I am often asked if Chinese medicine and Amma Therapy can be used to treat children. The answer is–yes, of course and very effectively. But don’t limit Chinese medicine to just treatment of acute and chronic illness. The core principles of Chinese medicine and nutrition are actually about creating and maintaining wellness through all life stages, however it is most important during growing and transitional years of childhood.
As a practitioner and teacher of Chinese medicine and Holistic Nutrition I wasn’t overly surprised when my daughter, Clara (then 13) walked into the kitchen one day with tears streaming down her face.
“What’s up?” I tried not to chuckle (a typical fire element response–laughing inappropriately to the situation).
“I don’t know! I just burst into tears,” she sobbed, half angry and half wanting to laugh.
After a bit of inquiry and we had eliminated that there wasn’t an emergency. She wasn’t physically hurt, she hadn’t been in a fight, she’d burst into tears for no apparent reason. Actually, there was a reason–Liver Qi stagnation. During the teen years the Liver’s role of Free and Easy Flow of Qi and Blood becomes very active, coinciding with the changing hormones in teens. But it doesn’t necessarily move gracefully, often it stagnates and causes problems like wild mood swings, PMS, irritability, and anger outbursts. Observation of her tongue and pulse confirmed the assessment, I gave Clara a quick reminder of what Liver Qi stagnation is, gave her a little apple cider vinegar (sour moves Liver quickly). I added in Hsiao Yao Wan, a classic formula for Liver Qi stagnation and some Spleen issues is a common formula given to teens. Then we found some good humor in the silliness of the emotional roller coaster.
Now don’t jump at the last statement. Moods swings are indeed real, but how we choose to engage with these ebbs and flows are what matters. I wanted Clara to see that her emotions can be powerful, but they aren’t all of her and she doesn’t have to get lost in them. Like the weather, emotions and thoughts flow in and out of our being. We can identify them, observe them and act on them if it’s necessary. Problems arise when we spend too long in any emotion or become addicted to being that emotion. As a culture, American’s are often deeply attached to their emotions and often let them run amok. It’s not uncommon to run into worriers who are worried that everything is going so well, that there is nothing to worry about. Left unchecked, they make something to worry about. Others are angry if they don’t have something to be angry about. Again, left unchecked, they will find or create anger. It’s not the emotion that’s the problem, it’s our relationship to the emotion and what we do with it. Children and teens (especially) may get overly involved with them. Watch the Disney channel for 15 minutes if you need proof. Back from the tangent. The point of the example wasn’t that their was anything wrong with what Clara was experiencing, it was simply new, a bit overwhelming and she didn’t have the skills yet to know how to respond. Gentle shifts in the diet, and a little guidance can work wonders in helping children deal with possible ups and downs before they become a situation that actually merits “treatment”. For example–Liver Qi stagnation left un-addressed can magnify into painful menstrual cycle, extreme mood pattern, anger, resentment, digestive issues and so much more. I wanted to nip that in the bud.
The good news is, children’s system respond quickly to Chinese medicine and nutritional shifts, they are clearer and less congested than those of us who have had years to get stuck.
How Chinese medicine addresses children
First comes education in the principles of preventive and holistic health of the parents. Long ago, in far away China, you didn’t pay your doctor to heal you when you were unwell. You paid your doctor when you were well. This is ideal if your goal is that the creation and maintenance of health is easier and more desirable than having to manage a health crisis. Holistic practitioners of any modality should have this as an ideal and education in what health is. This includes understanding the changes and needs of the body at any stage of growth and development.
When children are born, their systems are immature both physically and energetically. The meridians (channels) of Qi aren’t fully developed. Traditionally, we say their digestion and immune systems are fully mature at about 8-9 years of age. This isn’t a bad thing…it just is, they are budding and growing. It’s what the parents do during these developmental years that is important. In this culture, we are seeing the results from lack of good nourishing food and health habits, so much so, that the current generation of children has a shorter life expectancy than their parents–which is a shameful. However, there is always hope and there are always ways to improve.
Stages of growth and development according to Chinese medicine
Conception–The strength of the mother and father’s Jing (Essence that is housed in the Kidneys) at the moment of conception is the blueprint for their child. This is DNA..and much more. Chinese medicine places heavy emphasis on making sure that both mother and father are strong and well before they conceive to provide as much opportunity for successful conception, a healthy pregnancy and the overall health and longevity to the baby as possible. Kidney Jing deficiency patterns in children are the patterns appear as slow growth, slow bone development and any “born with it” pattern like Down’s Syndrome and other birth defects.
Pregnancy & Birth–We work to support the mother’s Qi, Blood, Yin and Fluids and to keep her Kidneys strong. She needs all these resources in abundance to insure a healthy strong pregnancy and give her the strength to go through labor, then turn around and nurse a newborn while recovering. Too many pregnancies, births or miscarriages deplete a woman’s Kidneys and vital essences leaving her weaker. This is why many Chinese medicine practitioners will recommend a woman who has recently miscarried wait several months, depending on what they see in tongue and pulse, before trying to get pregnant again. Actually, given the right conditions and support a woman’s health can be increased.
Infants–Fragile yet strong. Babies’ systems are amazing. Focus is placed on building the immunity and the digestive organs. Much of this is done with treating the mother during the nursing stages and through baby’s first foods like pumpkin, broths and whole grain porridge. Focus is also placed on treating acute disharmonies as soon as they appear like colds or sleep disturbances.
