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Verbal First Aid: Healing Children's Pain and Fear With Words

08/05/2010 06:07 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Judith Acosta Author, 'The Next Osama'; Co-author, 'Verbal First Aid'

For all our self-assumed scientific sophistication, for all our scans and labs and genetic analyses, healing has not been made all that much more understandable or all that much less mysterious.

A doctor can suture two pieces of skin together, but there is some capacity that lies beyond our ken, some talent that resides only within each one of us that allows that tissue to granulate and be reformed. The simplest paper cut still borders on the miraculous when it is gone and the skin looks untouched.

Babies are no different than adults in this ability. In fact, they are more so--more imaginative, more sensitive to their environments, more responsive and more adaptable.

The research on attachment and child development has been showing that this sensitivity is more than "emotional" in the colloquial sense. It is neurologic. What babies feel becomes the fuel for synaptic hard-wiring. Their brains are formed by their experiences, not just by their genetics. Those experiences are mostly dependent on the nature of their relationships with those around them.

When human beings feel unsafe (adults and children), the higher regions of the brain turn off. We think less and feel more. It takes 1/12,000th of a second for the sound of a rattle in the woods to get turned into adrenalin. It takes quite a bit longer for the cortical and executive functions of the brain to get involved: What's the best thing to do here? Should I run? Should I hide? Is there anything really wrong? Am I safe?

And according to Gary Sibcy, the coauthor of "Attachments: Why You Love, Feel and Act the Way You Do" (2009), it is that last question that is uppermost on the mind--and brain--of every baby: Am I safe?

Depending on their answer to that question, their brains will develop along certain pathways. If they feel safe--if their relationships are stable, if the inevitable accidents and problems are handled well--they develop into adaptable, resilient, compassionate adults. If they don't, if they feel unsafe and unsure of what to do, they become hypervigilant, anxious and incapable of processing events on their own.

What Parents Can Do To Raise Their Children with Verbal First Aid

Hardwiring occurs in every single living, learning being. It is the brain's way of learning from its experiences and shortcutting its way through the next one.

Children depend on adults to guide them through their early experiences and let them not only what to do, but what to think and how to feel when the next similar experience comes around. In fact, we are the ones who must teach our babies how to feel and think at the same time.

That is not something any of us are born with. Children need adults to regulate their emotional arousal so that a traumatic event (a nightmare, a fall, an illness) is encoded in a way that promotes a healthy concept of themselves and their ability to survive. What this means is that emotion and healthy thinking have to occur at the same time so that the brain (or neural net, as attachment experts are calling it) is wired for safety.

Verbal First Aid is a way of using ordinary language to facilitate these processes in children so that those experiences are embedded in the healthiest way possible.

The protocol is very simple and, in turn is based on a very simple idea: that what we think is what we feel and how we feel is how we heal.

The most important part of the protocol, in my view, is the concept of Rapport and the power of our presence and love.

Rapport

Rapport is simply a relationship of trust, understanding and positive expectation. In some cases, as in emergency situations, that relationship can be built in seconds. We see a uniformed officer coming for us after we've been in a car accident and we are instantly relieved because in that uniform we see rescue, competence and caring. In other cases, it may be created in an instant and then develop over many years, as in a parent or other family member.

Anyone can have rapport with another person who is upset or ill or injured by simply stating, "I'm right here and I'm going to help you." Sometimes, it is just a look, or the touch of a hand.

However you approach it--as a firefighter, medic or parent--you achieve it with three simple principles: Authority, Believability, and Compassionate Care.

Authority is a quality or manner of being that communicates to whomever you're with: "I know what I'm doing in this situation." It is not the same as Expertise, though it can be related. It is more of a presence, an attitude that we have the emotional fortitude, experience, and clarity to handle whatever crisis we are facing. It is the ability to lead or guide a child through an upset or an accident in a calm, assertive manner. This is what I've come to call "Kid Whispering" and its importance can't be understated.

It is a presence that says to a child: "Follow me. I know the way out of this."

Believability is not just the absence of a lie; it is the inspiration of trust. The essential challenge is communicating a positive outcome without pretending that everything is "okay." For instance, if a two-year-old boy falls and scrapes his hands so they bleed profusely, we want to avoid saying "oh, that's no big deal," because for him it's quite a big deal.

If your five-year-old daughter has a horrifying nightmare and her screams haul you out of bed at three in the morning, you don't want to try to quiet them down by saying, "It's nothing but a dream," because dreams feel terribly real and her fear is entirely reasonable given her internal reality. The same is true for adults.

We want to approach each situation with a realistic optimism, not rose-colored glass. When we say "it's okay" to a person for whom it is very much NOT okay, we lose rapport because we are no longer believable. Whatever we say next becomes suspect.

When we are intent on rapport, compassion is the essence of everything we do from our first contact to our last. Infants know when someone cares. They may not have the words or the understanding of it that we do, but they experience it (or the lack of it) at the most visceral of levels. As a result, they determine whether they are in caring hands or they need to be concerned.

When we have rapport and learn the basics of Verbal First Aid, we can take our children from crisis to calm, from pain to comfort. Our relationship with them and the words we use can lead them to a healing response not only in the moment but in the fullness of their entire lives.

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