Shen Disturbance: Tips for Nurturing the Shen by Suzy McCleary, DTCM

Shen Disturbance With a significant increase in the number of children diagnosed with behavioral problems including hyperactivity, ADHD, and autism, acupuncturists are looking for solutions to address the growing concerns of parents. Parents wonder how can they can help their child become more focused, improve their child’s sleep, and reduce hyperactive behavior. Fortunately, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has some powerful tools and ancient wisdom that can help. What really made the TCM wisdom I learned important to helping parents was traveling in Tibet where this thing called "screen time" doesn't exist.

Screen Time = Zombie Time?!?

Having two very active children myself, I have seen the effects TV or any screen time can have. My little cherub goes from a fun loving, busy interactive child to a complete zombie. A bomb can go off and he would not notice.  He is totally in the “TV Zone." No eye contact. No verbal response and then agitated and having extreme tantrums when the TV or tablet is disconnected. I'm sure many parents you work with can relate! According to TCM, the shen or vitality and mental/emotional health of a person can be assessed through the eyes. While in Tibet, I noticed a striking difference in the shen of local people and their children as compared to those residing in Western countries. The Tibetan people have a sparkle in their eyes - not just a little glimmer, but a sparkle that shimmers like a bucket full of stars. The most intense eyes I have ever seen! You won't find any zombie kids in Tibet! 

The Lifestyle of Tibetan Children vs. Western Children

I found myself wondering why this could be? Was it the simplicity of their lifestyle? Or maybe their diet? Or a combination of both?  The Tibetan children that I met lived a very simple life, playing freely with their friends with only one or two simple toys like a truck or a doll. Many played games involving sticks, rocks, or whatever they could find in nature. There were no televisions, computer games, fancy bikes, or tablets yet there were plenty of laughter and giggles. Tears and tantrums were fairly uncommon. In direct contrast to children in Western society, we as parents are often preoccupied, occupying our children with a myriad of toys, activities, stimulation, and screen time. But is this healthy? Children are considered delicate and extremely fragile according to TCM. They tend to have an abundance of energy and when joyful, they play games where they run, jump, laugh, and get excited. However, improper dietary and lifestyle habits easily affect their delicate nature leading to issues with the shen and eventually causing illness and disease.

The Importance of Emotions

According to TCM, there are five emotions as part of human nature that can affect the physical health of the child. These include: anger, joy, fear, sadness & pensiveness or despair.  When one of these emotions becomes particularly intense, it can become a cause of disease. For example, it is said that the heart houses the mind (otherwise known as the shen), and regulates the emotions, consciousness, and intelligence. The shen has a tendency to be easily affected by heat. Heat is easily created through overstimulation and screen time. If a child remains excited for too long by being continually stimulated, this excess heat transforms into fire. Its flames flare up and affect the child’s heart, causing the shen to move excessively and become scattered.   Translation: the child gets tired, quarrelsome and touchy.

In cases of excess heat or fire from overstimulation the child may:

  • Act impetuously
  • Find it difficult to play quietly
  • Appear agitated
  • Find it hard to concentrate
  • Be restless
  • Have difficulty in sustaining attention
  • Experience disturbed sleep
  • Be hyperactive

Why Does this Happen?

The child’s shen has become "overwhelmed" from the constant bombardment of  stimuli. They're not mentally ready to be placed in a wide variety of different situations that affect them emotionally and mentally. Like most things it is only when these things are in excess that illness or disease will occur. If their life is filled to the brim with school, homework, sporting activities, and play dates, they do not have enough rest physically and mentally to restore their body. They start to draw on their reserves causing dark rings under their eyes or frequent colds and coughs.

Activities that can damage a child’s shen include:

  • Too much time on activities that require full scale involvement
  • Playing too many video and computer games
  • Lack of outdoor play and physical activity
  • Staying up too late
  • Too many expectations that conflict with their own nature
  • Lack of appropriate boundaries and discipline
  • Constant pressure to get a move on
  • Overconsumption of processed foods leading to undernourishment

Help Parents by Starting with Small Steps

Although we as acupuncturists have lots of tricks up our sleeve, parents are easily overwhelmed. I find that just adding one thing at a time really helps.  Once they have gotten a handle on that particular change then the parent can move onto the next step.  This helps to improve compliance, as they are not daunted by what seems like such a huge task.

How Do We Nurture a Child’s Shen?

  1. Allow time for consolidation & repetition. Children want to hear the same stories, go through the same rituals, hug the same teddy bear.  
  2. Normal physical activities help to maintain health and strengthen the body's ability to resist disease. Encourage outdoor play where kids can run, jump, skip, and climb.
  3. Proper rest can relieve the weariness of the body and mind as well as restore physical strength and mental power. Allow children down time.
  4. Encourage parents to nurture their child. Respect and listen to them. They are only little for such a short time, so be present in the moment with them.
  5. Give children the opportunity for creative play without the stimulation of the television or computers. Get involved with their pretend magical play. I have found from personal experiencing that limiting or even removing screen time can make a significant difference. A child’s imagination is limitless and given the opportunity to explore it, is magical to watch.
  6. Provide a healthy well balanced diet, eating real food including good oils and fats, eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, organic meat, and full fat dairy.  Remove additives, processed foods and especially soft drink or soda.

Tips for Supporting the Shen

Chinese medicine has centuries of experience, insight, and wisdom to draw upon regardless fluctuating trends in health and parenting.  

Points I find effective to help calm the shen include:

  • GV 20
  • Heart 7
  • Large Intestine 4
  • CV 4
  • Stomach 40
  • Spleen 6
  • Liver 3
  • Kidney 1

Both acupuncture or non-needle techniques to stimulate the points are effective.

Beneficial supplements I recommend are: 

  • Cod liver oil
  • Vitamin D
  • Probiotics

Opt for Early Intervention Whenever Possible

Finally, it's important to note that early intervention at the immediate onset of a child’s symptoms is key! This can have a huge impact on the outcome and help families avoid long term issues. The earlier the intervention, the quicker the result. Essentially, it can help prevent acute illness from becoming a lurking pathogen and potentially turning into a life long condition. Prevention is better than a cure!

About Suzy McCleary, DTCM

this suzy

Suzy McCleary is a registered Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine,
 acupuncturist, herbalist & pediatric specialist. As a former pediatric 
nurse, she has over 22 years experience in the care of children and their 
families. Suzy is the founder of Enhanced Health Acupuncture & Chinese 
Medicine and more recently AcuKids Pediatric Wellness Centre, specializing 
in the treatment of children’s allergies including food allergies, eczema 
and asthma. She is the author of, a blog providing parents 
essential information and tips on helping to keep kids healthy naturally. For further information on treating kids visit


1 comment

Mindy Sole

This article is such a gift of insight to today's modern culture. We are so consumed by technology and our gadgets that we think it's beneficial and educational even, to expose our children and even our babies to them. I know it's hard to not let them watch something so you can just have a few moments of quiet and be able to get something done without interruption but where is the trade off? What is to come of my 2 year old's generation? It's pretty scary when you look at it from a TCM perspective. Thank you for sharing your insight into this and the comparison between Tibetan children and American children.
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