Toddlers– Still supporting the digestion and immune system which isn’t considered fully developed until about 8 years of age. Phlegm and weak immunity are common patterns, often amplified by an overly rich, sugar diet. Children’s personalities start to come to the forefront and treatments can be used to help the emotional and spiritual constitution of the child. 5 Element treatments can be most beneficial in dealing with growing pains of personalities from aggression to timidity to fear or lack of appropriate fear. Herbs, treatment and nutrition is also geared to help treat common ‘ups and down’s’ like teething pain or bowel and digestive issues.
Ages 6-12– Fun times! Parents and practitioners get to see how flexible they are–dealing with adapting to social situations to sudden growth spurts, breaks and bruises, colds and flu. The more prepared you are the better off you are.
Teens– A major watershed phase (7 year cycle in girls and 8 year cycle in boys). Expanding independence, changing hormones and drama. Along with the physical changes come the mental and emotional changes (hopefully growth). The teen, no longer a child, and not quite and adult is working on further refining their identity, theirs, hopes, dreams and ambitions–hopefully in meaningful and healthy ways. The nutritional needs of a teen varies from an infant or child and in the teenage years it can vary between girls and boys and athletic to non-athletic. Chinese medicine is absolutely beautiful dealing with conditions like acne, PMS, anemia, and hormonal imbalances.
Know the child
Knowing patterns of disharmony or genetic weakness means that we can work to strengthen and build. A child born with diabetes will have different needs from the healthy child or the child with genetic bone weakness. Lifestyle habits, nutrition and therapies should be focused to bring about the best possible health conditions. There is always room for improvement for any age and anyone.
Act fast when disease enters
Your child will become ill at some point. If you or your child starts to ‘fight’ something off…don’t linger and see if it they get it. Take action now. We aren’t talking pumping them full of medicine. It’s the subtle things–bad sinus congestion is made worse by drinking orange juice which creates phlegm where as moving to peppermint tea will help drain the phlegm. Learn preventative measures and teach them to your children. For example, Clara keeps some ginger in her locker and volleyball backpack. Ginger warms and was a welcome blessing when she would get cold from riding her bike or being out in the chilly weather.
“To treat the child you must treat the parent.”
This saying sums it up. Through all the different stages of childhood from conception, birth, infancy to puberty, children have needs that vary. Does this mean that the parents need to get Amma therapy or holistic treatment themselves? Not necessarily. With nursing mothers it is very beneficial. By aiding mother’s digestive vitality, boosting her immunity and her Qi, baby will be stronger. With older children it is important to have the parent’s active engagement and support during treatment, dietary changes and life habit changes.
Children often respond quickly to treatments and the subtlest of shifts in energy and lifestyle changes. Their bodies haven’t had as much time to become deeply entrenched in patterns. In some cases, 2 or 3 treatments is enough to see a marked shift in the child’s condition. Successful treatment always depends on correct assessment and treatment, depth of disharmony, and client engagement in therapy. In the case of children, the parent’s attitude and willingness to engage may be deciding factor in the success (or lack of) of treatment. Defeatist attitudes can be the downfall of many a child’s well-being.
How Chinese Medicine Assesses Children’s Patterns
Chinese medicine literally starts to assess the moment we see and hear you.
Facial complexion and areas
Facial colors are used for assessment at any age. With children, they can be particularly helpful. A bluish hue or tint around the mouth or just above the bridge of the nose can indicate a weakness of digestive vitality. A red hue indicates heat while a lack of color can indicate Blood deficiency or overall Qi deficiency. Dark circles under the eyes can indicate Kidney Jing deficiencies (if they are constant) or be and indicator of tiredness if they appear every now and then.
All sounds are clues to patterns of disharmony, from the tone and volume of voice, to abdominal sounds, to whether a cough is shallow and dry, deep and phlegm congested.
The tongue is a road map to the body. Patterns can be identified by overall color, coating or lack of, color of coating, cracks or deviations, movement and shape–all give us to clues that allow the practitioner to narrow the treatment in. Tongue assessment in babies can be tricky, they tend to wiggle their tongue around when they are willing to stick it out–but we have our ways to make them stick out their tongues.
Another road map. We look for rate, rhythm, amplitude and other qualities. Specific pulses relate to specific organs and are an excellent means of identifying the organs or patterns of disharmonies.
Palpation or touch
The temperature of skin, areas of warmth or cold, changes in skin or musculature, how an acupressure point responds, areas of swelling or deficiency all can be indicators and clues to the disharmonies.
Index finger vein
In infants and young children there is a little vein in the index finger that is very telling about the child’s condition. If it’s indistinct, then it is normal. A red hue means there is heat or fever, a blue hue indicates fright or fear, a purple hue indicates extreme stagnation or pain, and the list continues.
As with any form of medicine, the practitioner will have specific questions to help them seek out the root of the pattern. Age permitting, these questions are usually directed to the child allowing the practitioner to have a clearer view of the child’s perception.
In the therapy room
In treatment, I always treat younger children with their parents in the room. Teens may opt to have their parent’s present or not. They can choose to be draped or be treated in t-shirt and sweats–whatever makes them comfortable. Amma therapy doesn’t usually use a whole lot of oil, so there isn’t a slippery mess to be concerned with. As questions arise they can be asked of the child (age permitting) and I can get feed back from the parents. The amount of time needed to treat an infant is far less than that of a 15 or 17 year old. At first, children may very wary, however usually after a treatment or two they relax and become butter on the table. I know my daughter is always ready to jump up on the table or beg a treatment from one of therapists.
As a Chinese medicine practitioner and Holistic Nutritionist, the goal is to assess where the child is at. If their pattern is acute (cold, fever, flu, etc.) it is essential to clear it away before treating the underlying pattern and strengthening the body overall. Remember, it is never too late, improvements to health can be made at any age.
Here’s to a happy and strong childhood!