Separation, School, and Verbal First Aid for Children

This post is by Judith Acosta, LISW, is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in anxiety, trauma, and depression. She is the co-author of The Worst is Over (2002) and Verbal First Aid (2010) as well as numerous articles on mental health, animal-assisted therapy, and cultural pathology. She lectures around the country and practices in NM and NY. She may be reached at www.wordsaremedicine.com/verbal-first-aid.

School is starting again and for some children this is more a time of trepidation than of excitement.

What’s a parent to do when the bus driver has opened the door, 20 screaming kids are waiting, and your child is holding on to you for dear life, her cheeks moist with tears? Do you tell her to “cut it out…you’re a big girl, now?” Do you keep them home and wait for another day?

It’s a minor crisis when we look back at it or observe it from the adult vantage point. But to the child with the anxiety it’s nothing minor at all.

I remember vividly being scared of going to Kindergarten. So my father and the teacher created a game: When he came to the door, I would hide under his coat (in those days—long ago—men typically wore long coats in fall and winter) and the teacher would have to guess if I was there. I would hide by climbing on his back, standing on his toes, or pretending to be invisible behind his legs. Of course, there was no guessing really on anyone’s part except my own, but it got me engaged with the teacher and some of the other kids who became a part of the ritual.

Verbal First Aid is a protocol that was created to help parents and caretakers speak and relate to their children (of any age) to facilitate healing. As it does that, it simultaneously addresses anxiety.

Here are a few of the things I have learned personally and professionally about anxiety and the ways in which Verbal First Aid can help you get through the next month or so.

Lesson #1: Fear is Viral

Nothing moves us faster, spreads faster or stops us faster than fear. It takes 1/12,000th of a second for the sound of something moving in the bushes to make our hearts beat out of our chests, our intestines to contract, and our hands to sweat.

This massive physiological response involves only a very small part of our brain—the limbic system. Some people call this the Lizard Brain because it is located properly in the center of all that gray matter and operates on primitive pistons set only for survival. It doesn’t think. That requires the cortex and frontal lobes of the brain, which process, moderate, integrate, and execute with judgment. The limbic system reacts.

Which brings us to Lesson #2, because if fear is indeed viral, it may be starting with us.

Lesson #2: Start with Self-Soothing

If you yourself had some difficulties with school, it may be leaking. And because we’re talking about anxiety and fear, children are especially intuitive about it. We may not even be conscious of our own feelings but communicating them in very subtle ways to our kids.

Ask yourself about your own experiences in school. Ask yourself how you feel about leaving your child in the care of others. Begin to discern whether you have real reasons for concern or it’s old baggage getting in your way of letting your child go.

Lesson #3:  Take A Breath, Get Centered, Then Gain Rapport

First things first. Take a breath.

Brains need oxygen. And the time it takes to forcibly fill our lungs with air when we are shallow breathing affords the brain the few seconds it takes for our cortical functions to kick in.

When we are caring for a child, this is terribly important. If we are afraid or anxious, they become equally if not more so. When we approach a child who’s just been hurt—whether that’s emotional or physical—whatever we say or do must come from as calm and centered a place as possible. In fact, our state of mind is communicated far more quickly than our words and can corrupt what we say in an instant.

When I give talks on Verbal First Aid, the first question I ask is, “What’s the worst thing you can say to your spouse when he or she is upset with you?”

And inevitably someone gets it:  “Relax!”

How many ways are there to use that word? “Bugger off,” “Cut it out,” “I don’t want to hear it,” “You’re nuts.” Or: “I’ve got you,” “You’re safe” and “You can trust me.”

The difference between the two interpretations of one word comes down to the existence or failure of rapport. Rapport is that state of positive expectation and understanding between two people so that what you are saying is construed in the most positive and healing way possible.

An example:  A small boy was taken to the hospital because of severe, acute abdominal pain. He was agitated—as were his parents. No one had developed any rapport with him or served as an anchor for him in an obviously stressful situation. The doctor examined him in a rush, pulled the parents aside and said in a voice the little boy could still hear, “He’s probably got gas.” The little boy promptly became hysterical believing he was going to blow up “like in the movies.”

Lesson #4:  Ask if There’s a Problem

Sometimes we forget that school can be genuinely difficult—socially, intellectually, and emotionally. Before you decide it’s just separation anxiety, find out if there are other sources for your child’s clinging. Think of the behavior as a signal, a sign that they need something, but don’t know how to ask for it. Part of our jobs as caretakers is to sometimes play detective.

Lesson #5:  Remember Your ABC’s

A= Authority.

B= Believability.

C= Compassion.

For parents and caretakers, this is what I call “Kid Whispering.” Children take their cues from us, whether we like it or not. How we present—our energy, caring, and honesty—give them guidance. Sometimes, we guide well. Sometimes, life gets the better of us and we have to reboot.

The important thing is that we understand that these qualities form the gateway for therapeutic suggestion and our ability to lead children from chaos to calm, from pain and panic to patience and relief.

***

This post is by Judith Acosta, LISW, is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in anxiety, trauma, and depression. She is the co-author of The Worst is Over (2002) and Verbal First Aid (2010) as well as numerous articles on mental health, animal-assisted therapy, and cultural pathology. She lectures around the country and practices in NM and NY. She may be reached at www.wordsaremedicine.com/verbal-first-aid.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply