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Words are medicine

The importance of verbal first aid for children

—Judith Acosta, LISW, CHT

A young girl walks up to the stove while her mother has her back turned for just a moment. In the blink of an eye, she has pulled a small pot of hot water down onto herself. With a wail, her mother is brought to full attention and the girl is swept up in her mama’s arms.

As her mother helps to quickly take the hot, wet clothing off her little girl, she runs cool water over a clean towel and begins to talk about the way that cool water is going to feel and how it will “be cool and comfortable down, down deep, the way it is when you go outside to play in the snow and forget to come in until you’re all pink and chilly because you’re so happy outside in the cool snow, just like this towel that I’m putting on you now.”

Her words and her tone not only soothe her child emotionally, they begin to slow down the inflammatory response so that a disaster is averted.

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?”

Once again, words came to the rescue and not only was her son calmed down, but his physiological process was altered so he could heal. Instead of the chemistry of fear, her words enabled the chemistry of competence, courage, and calm. The first fights healing. The second facilitates it.

The Differences Between Children and Adults

It’s not just that we’re bigger. It’s not just that we have jobs and children go to school. There are fundamental differences in the way children see, experience, and interact with the world.

Where adults carefully choose their actions, children run faster than their little legs can carry them and fall. Where adults measure viability from a distance, children readily grab for things that are too big or too hot for them. Whereas we have garnered some experience over the years about dreams and perhaps have even learned to analyze and utilize them, children are afraid of the dark, the monsters that lurk under the bed, and find it hard to dismiss nightmares even after they’re awake and in your arms.

They are different than adults in many ways, and although we were all children once, we often forget the feeling of being smaller and more vulnerable than almost everyone else around us.

Magical Thinking

One way that children are especially different from adults is their automatic responsiveness to suggestion. Children respond to words, images, and expectations more literally and more rapidly than adults, whose behavior is more often dictated by analysis and conscious interpretation of social mores. That responsiveness (in both children and adults) is heightened when we are afraid or stressed.

Children are also far more imaginative and willing to suspend disbelief than adults. Partly this is because they have not been fully “indoctrinated” into the world and can still see possibilities and miracles where adults don’t.

As a result of this combination of being more suggestible, literal (or concrete) in interpretation of events, and imaginative, children see the world differently. They respond to what we say more vividly and rapidly.

One tragicomic example of this is a story about a little boy who was brought into the hospital for severe abdominal pain. The little boy was alone in his room as the doctor pulled the father aside to speak to him in the hall, not realizing that the child could still hear him. The physician told the father that his son had gas trapped in his lower intestine, but that it should soon pass and began to discuss the options they had in alleviating his current discomfort. Before they could talk much longer, they heard a shriek from inside the room. The little boy was panicked, red-faced with tears. The father sat beside him and asked, “What is it? Does it hurt?”

In between gasps and sobs, the little boy was able to describe his terror at learning that he had what he believed to be gasoline trapped in his belly and that he was going to blow up.

When we are in a critical situation—whether that’s a boo-boo for a three-year-old or a pink slip for an adult—a different set of psychological and physiological rules apply. Ordinary substrates are suspended and in those crises we are particularly susceptible to what is being said to us and around us. We capture those words, turn them into images, and—if there are no other, better images to guide us—the images convert into a cascade of chemicals. Those chemicals—and therefore, those words—can either help us to heal or harm us.

With Verbal First Aid, we utilize a child’s natural tendency to interpret things literally, think magically, and respond viscerally so that we lead them to healing right away.

How To Turn Magical Thinking into Healing Magic

Verbal First Aid is based on two fundamental principles: rapport and suggestion. Some psychotherapists call this pacing and leading. For the person giving the suggestion—in this case, the adult—it is like being a good dancing partner, only you know the dance and your partner hasn’t quite mastered the steps.

The first part in the dance, then, is the rapport. You have to make sure your partner is with you and willing to follow you. The second part is the suggestion.


There are three steps to gaining rapport: Authority, believability, and compassion.

Authority: Our authority as adults is automatic to most children. When people are scared, we look for a benevolent authority to tell us what to do, how to find safety. It is instinctive to all social animals—especially to children, who are helpless and look to adults for security.

Believability: In order to lead someone, particularly when they’re in crisis, we must be believable. 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. If we’ve lied about one thing, we can lie about another.

Compassion: And without true empathy—the ability to feel what someone else is feeling—our words ring hollow.


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. This is a simple example of leading in which a child’s fear is converted to excitement with just a few words and a twist:

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 saying, “Looks like you’re holding on pretty tight there.” Your niece says, “It’s scary.”

Saying, “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.

Simply Soothing and Truly Healing

An article in Working Mother magazine (June/July 2002) discussed the importance of a parent’s voice in soothing a child, based on a study conducted at Penn State. The researchers followed twenty-nine seriously ill children (between three months of age to eight years old) and introduced twenty minutes of audiotape which included the mother’s voice dubbed over music.

According to Beverly J. Shirk, RN, one of the study’s principal investigators, they found that “music, combined with a mother’s voice, helped sick kids feel more restful and calmer.”

Parents have a resource, a capacity to heal that is natural, safe, and readily available at a moment’s notice: themselves. Your words, your intentions, your presence—you are that resource. It is your ability to stay calm at a critical moment, to be the authority that makes you the one that leads them to safety and healing. Verbal First Aid is the tool you can use, but you are the one that makes it possible.

