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October 19, 2009

Words Are Medicine: Raising a Self-Healing Child

By Judith Acosta

When you use Verbal First Aid with your children, they are learning by your example to use it for themselves. The healing you facilitate in them by the words you use when they are hurt becomes a self-replenishing well of mental, emotional and physical resources they can draw upon for a lifetime.


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.

The ABC's of Verbal First Aid(tm)

There are two parts to Verbal First Aid™: Rapport and Suggestion. Without the first, the second, no matter how clever, doesn't work.

Gaining rapport is built on 3 fundamentals—Authority, Believability and Compassion.

Authority is the first step. When people are scared, they look for a benevolent authority to tell them what to do. They naturally look to leaders to lead them to safety. Even with adults, you see this response when a firefighter or police officer is present during a crisis. It is instinctive to all social animals.

Parents or caretakers are natural authorities and children are much more likely to follow direction from them. This is even more so when the child is hurt or frightened.

Believability is the second step. We always want to be truthful. 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. And without rapport our words—and therefore our suggestions—ring hollow, for if they can't believe us they can't follow us where we want them to go.

Compassion, the third step, is based on empathy—the ability to feel what someone else feels. It is not the same as sympathy, with has more of a kinship with pity. When we can share someone's feelings and still maintain a clear, calm guiding voice, we can lead that person towards healing. When we speak to someone with real compassion, that person will be able to say to himself, “She understands me.”

The Power and Purpose of Rapport

Rapport is the track on which all communication runs. Suggestion is the locomotive, the leader that will carry the child to safety, to healing, to empowerment. 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.

Here's an example:

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 simply 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.

The Science of Self-Healing

According to Ernest Rossi, a well-respected authority on the psychophysiology of mind/body healing, when we are under stress our biochemistry changes. These changes, he writes, “can direct the endocrine system to produce steroid hormones that can reach into the nucleus of different cells of the body to modulate the expression of genes. These genes then direct the cells to produce the various molecules that will regulate metabolism, growth, activity level, sexuality and the immune response in sickness and health. There really is a mind-gene connection! Mind ultimately does modulate the creation and expression of the molecules of life!”(1)

The research being conducted in the field of Epigenetics is confirming this view. It is becoming more and more clear that the things we say, which generate feeling states, which, in turn inspire cascades of chemistry, alter not only our current physiological states but our genetic expression and our children's genetic inheritance. What we say—to ourselves, to others—today has an impact both right now and for years to come.

It also means that we have within us the God-given capacity to help ourselves heal by altering our words, our thoughts, the images we nurture in our minds, and the beliefs (about ourselves and our futures) we cultivate. Our children have the same capacity and it can be enhanced by the adults around them as they grow so they become calm, confident in their ability to heal and handle crises, compassionate, and courageous.

When you use Verbal First Aid with your children, they are learning by your example to use it for themselves. Your calm, confident, healing voice becomes the voice they hear within themselves whenever they are hurt, frightened or challenged--either emotionally or physically.The healing you facilitate in them by the words you use when they are hurt becomes a self-replenishing well of mental, emotional and physical resources they can draw upon for a lifetime.

(1) Rossi, Ernest. The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, W.W. Norton, N.Y., 1993

Submitters Bio:
Judith Acosta, LISW, CHT is a licensed psychotherapist and clinical homeopath in private practice in Placitas and Albuquerque. Her areas of specialization include the treatment of anxiety, depression, and trauma. She has appeared on both television and radio and is a regular lecturer throughout the U.S. She is the author of The Next Osama and co-author of the books, Verbal First Aid and The Worst Is Over, which has been dubbed the "bible of crisis communication."