that is timeless in its appeal and efficacy.
Getting behind the labels
Anxiety and depression are terms that are commonly used which describe an extraordinarily vast array of different feeling states. A child may complain about feeling fearful, tense or worried, perhaps they will say they have difficulty in concentrating or feels irritable much of the time or have a loss of appetite or have difficulty getting off to sleep. They may have low moods, or a lack of energy or feel tearful and no longer enjoy being around their friends and family. Parents may report that their child is withdrawn, grumpy, difficult or defiant, getting into trouble at school or always squabbling with her siblings. We may observe that they do not make eye contact or fidgets all the time.
All of this may be casually labelled ‘anxiety and/or depression’. In order to help, the first thing to do is to put these labels to one side. We need to listen to the child, observe them, explore (to the degree that they are able) what is going on in their internal world and gain an understanding of the context of their life. Chinese medicine gives us a framework to understand that each child who is suffering is doing it in a way which is unique.
What is normal?
In my clinic, I hear children of primary school age talk about ‘my anxiety’, as if they regard it as being as much a part of who they are as the fact that they have brown hair or blue eyes. I hear teens announce that they need anti-depressants because their mood is low for a week or two around exam time. I also hear children saying that they feel anxious about feeling anxious, concerned that this means there is something wrong with them. I have seen adolescent mood swings and teenage heartbreak become medicalized. It is hard to escape the fact that it benefits pharmaceutical companies to pathologize more and more aspects of life.
Being fully human means feeling a wide range of emotions. Feeling anxious before starting a new school or low after you have lost a grandparent does not mean that you suffer from anxiety or depression, nor does feeling fed up and angry at times. However, it is a different matter when a child’s feeling state begins to affect their everyday life, schooling and relationships. When a child’s emotional world diminishes them and the lives of those around them, it is a sure sign of a pathology.
There is a fine line between turning every ‘negative’ emotion into a medical problem and ignoring the fact that a child needs help. However, it is a line that we as parents or practitioners must walk as carefully as we can. Both intervening prematurely or failing to act can exacerbate the problem.
Nature and nurture
Chinese medicine understands that there are two aspects which need to be addressed. The first is the inherent nature of the child. Some children are born with more of a tendency to become anxious or feel low than others. It could be said that their mental/emotional constitution is somewhat weak. The second aspect with which we must be concerned is the child’s lifestyle. It is the interaction between these two things which produces either a child who thrives or one who struggles.
There is little we can do to change a child’s inherent nature. Yet what we can do is to try to recognise it and then to create a life for that child which, as far as possible, suits them. Chinese medicine, in particular the Five Element approach, is a wonderful tool to help both parents and practitioners understand the differences between children’s emotional natures.
A child’s lifestyle, on the other hand, is something that we do have some control over. There seems to be so much about the lifestyle of many children that makes it difficult for them to be happy, even for middle-class kids who seemingly ‘have it all’.
Rather than our focus being purely on the child and assuming that it is they who has or is ‘the problem’, we also need to look at the child’s lifestyle and work out which aspects of it are preventing the child from thriving. There are aspects of life, which are widely accepted as being normal and fine, but which compromise the mental-emotional well-being of many children.
What does Chinese Medicine have to offer?
Chinese medicine is a lot more than acupuncture and herbalism, it is an entire philosophy and way of living. Chinese Medicine understands that the mind, the emotions and the body are one entity. It looks at the whole to understand what may be manifesting in one part. Sometimes, to help a child feel less anxious, the most effective approach is to make a change to their lifestyle that will, on the surface, primarily affect their physical body.
For example, excessive exercise at too young an age could be detrimental not only to the child’s body, but also to their mental/emotional health. There is much to be gained from taking this holistic approach, rather than reducing our understanding of what is going on to levels of chemicals in the child’s brain, or to a hormonal imbalance, for example.
The Chinese Medicine system of the Five Elements provides a framework through which the differing natures and temperaments of children can be understood. It helps us to understand why each child’s needs are unique. It also helps us to grasp the nuances of a child’s mental/emotional state, once things have become imbalanced.
I know of no other system which so effectively helps us appreciate the fact that one child’s medicine is another’s poison, that one child’s anxiety has a different flavour to it than another’s and that every child, who has a low mood, will experience that in her own unique way.
The way forward is to understand and then accommodate the fact that each child has different needs. It is also to initiate changes to their lifestyle that can help them to thrive. Chinese medicine believes there is nothing more important than developing the art of ‘nurturing the young’. In doing this, we not only create thriving children, but ones who will go on to have a much greater chance of becoming a well-balanced adult.
Parts of this post are taken from Chinese Medicine For Childhood Anxiety and Depression by Rebecca Avern (to be published October 2021).
Rebecca Avern is running a one day CPD event ‘Acupuncture for teenage mental health’ on 11th October 2021 at CICM. Find out more here