Judith Acosta, LISW, CHT is a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and classical homeopath in private practice in Placitas. 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 co-author of the book, The Worst Is Over, which has been dubbed the “bible of crisis communication.” Her new book, Verbal First Aid, which will address the special needs of parents and children, will be out in June 2010. You can reach her at or

Flash in the Pan: The Year in Food

—Ari LeVaux

A lot happened in the food world in 2009, but the year may be most remembered as the year of the high-profile symbolic garden, thanks to the veggie patch Michelle Obama planted in the White House lawn. It created an instant buzz, and many other politicos around the world have followed suit, providing countless opportunities to educate and discuss why gardens are good.

According to the National Gardening Association, the number of households with gardens rose from thirty-six million in 2008 to forty-three million in 2009. Obama’s garden certainly deserves some credit, but so does the recession, which inspired many people to stick their hands in the dirt, not only to save on their grocery bills, but to save on expenses related to their leisure time.

Ironically, this proliferation of home gardeners bears some of the responsibility for the rapid spread of a late tomato blight fungus, which nearly wiped out the commercial tomato crop on the east coast. Many gardeners bought tomato starts from stores like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowes, and Wal-Mart, nearly all of which were raised by the Alabama nursery Bonnie Plants. Plant pathologists believe the nursery sent out infected plants, which slipped under the radar of agricultural inspectors and brought the spores to all corners. Unusually heavy rainfall encouraged the blight to take hold, prosper, and spread. The take-home message: buy your plant starts from local nurseries, or grow them yourself from seeds.

In addition to kitchen gardens, another beneficiary of the recession is Clara Cannucciari, a ninety-three-year-old great-grandmother whose You Tube videos combine salty commentary about life in the Great Depression with hands-on demonstrations on how to crank out simple delicacies that average fifty cents a serving. The videos helped win Clara a contract with St. Martin’s Press, which published Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression this past October.

It’s impossible to discuss the year in food without an update on the activities of biotech giant Monsanto, whose year can be summed up in a single word: “chutzpah.” In April, the company sued the sovereign nation of Germany when its agriculture minister banned the planting of a type of Monsanto corn engineered to thwart the advances of the corn-borer moth. Monsanto was unsuccessful in forcing Germany to allow its farmers to plant the corn, and recent research suggests Germany’s concern (which several other European countries shared) may have been warranted: French scientists published a paper suggesting adverse affects of this corn—and two other types of genetically modified corn—on the kidneys and liver of rats.

Meanwhile, Monsanto’s marketing practices have placed it on a collision course with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which this month has indicated it’s considering anti-trust litigation. Monsanto’s string of acquisitions has squelched almost any possibility of competition, while its seed prices have risen by an average of forty-two percent. When the DOJ dispatched some of its lawyers to meet with Monsanto to discuss these developments, the company hired the services of Jerry Crawford, an Iowa lawyer who is a friend and financial supporter of USDA chief Tom Vilsack. It’s further indication that keeping Monsanto in line is about as easy as trying to wrestle an anaconda.

Monsanto owns the rights to genetic sequences found in more than eighty-five percent of corn planted in the United States, and ninety-two percent of soy. Given the prevalence of corn and soy in the American diet, it’s hard to take a bite of any packaged food without eating Monsanto’s handiwork. What’s scary is how little research has actually been done in the area of food safety, and that nearly all such research has been conducted by the company itself.

While touting its products as safe for humans and the environment, Monsanto’s main sales pitch is based on the claim that genetically engineered seeds will increase crop yields and facilitate pest control. But last summer, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that genetic engineered seeds actually don’t increase productivity. Another study, by the Organic Center, found that since the introduction of “Round-Up tolerant” corn, soy, and cotton, farmers have sprayed 382.6 million more pounds of herbicides than they otherwise would have. This is partly due to the proliferation of Round-Up resistant weeds: between 2007 and 2008, farmers increased the use of different herbicides by thirty-one percent in an effort to combat these superweeds. Nonetheless, the company’s website promotes the seeds as a key component in “sustainable agriculture.”

While Monsanto has co-opted the term “sustainable agriculture,” retail giant Wal-Mart, already the world’s largest vendor of organic food, is now poised to capitalize on the popularity of locally-grown food. It is looking at ways individual stores can carry foods grown by local farmers. Another large grocer, Safeway, has this year begun aggressively pushing a “locally grown” marketing campaign, while blatantly taking advantage of the ambiguity in the term “local.” A writer by the name of Food Dude, on the Portland, Oregon blog Portland Food and Drink, busted Safeway with photographs of produce bearing out-of-state stickers next to signs announcing “I’m Local!” and “Locally Grown.”

That the “sustainable,” “local,” and “organic” bandwagons are becoming attractive to large corporations, arguably, is a good sign. It shows these words, and what they represent, have infiltrated the mainstream consciousness. And one of the most powerful vehicles to deliver this message has been the movie Food Inc., whose depressing-yet-important message about the American diet was seen by enough people to make it the highest grossing documentary of 2009.

The year closed with the anti-climactic climate summit in Copenhagen, where U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack acknowledged the huge role that livestock plays in global warming—more than transportation activities by most estimates. Vilsack announced plans to build methane capture facilities at large dairy farms in order to turn that potent greenhouse gas into an energy source. Vilsack deserves credit for helping to keep agriculture at the forefront of climate change discussions.

On the other hand, searching for ways to enable the cattle industry, while politically expedient in the short term, are shortsighted in the long-term. This brings us to my prediction for next year’s (or next decade’s) hot topic: serious soul-searching on the pros and cons of all things bovine. From the atrocities of feedlots and slaughterhouses to the environmental destruction wrought by cattle, given the skyrocketing worldwide demand for meat, the human addiction to cow products is reaching a breaking point.

Ari LeVaux lives in Placitas where he writes his nationally syndicated column Flash in the Pan.






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