THE BLOG
07/26/2010 06:46 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

'Kid Whispering': Keeping Children Safe With Verbal First Aid

According to a growing number of experts, a human's need -- and search -- for safety starts at conception. Studies have shown that mothers who do not want or are overwhelmed by their pregnancies induce the production of stress hormones in their newly forming babies.

Gary Sibcy, Ph.D., co- author with Tim Clinton, of Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do, states unequivocally that relationships -- how we speak, relate, and respond to our children -- are crucial to brain development. Furthermore, he emphasizes, the earlier we engage children properly in life, the more likely they are to be healthy, adaptable and happy.

In the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, it is becoming axiomatic that the brain is a social organ and that the relationships we experience at an early age change not only the way the brain functions but its very structure and its future function. The brain changes and forms with experience and our interpretation of those experiences based on what we see, hear, and feel around us. This particular and important feature of childhood is what experts call plasticity.

A child is not born with a fixed set of resources, not even genetically. The only thing that comes in ready to go is the brain stem, which allows us to breathe and sleep and blink without thinking. The rest of the synaptic and neural nets are wired, rewired and wired again throughout our early lives. Eventually, those networks can become hard-wired, which is why knowing how to speak to our children is so vitally important.

Verbal First Aid: How to Speak to Children for Self-Healing and Safety

With the careful and thoughtful use of words and the strength of our presence, not only can we help children feel better by relating and speaking to them in certain ways, but we can literally help them heal. With our words we can address autonomic function in ways that can help them be calm, stop or slow bleeding, reduce an inflammatory response, lower their blood pressure or soothe a broken heart.

In essence, by engaging the child's mind in the process of healing, we are teaching her how to heal herself, what her own body is capable of, how her thoughts, the pictures in her mind and her expectations have a profound impact on how she feels and heals.

The protocol is simple and is based on three essential elements:

  1. The development of rapport
  2. The existence of a "healing zone"
  3. The power of therapeutic suggestion

Rapport

Before anything we say can be considered genuinely therapeutic, we need rapport with the child or patient. From my point of view, this is the most important step, the one without which nothing else works. This is the relationship. And it is fundamental in every conceivable way.

This relationship or "rapport" can be built over years as it would be ordinarily with a parent. It can be built over some months as it is with many teachers. Or it can be built in seconds, the way it can be with a skilled and compassionate paramedic or firefighter.

Rapport simply means: "I am here to help you. I see your discomfort. I see you. I am here for you." Perhaps you wouldn't use those words exactly, but it is the sentiment and intention that are crucial.

Rapport is based on three points:

  1. Authority
  2. Believability
  3. Calm Compassion

Authority can't be understated, especially in our society where a great many parents are so worried about being friends and equals with their children. Besides all the sociological and psychological aspects of that switch in status, in crisis a child desperately needs an authority. As a matter of fact, so do adults. The research on disasters has shown that even people with professional training (but not enough practice) stand around glassy-eyed in a critical incident until someone with self-assurance and authority tells them specifically what to do.

Children need this authority and guidance even more because they have less critical experience in the world. It is not just a matter of "freezing" out of fright or pain or confusion for them. Children, because they are children, really don't know what to do. There's so much they've simply never seen before. Perhaps more importantly, they don't know what they are yet capable of.

Since rapport is a relationship of trust, believability figures quite prominently. If you lie to a child who is hurt or frightened, you have lost a significant amount of trust.

Believability is so important that an unhealthy, pie-eyed optimism has been given a name: The Stockdale Paradox. Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking prisoner of war in Vietnam. When he was asked which prisoners tended to perish in captivity, he said, "Oh, that's easy. The optimists."

He explained: "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end -- which you can never afford to lose -- with discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality ..." He was referring, obviously, to adults. But the same is true for children. Denial is not helpful. Hope is. Denial ignores the obvious. Hope takes reality and imbues it with realistic possibility.

The simplest solution: Keep your statements simple and believable. If things are clearly not all right, avoid empty reassurances. Instead say, "I see what happened. I'm right here and I've seen this many times before and each time it's turned out okay. Won't it surprise everyone by how quickly you heal when you pick out your own magic Band-Aid?"

A calm, compassionate voice is the container or conveyor for both the authority and the trustworthiness. It is what communicates "I'm in control. Follow me. Here's the way out." You can't be trusted and won't be followed if you're as panicked (or more so) than they are. Your inner peace, however you arrive at it (breathing, prayer), is vitally important. So, before you say anything, take a moment, get yourself centered, then deal with your child.

Stress = Suggestibility

This is an observable, scientific fact of life. The more stressed, the more dissociative we become. The more dissociative, the more focused on an internal process we are. This is true for all of us. It is human nature. Therefore, what is said to us when we are in crisis (large or small), is absorbed more readily, which is why it is so important to take care with our words.

