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October 1, 2010

Beyond Biofeedback: How Words Can Help Children Heal

By Judith Acosta

Children learn who they are in the world via an organic form of biofeedback. Everything we say and do communicates and that communication is received by them not only cognitively but, perhaps more importantly, physiologically and genetically.


It seems that while communication has gotten faster, it has also become sparser. Why write a whole sentence when you can text the idea in three letters and an asterisk? Why stop to talk and possibly get engaged in a lengthy conversation when you can shoot out an email in seconds? Taking the time to converse at length with other people has apparently become rather bothersome in our culture.

The other day this became critically clear to me when I saw a woman walking with her daughter (in a stroller) and her dogs around the block. She strode purposefully and made it clear that she was working out and she had other things to attend to. It was not a pleasure stroll. She had a cell phone to her ear while her daughter occupied herself silently.

The effects of this new, light-speed communication has its grip on teenagers, too, who, last I remember, used to get in trouble in school for all the talking they did with each other. Last week, I saw a group of five teenagers bouncing around the mall in an odd, disconnected and silent clump—each one had a cell phone in his or her hand, texting someone other than the kids they were with.

It is not necessarily their “fault,” either. These were probably the same children who were sat down in front of televisions when they were bored or restless or needy for attention. Or they were given headphones and a Sony Walkman to soothe them to sleep instead of a lullaby sung to them while being held.

The overarching question, however, is what this disconnect may mean for the next generation when we know that communication—both verbal and non-verbal—is the foundation of social and personal wellbeing and how can parents reverse this trend?

Organic Biofeedback

Children learn who they are in the world via an organic form of biofeedback. Machines are not necessary for attentive mothers to know their children are not feeling well. Nor are they required for us to communicate positive or negative responses to children. Our intentions and emotions are manifest on a consistent basis. When we are happy with them, they know it in the lightness of their hearts. When we are disappointed, they feel it in their guts as if they'd been physically punched. Everything we say and do communicates and that communication is received by them not only cognitively but, perhaps more importantly, physically.

If this is true, then the current trend towards cyber-chatting as opposed to face-to-face communication, may not only present a problem for party-goers and event planners, but a real issue in terms of our emotional and physical health.

What we say addresses not only the mind of the person to whom we are speaking, but the body. We physiologically and genetically respond to words, ideas and beliefs. In his book, The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton draws a picture of the human organism as a vital, interactive community of more than 50 trillion cells, each one with individual intelligence and responsiveness that facilitates cooperation and uniform function.

In order for an organism to be healthy and vital, all these cells must be able to communicate with one another. That occurs along the membranes of the cells. When the membranes are open and adaptive, information passes freely between the cells. Healthy blood cells, for instance, have flexible membranes, while unhealthy blood cells have rigid ones. In Lipton's terminology, the unhealthy ones become “protective” and unyielding, while the healthy ones are “open” and growing.

What accounts for the difference?

According to Lipton's early observations of cellular response to toxins, it's the environment. The environment not only affects the cell, it affects the cell's posture and receptivity to other cells.

But, as we are coming to see, it's not just the physical environment we need to concern ourselves with. It is the way in which we receive our experiences, the beliefs we hold about ourselves, and the words we repeat in our minds (as well as the images they create) that determine whether a cell becomes “self-protective” and closed or “adaptable” and open. The “environment” includes not just what we see or eat, but what we hear and feel.

What makes this important in terms of communication with children is that not only are they hearing what we say (whether or not they have the cognitive and linguistic abilities to fully understand us), but they are receiving our communication at the cellular and genetic level.

Beyond Biofeedback: Verbal First Aid

The American Medical Association advises parents to talk to their children as often as possible. And when words fail to come readily, they explain that just a parent's voice and presence is what a baby needs to feel reassured. They state: “Always respond to your newborn's cries—he cannot be spoiled with too much attention.”

Other professionals, particularly those in the field of Speech and Language Development and Education, call upon parents to interact with their children on as many levels as possible. Do things together. Talk while you do them together. Make eye contact, body contact.

In Verbal First Aid, we take it a step further. We call upon parents, educators, caretakers, and medical professionals to recognize the extraordinary power words have and the way in which they, too, are part and parcel of the cellular environment. Not unlike the blankets, nutrition, and open air that support and surround babies as they grow, our words help them to develop emotionally and physiologically by fostering a belief in their own ability to heal.

How does this work? How can we use words to facilitate healing in our children?

Rapport: The Foundation of Healing Feedback

In the Verbal First Aid protocol a compassionate presence or rapport is a critical aspect of all therapeutic communication. The protocol was originally created for use by first responders to facilitate healing in victims of trauma, but is now being utilized by people all over the world to help their children heal from all the kitchen variety boo-boos and challenges kids face as they grow up.

There are two parts to Verbal First Aid™: Rapport and Suggestion. In order to give a person a suggestion they will follow (e.g., “stop the bleeding” or “you can rest comfortably now”), there has to be a trusting connection or “rapport” between the two of you. This is true whether the person you're talking to is a child or adult.

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.”

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 of both rapport and suggestion:

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 Nature of Therapeutic Communication

How do we communicate to children, to each other?

  1. With our words.

  2. With our bodies.

  3. With our spirits.

Verbal communication as a form of organic feedback can be quite simple. In Verbal First Aid and other hypnotherapeutic modalities, it is called “pacing,” a way of moving with the child wherever he or she is. So if the child is tired, we can say, “I see how tired you are.” Or if the child is scared, “Oh, that was scary. And surprising!”

However, our verbal acknowledgment of another's presence, need, or emotional/physical state, is only one of the ways in which we become present to another person.

We can also do so with our bodies—the way we stop what we're doing and look at them when they speak to us, the way we kneel down to be at eye-level, the way we touch them when they are in pain or frightened.

And whether we use our words or our body language, our spirits—our intentions—are always finding a way to express what we are feeling, thinking and believing, whether we are conscious of it or not.

According to Randi Jacoby, a speech and language specialist in New York (1), “children require time and one-on-one feedback as they struggle"to build their language and cognitive skills.” They also require the full presence of their caretaker—whether that's mother, father, grandparent, or nanny—to reassure as well as stimulate them and prepare them for the challenges that life will present to them.

Using our words and our full-hearted presence to help children be calm and heal not only gives them much-needed relief in the moment. It gives them the verbal and emotional tools they need to keep themselves healthy for a lifetime.

1) Quoted in The New York Times article, From Birth, Engage Your Child With Talk, by Jane E Brody (9/29/09).

Authors 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."