How to Turn Magical Thinking into Healing for Children
How to Turn Magical Thinking into Healing Magic:
Verbal First Aid for Children
c. 2009, Judith Acosta
Samuel Hahnemann, the great 18th century physician after whom numerous medical
colleges have been named, once described health as “admirable, harmonious and vital.” It
included both feelings and functions, both spirit and body.
Healing, then, is more than a technique. It is an art that utilizes every resource a person
brings to bear—will, patience, strength, attitude as well as imagination.
In Word War II, when medics and nurses on the battlefield were left without morphine or
other painkillers, they often resorted to a more subtle form of pain relief for soldiers in
agony: suggestion. They gave them saline injections but told them with great authority
that what they were receiving was the most potent form of morphine.
What happened was often what they prayed for: relief. There were no drugs administered
and no “medical” reasons for the change in the soldiers’ perceptions. None, that is, but
the suggestion that was given to them.
Placebo effects, of which this is a supreme example, are so potent that they are regularly
ruled out in pharmaceutical trials. According to John Cloud (“How a Sugar Pill Can Heal
(or Hurt) You,” Time, November 2, 2009), “Scientists are coming to understand the
placebo response as a cascade of neural reactions that not only provide psychological
relief but also play a physiological role in block stress hormones that damage the body.”
Imagining relief can be as helpful as its drug-store counterpart—without all the “side-
This ability to receive healing suggestion and translate it into a healing response at the
most basic physiological level is innate to all human beings. Naturally, in some it is
greater than others.
But in children, it is the greatest of all.
Children’s Magical Lives
Children are born open. To them everything is new and everything truly is possible until
either experience or tutelage makes them see otherwise. Children imagine monsters,
wide-eyed fairies, flying pigs and sled-pulling, night-riding reindeer; they see
connections and meaning where well-conditioned and socialized adults only see concrete
effects and numbers.
This is especially true of pre-school children and it is called “magical thinking” by
psychologists. In a very young child’s view, rain falls from the sky because the sky is
sad. To that small child, it is entirely plausible. It is just as plausible that the sky is crying
because of something he said or did. While it is considered a phase of development out of
which they are expected to grow, it points to a very important truth: children are not little
adults. They have a way of viewing the world that is quite different than our linear,
logical, and limited way.
For this reason, Verbal First Aid™ and therapeutic suggestion are particularly effective
with children. Logic and expectation are not yet the barriers they become for adults and it
is easier to reach them with healing suggestion when they need it most.
Verbal First Aid to the Rescue
Verbal First Aid is a simple protocol described in the book, The Worst Is Over (2002,
Acosta/Prager), that utilizes the power of suggestion to facilitate healing in all situations:
in dire emergencies, in kitchen variety accidents, in bed-time fears. Begun as a
therapeutic protocol for first responders, it has been shown to facilitate calm, compliance,
and pain relief with people of all ages.
The research has shown that these therapeutic techniques are being used successfully
with children who suffer from asthma. In one study measuring the effects of guided
imagery and hypnosis on children the results were quite encouraging: 80% had
improvement that was measurable, none of the children’s symptoms worsened, and, best
of all, some patients’ symptoms were resolved after only one hypnosis session (Anbar,
In an article entitled “Applying hypnosis in a preschool family asthma education
program: uses of storytelling, imagery and relaxation,” author D.P. Kohen found that
combining those modalities helped the children both physically (they needed fewer office
visits) and emotionally (with greater self-confidence as marked by both the parents and
Helping an asthma patient was the experience that changed one paramedic's way of
thinking after I taught Verbal First Aid to his team in NY. He used the techniques of
pacing and leading, utilizing both imagery and the rhythm of his own breath to calm the
patient. "By the time she was at the hospital," he recalled later, "she was fine. It was
An Example of Verbal First Aid with One Particularly Sad and Sick Child
The following story is a variation of a true story.
Sarah’s best friend’s birthday party had been on her calendar for weeks. All the kids from
pre-k were there and Sarah had been anticipating it with delight. When the big moment
had arrived to bring out the cake and all the other children were rushing the table, forks
and plates in hands, Sarah was curled up on the couch in the living room, languid and
Her friend’s father found her there and knew something was wrong. He gently touched
the inside of his wrist to her forehead and felt it was warm. He knew her parents had gone
on a drive and were temporarily out of cell-phone range. He also knew that she could not
take aspirin but he dared not give her any other medication without speaking to her
“Looks like you needed a little quiet, huh, Sarah?” he said as he sat near her. He reached
for a blanket tossed on the back of the couch. “How about I cover you so you can be
really comfortable as I tell you a story?”
As the blanket covered her, she settled down into the couch, put her thumb in her mouth,
and curled onto her side, as much of a “yes” as she could convey with body language.
“It’s not a long story, but it’s a magical story,” he said. And he proceeded to tell her
about a house far away that was very hot because no one remembered where the furnace
”So, one little girl—a very smart little girl—reminded them about the little men in white
who sometimes came to fix things in the house when they needed fixing. No one had to
tell them where things were. They just knew. Can you imagine those little men in their
perfect white uniforms?”
Sarah nodded “yes.”
“That’s good,” he continued. “They’re going into the house now and everyone is so glad
they’re there. Can you see that?”
Again, she nodded “yes.”
“Well, watch what they do…and as you do…you can start to feel the magic in you, too,
because they just walk into the kitchen, then they open a door and go inside that door and
open another door that takes them all the way into the basement where the furnace is.
And they get busy….there are a lot of those little men in white suits and they turn this
down and move that button there, taking care of all the right things in just the right ways,
then they twist that dial and lower that knob until the furnace starts to cool down…And it
gets cooler and more comfortable so that by the time the little men in white go back
upstairs everyone is comfortable and able to sleep so that by the time they wake up,
they’re feeling so much better.”
By this time, Sarah is nodding into a soothed sleep.
“And those little men in white can keep doing their job even as you sleep, Sarah,” he says
and tucks her in.
Verbal First Aid™ is a gentle, effective, loving way to not only help children begin to
heal themselves, but to facilitate in them an awareness of the resources they have within
them that can be developed over the course of their entire lives.
Judith K. Acosta, LCSW, CHT is a published author and well-respected
psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, classical homeopath, and crisis counselor. As a therapist
in private practice she specializes in the treatment of trauma and anxiety—particularly
with military, paramilitary and emergency personnel—and writes frequently about
spirituality and anxiety as well as fear management and the role of the media in
promulgating what she calls Viral Fear.
She is the co-author of The Worst is Over: What to Say When Every Moment
Counts. (2002) and Verbal First Aid (2010, Penguin Books), has appeared on both
television and radio and is a regular lecturer on Verbal First Aid (the power of words to
heal) as well as a variety of psychological and spiritual issues including trauma, grief,
anxiety and animal-assisted therapy. She lives with her husband and rescue dogs in New
Mexico. She may be reached at www.wordsaremedicine.com.