A curious and nimble three-year old manages to quietly stand on a stool and pull the cord attached to a glass blender on the counter. It falls to the floor and shatters. Scared by the sound, he jumps back and cuts his bare foot on a shard. Blood starts to flow as do his tears.
His mother, knowing Verbal First Aid (tm), calmly approaches him, lifts him away from the glass and says, "That was a very surprising sound! I've got you, baby." He wraps his arms around her neck, "Hurts!" "I can see the hurt and I'm going to put this towel on it so you can stop the bleeding right away. And then, we're going to put on a special cartoon band-aid together! Will you help me choose the one you want?"
He stops crying and becomes very interested in his new task: choosing the coolest band-aid from the pack. When mom lifts the towel, the bleeding has stopped and the healing has begun.
Within seconds, the little boy went from crisis to calm, from hurt to soothed, from bleeding to picking out band-aids. Our words can literally heal.
Our words can also harm.
The opposite effect was demonstrated in a story one patient reported about a fall she'd taken when she was quite young. She had disobeyed her father's instructions by playing on a trampoline without adult supervision. She was six-years old and threw herself into the jumping with gusto. As she took a particularly high jump, her father stepped out of the house and onto the porch, took one look at her and yelled, "Damn it, Jennifer! I told you to stay off that trampoline""
As she came down, she landed on her wrist and broke it in three places. As he drove her to the hospital, frustrated and frightened for his daughter, he reminded her more than once of how she had disobeyed him and that the broken wrist was the consequence.
As she told the story, her wrist, which had never healed fully, began to throb. But more importantly, she still felt the sting of her father's anger, her shame, and her fear as he yelled at her. All those years later and his words in that moment still hurt.
Words Are Medicine: The Healing Power of Verbal First Aid With Children
Verbal First Aid works by speaking directly to the body. It is not solely about making someone feel better emotionally--although that is obviously good. What is different in Verbal First Aid is that the words we say to someone in crisis are being translated instantaneously into physiologic responses. What we say affects the autonomic system and literally transforms us biochemically.
Words have this capacity with adults, as science has shown over and over. But it is even more effective with children, who are far more connected to their bodies and their instinctive responses than adults. As adults we have been conditioned to deny and modify the way our bodies respond. Children have not yet acquired those defenses and the effects of our words are readily apparent in their faces and their body language.
Their imaginations are also far more active and freer than those of adults. They are less likely to let their conscious mind interrupt a great story with logic than we are. They suspend disbelief more easily. As a result, with proper guidance from us they are able to generate images that can have a powerful and positive impact on their immunity, their breathing, their heart rate, and their inflammatory response.
The Healing Zone
Verbal First Aid works because when we are in a crisis of any kind--whether that's a serious accident or a bruised ego--we slip into what psychotherapists call "altered states." In those states we are more suggestible and more sensitive to what is being said around us or to us. For that reason, these states are referred to as "healing zones" in Verbal First Aid(tm).
In these healing zones we are highly focused, usually on an internal process. Children enter these states far more easily and more often than adults. What we say to ourselves and to other people when we are in that zone has extra impact. This is doubly true when the person speaking is an adult, particularly a parent or other known and respected authority figure.