Verbal First Aid: How to Calm Down Your Kids When They’re Hurt

Scraped knee? Don’t freak out! Here’s how to employ Verbal First Aid — courtesy of Hudson Valley’s 2012 Person to Watch Judith Acosta — to calm down that kid

Last year I had the great pleasure of interviewing Judith Acosta for our January 2012 People to Watch issue. Acosta wears many hats — among them psychotherapist, author, and Huffington Post blogger. She also happens to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met, passionate about everything, especially Verbal First Aid. The crisis communication tool employs the use of hypnotic principles like guided imagery and calm, deliberate language to diffuse medical and crisis situations. Acosta’s 2002 book on the technique, The Worst is Over: Verbal First Aid to Relieve Pain, Promote Healing, and Save Lives is considered “the bible of crisis communication.” After our interview, Acosta sent me home with her second book, Verbal First Aid, which is written for parents. I’ll go ahead and call it the bible of parenting communication. How often do you find yourself wishing someone would just tell you the perfect thing to say in the worst possible moments? The thing that will not only make your kid feel better right then and there, but can empower them in similar situations as they grow? Verbal First Aid totally does that.

Getting hurt or sick is scary, especially for a small child. They look to the adults around them — those (allegedly) in control — for guidance and reassurance. So when those adults panic too, it exacerbates the situation. By remaining calm and positive in scary situations we can actually rewire the way our children process trauma, instilling in them that they have the tools within themselves to heal, de-stigmatizing illness, injury, and even death. Verbal First Aid offers scripts for every type of situation, from asthma attacks to stitches to nightmares to bedwetting. Take this scenario: Your kid falls off their bike and scrapes their knee. It’s bleeding, a little. And of course they are hysterically crying. You gasp in horror and run to them, whisking them off the ground shouting “Oh no! Are you okay?” over and over and over. They cry harder as you rush them inside, wincing in sympathy as you examine the scrape. “I know this will hurt, but it’ll be over soon,” you say as you begin to clean the wound. They wail louder. You get them bandaged up and eventually calmed down, but the whole episode has left you both fried.

Now we revisit the same scenario, but apply the principles of Verbal First Aid. The kid falls off the bike. You, the parent, take a deep breath and calmly pick them up. “Mommy is here, I have you,” you might say. “Let me get a look at that cut so I can see what we need to do.” As you walk inside you explain how bleeding is the body’s way of cleaning a wound, and then say “you can stop the bleeding.” (You might be thinking, as you read this, that that statement is completely preposterous. But it’s true. It has been reported, by physicians, that “ordinary (nonarterial) bleeding can be lessened and/or halted entirely with a command from an authority figure.” This is because we can actually control many of our physiological reactions with our mind; it’s not a parlor trick, just the nature of our design.) You may repeat this phrase at several points while you clean and bandage the wound, avoiding phrases like “this will hurt.” You may tell them a story about one time when you fell and got cut, showing them the place where not even a scar remains to reinforce the fact that our bodies heal themselves. As you finish up you tell them that they are “such a good healer,” reminding them that each day it’ll get better and better until it’s gone.

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It’s really hard to remain calm when your child is hurt. But it works. I’ve been using Verbal First Aid with Coraline for several months, and while she still gets upset when she gets an ouch (she is only three, after all) she is quick to tell me “It’s okay, it will heal.” I’ve even overheard her telling other kids this when she sees them with a Band-aid. And she’s right, time — and a Hello Kitty Band-aid — does heal all wounds.

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