09/08/2010 12:21 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Self-Healing Children: The Promise of Verbal First Aid

Communicating therapeutically with children is a big idea even in small ways. The idea that what we say and how we say it can help slow or stop bleeding, can reduce or halt an inflammatory response, can slow a racing heartbeat and calm a panicking child is, quite honestly, a big enough story to stand on its own.

That our words have not only emotional impacts on others, but measurable, magnificent physiological effects is nothing short of astounding. The research abounds attesting to the power of words and mental images not only on the obvious physical processes.

Nothing about us is fixed in the way that we thought it was.

But physical and emotional healing is only one part of what happens when we begin to use Verbal First Aid with children.

The other is a profound alteration in consciousness, on a personal and cultural level.

The Future With Self-Healing

What happens to us personally and collectively when we begin to see what we are capable of? That we can participate in our healing? That we can change how we feel--and how we heal--with a thought, an image, a word?

What does that do to the way our children see themselves?

When we use therapeutic communication with children, even with infants, we give them not only relief in the moment, but the capacity to soothe and help themselves even when we are not around. Once a person (even a very young person) has the experience of soothing and stopping an asthma attack, or altering his perception of pain, or transforming fear into courage, they are changed. Forever.

An example:

Brittany is a 5 year old girl who wants to help her mom cut carrots for the salad. While her mother has stepped into the living room to get the phone, she picks up a small knife and picks a wet carrot off the counter, places the knife on it and, as soon as puts some pressure on it, the carrot skids across the room and the knife nips her finger.

She is unsure of what has happened for a moment and starts to look for the carrot until she sees blood.
Her mother rushes back into the kitchen as soon as she hears Brittany wail, "MOMMMMY!"

There are, as always, a couple of options here: Mom can run back in, see the blood on the floor and become both frightened and angry. She can be curt and annoyed, saying, "I told you never to do that!!! Now look what you did, bleeding all over...and, damn it, what if you need stitches!"

She can also take a breath, assess the situation, calm herself down, and say, "Were you trying to help with dinner again? Well, let's see that finger, huh?"

She takes her to the sink, pours Betadine on the cut and wraps a clean gauze around Brittany's finger.

"Will you help me by holding the boo-boo so the bleeding can stop and we can pick out a band-aid?"

For Brittany, the experience of a calm, compassionate authority in her mother combined with the experience of being able to stop the bleeding gives her a kinesthetic lesson she can carry for a lifetime: She can manage a crisis and she can help herself heal.

The Difference Between Verbal First Aid and Other Cognitive Models

This is not about insight or understanding at the ordinary, conscious level, although all that is good and I spend a substantial part of my day helping people in this arena. Insight is simply the awareness of what we're thinking and feeling and why. That is only a small part of Verbal First Aid.

Some people have likened it more to mindfulness practice, which is an awareness of things that happen to us, around us and in us, all without active participation, just a detached awareness.

Again, this is a vitally important ability and is necessary for more complex, loving interactions. Some
have said it is essential to good health. I don't dispute that.

But it's still different than Verbal First Aid. Therapeutic communication and suggestion utilize awareness, but it is not dependent on it. In fact, the less the analytic, cognitive functions come into play, the better.

Verbal First Aid utilizes the natural ability of all people--children and adults--to visualize and respond to those images on every level of their physiology.

We don't have to "think" in order to respond to imagery. We just do.

One of the things I do in my workshops is I roll through about 25 different images--some of them horrifying, some of them placid and soothing, some of them exciting, some of them funny. As I scroll down, I ask people to notice the changes that occur in their bodies with the appearance of each image. Their responses are sometimes so instantaneous and uncontrollable, that I can hear gasps, giggles, and sighs from the audience.

This is not about analysis. It's not about ordinary insight. And it only partially utilizes detachment as a vehicle.

It is about the way we work. All of us. All the time. It is about our capacity to respond to imagery and then utilize that imagery in the service of healing.

When we teach children how to do that, we have given them a lifetime of resources.

At the end of a session, Milton Erickson, M.D., one of the greatest psychiatrists of all time, used to tell his patients, "You can take my voice with you."

That is what our children can do with Verbal First Aid. They can take the voice of assurance, compassion, self-reliance, and resourcefulness with them wherever they go.