08/19/2010 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Verbal First Aid: Words As Medicine

Verbal First Aid for Children in Action
A young girl walks up to the stove while her mother has her back turned for just a moment. In the blink of an eye she has pulled a small pot of hot water down onto herself. With a wail, her mother is brought to full attention and she is swept up in her mama's arms.

As her mother helps to quickly take the hot, wet clothing off her little girl, she runs cool water over a clean towel and begins to talk about the way that cool water is going to feel and how it will "be cool and comfortable down, down deep, the way it is when you go outside to play in the snow and forget to come in until you're all pink and chilly because you're so happy outside in the cool snow, just like this towel that I'm putting on you now."

Her words and her tone not only soothe her child emotionally, they begin to slow down the inflammatory response so that a disaster is averted.

A small boy is playing Spiderman and in a moment of delight tries to climb the wall and finds out that gravity is a formidable opponent. He scrapes himself against a dresser and starts to bleed. He runs to his mother who kneels next to him and says, "I see. Spiderman was surprised by how sticky the floor was, huh?"

Her son sniffled but then laughed a little.

"Well, if you help me clean it out you can pick out the Band-aid you want on it to stop the bleeding right away. Okay?"

Once again, words came to the rescue and not only was her son calmed down but his physiological process was altered so he could heal. Instead of the chemistry of fear, her words enabled the chemistry of competence, courage and calm. The first fights healing. The second facilitates it.

The Differences Between Children and Adults
It's not just that we're bigger. It's not just that we have jobs and children go to school. There are fundamental differences in the way children see, experience and interact with the world.

Where adults carefully choose their actions, children run faster than their little legs can carry them and fall.

Where adults measure viability from a distance, children readily grab for things that are too big or too hot for them.

Whereas we have garnered some experience over the years about dreams and perhaps have even learned to analyze and utilize them, children are afraid of the dark, the monsters that lurk under the bed, and find it hard to dismiss nightmares even after they're awake and in your arms.

They are different than adults in many ways, and although we were all children once, we often forget the feeling of being smaller and more vulnerable than almost everyone else around us.

Magical Thinking
One way that children are especially different from adults is their automatic responsiveness to suggestion. Children respond to words, images and expectations more literally and more rapidly than adults, whose behavior is more often dictated by analysis and conscious interpretation of social mores. That responsiveness (in both children and adults) is heightened when we are afraid or stressed.

Children are also far more imaginative and willing to suspend disbelief than an adult. Partly this is because they have not been fully "indoctrinated" into the world and can still see possibilities and miracles where adults don't.

As a result of this combination of being more suggestible, literal (or concrete) in interpretation of events, and imaginative, children see the world differently. They respond to what we say more vividly and rapidly.

One tragicomic example of this is a story about a little boy who was brought into the hospital for severe abdominal pain. The little boy was alone in his room as the doctor pulled the father aside to speak to him in the hall, not realizing that the child could still hear him. The physician told the father that his son has gas trapped in his lower intestine, but that it should soon pass and began to discuss the options they had in alleviating his current discomfort. Before they could talk much longer, they heard a shriek from inside the room.

The little boy was panicked, red-faced with tears. The father sat beside him and asked, "What is it? Does it hurt?"

In between gasps and sobs, the little boy was able to describe his terror at learning that he had what he believed to be gasoline trapped in his belly and that he was going to blow up.

When we are in a critical situation--whether that's a boo-boo for a three year old or a pink slip for an adult--a different set of psychological and physiological rules apply. Ordinary substrates are suspended and in those crises we are particularly susceptible to what is being said to us and around us. We capture those words, turn them into images, and--if there are no other, better images to guide us--the images convert into a cascade of chemicals.

Those chemicals--and therefore, those words--can either help us to heal or harm us.

With Verbal First Aid we utilize a child's natural tendency to interpret things literally, think magically, and respond viscerally so that we lead them to healing right away.

How To Turn Magical Thinking into Healing Magic
Verbal First Aid is based on two fundamental principles: Rapport and Suggestion.
Some psychotherapists call this pacing and leading. For the person giving the suggestion--in this case, the adult--it is like being a good dancing partner, only you know the dance and your partner hasn't quite mastered the steps.

The first part in the dance, then, is the rapport. You have to make sure your partner is with you and willing to follow you.

The second part is the suggestion.

There are three steps to gaining rapport: Authority, Believability and Compassion.

Authority: Our authority as adults is automatic to most children. When people are scared, we look for a benevolent authority to tell us what to do, how to find safety. It is instinctive to all social animals. Especially to children, who are helpless and look to adults for security.

Believability: In order to lead someone, particularly when they're in crisis, we must be believable. If we're not believable--for instance, if we tell someone, "Everything's going to be okay," when it's clearly not okay--we lose rapport quickly. If we've lied about one thing, we can lie about another.

Compassion: And without true empathy--the ability to feel what someone else is feeling--our words ring hollow.

When we have rapport--when a child sees us as a kind and competent authority--our words can help lead them to healing--both emotionally and physically.

This is a simple example of leading in which a child's fear is converted to excitement with just a few words and a twist:

You've taken your niece to an amusement park. It's her first time. She gets onto the roller coaster with you, but you can see her grip on the bars is tight and she seems anxious. You build on the rapport you've developed over the years by saying, "Looks like you're holding on pretty tight there." Your niece says, "It's scary." "It's scary the first time," you pace her feelings. Then, as you take your bracelet off and put it on your niece's wrist, you say, "But now you've got my magic bracelet. You hold on to it while we ride, okay? It's easier to enjoy the ride when you know you've got magic with you." Your niece smiles, relaxing.

Simply Soothing and Truly Healing
An article in Working Mother magazine (June/July 2002) discussed the importance of a parent's voice in soothing a child based on a study conducted at Penn State. The researchers followed 29 seriously ill children (between three months of age to eight years old) and introduced 20 minutes of audiotape which included the mother's voice dubbed over music.

According to Beverly J. Shirk, R.N., one of the study's principal investigators, they found that "that music, combined with a mother's voice, helped sick kids feel more restful and calmer."

Parents have a resource, a capacity to heal that is natural, safe, and readily available at a moment's notice: themselves. Your words, your intentions, your presence--you are that resource. It is your ability to stay calm at a critical moment, to be the authority that makes you the one that leads them to safety and healing.

Verbal First Aid is the tool you can use, but you are the one that makes it possible.

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