The Self-Healing Child: Verbal First Aid For Our Future
c. 2009, Judith Acosta, LISW, CHt
Nurturing Self-Healing In Ourselves and Our Children.
A small boy is playing Spiderman and in a moment of delight tries to climb the wall
and finds out that gravity is a formidable opponent. He scrapes himself against a
dresser and starts to bleed. He runs to his mother who kneels next to him and says, “I
see. Spiderman was surprised by how sticky the floor was, huh?”
Her son sniffled but then laughed a little.
“Well, if you help me clean it out you can pick out the Band aid you want on it to
stop the bleeding right away. Okay?”
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
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.
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
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
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:
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,