In one Verbal First Aid video , there are two demonstrations: one is what not to say and one is what you can say instead. It is instinctive for people to react when something bad has happened: "OH NO! Oh, NO! Don't die on me, damn it!"

The problem with that heartfelt plea is that the only thing the person hears is "die." And because the person is stressed (even if he is unconscious), that suggestion is more readily received.

It is so much wiser to simply say, "As I put this compress on your wound, your wound can start to heal and knit together," providing the person with the imagery he needs to help himself rather than increase the sense of fear.

Children are even more suggestible and imaginative by nature, so what we say has an even greater weight. For this reason, we call these moments "healing zones" to remind us that they are opportunities for healing and that our words have special impacts.

Suggestions for Safety

From the first moment of life, every cell in a child wants to know: "Am I safe?"
In a crisis -- whether that's a skinned knee, an asthma attack, or a nightmare -- we are their first source of information. Is it bad? Am I dying? Will it hurt? Is the monster still there? What do I do with this feeling in my leg? What do I do with this fear in my heart?

Our presence is our first opportunity for reassurance. If we panic, they are lost in their own complex of emotions and sensations. Remember -- all the emotions and experiences we've named over the years, all the thoughts and feelings we've been able to categorize and understand -- all of those are new to children. They don't know what they mean no less what to do with them so that they can not only survive the experience but thrive.

Our words at critical moments can change an autonomic response in seconds. Here is a typical Verbal First Aid scenario to demonstrate what it can do in a common childhood crisis -- a burn.

Miquela, only five years old, has been wanting to cook like her daddy. This time, instead of waiting like she was always taught, she grabs the pot handle and it falls, splattering hot water all over the floor. After a moment, she notices that some of that water got on her hand. As her dad rushes into the room, she realizes that the water was hot and it burns. She starts to cry.

Instead of admonishing her for not listening, dad scoops her up and says, "You really wanted to be like daddy today, huh, sweetheart ... Let's see what's going on ... "

"Owie!" Miquela cries, showing him her arm.

"Oh, honey, I see the red owie ...That was a hot pot, huh?"

He checks her over and finds that there were no other injuries. So, he starts to distract her as he begins using standard first aid protocols -- gathering clean cloths, running cool (not cold) water, etc ...

"Well, let's see now ... " he says calmly and sets her on a chair in front of him as he kneels. "How's your knee?" He lifts it up so they can both examine it.

"Okay ... " Miquela says through tears, but substantially less frightened.

"And your left elbow?"

"'kay ... "

"And your ear?"

Miquela starts to smile just a little.

"You remember that time daddy drank his coffee too fast and how I ran around the kitchen looking for ice and hopping around yelling 'hot hot hot'?"

She nods "yes."

"I was pretty silly, and it sure hurt but remember how fast it went away? By the next day I was drinking coffee again ... although I made sure it wasn't so hot again."

"That was funny."

"Yes, it was, and it healed fast. just like yours can. And you can help by putting it under the water with me.

"Okay ... "

He picks her up and sets her near the sink, running cool water on the burn.

"Now I want you in your mind, like you're watching a movie, okay, to see your arm changing color ... what color is it now?"

"Red, like..."
"Like what?"

"An apple!"

"Red like an apple! Okay ... Now, what's pink? Can you name something pink?"

"Mommy's roses."

"Good ... like mommy's roses I want you to see in your mind that your arm is changing from red to pink, like from apples to roses. Can you do that with me?"

"Yeah..."

"And as it turns pink, it can get lighter and lighter, and cooler and more and more comfortable until it's as pale and comfortable as your other arm. "

And thus, the shift begins -- from pain to comfort, from crisis to calm, from depending on only the external to developing an internal mechanism for self-control, self-regulation and self-soothing. I've seen this happen many times, particularly when I worked with kindergarten children. Once they learn a new technique, they use it in ways that are surprising and downright innovative.

I had one child come running into my office. "Ms. Acosta! Ms. Acosta!"

"What happened, Raul?"

"I did it again!"

He was so proud of himself and so excited.

"What did you do?"

"Well, that thing we did when I picked out the magic Band-Aid and I stopped the bleeding all by myself?"

"I remember," I said.

"Well, I did it again after Jason pushed me and I scratched my knee and it doesn't hurt anymore. Look!" He pointed to a bruise on his knee, scraped and dirty, but not bleeding.

"You did a great job!" I was honestly impressed. "I think you did so good a job that now you can help the nurse clean it up and make it perfect. What do you say?"

And we did. He was a marvelous helper to the nurse. But more importantly, he learned to help himself. His favorite saying after that was "I'm a really good healer."

Verbal First Aid may seem like magic words, but that's only one small part of the miracle that is created when we help children in this way. We give them a gift not only of healing in the moment, of easing pain or stopping the flow of blood, but we endow them with a resource they will take with them forever.

With Verbal First Aid, with our calm presence, our guidance, and our carefully chosen words, they learn to develop an internal voice of reason, of authority, of reassurance. And that's the key to safety!