Calming yourself and Children, Tone of Voice, The Important C’s & Breath when discussing sensitive issues and scary issues – by Judith Simon Prager
How we say something communicates at least as powerfully as what we say. When you require help repairing your computer, your roof, your plumbing, you need the people who give you the estimate to also provide you with the sense that they know what needs to be done. An “um, well, this is an older model…” does not promise success.
The same is true when we seek to reassure others, especially children, who—despite their unsophistication in the world—may be very subtle to subtext and the energy of your emotions. The parent who dismisses a fall from a swing with “you’ll be fine,” has neither really listened nor considered the concern behind the tears.
So, although being too somber for example when discussing something like a lockdown/safe space drill will only serve to make the child more afraid, a sense of your Confidence and Competence will make all the difference.
In our training we tell the teachers to help the kids know that “the school has a plan for their safety.” They’re in good hands. It’s what we all want to know. And there are particular good words the teachers can use in the awful case of a real threat.
How you can help with that is with the C’s:
Confidence—tone of voice, quiet authority
Compassion and Concern – empathy is a tool that allows us to hear beyond the words, to see the feelings in the eyes, to connect with the child and know even what they cannot say. And then our help can be profound and wondrous.
The Amazing Gift of the Breath
How do we do that when we’re also (secretly) frightened?
One simple but extremely effective way is by using the breath. Before you dismiss that suggestion, let me point out that Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, who was a West Point psychology professor, Professor of Military Science, and a former Army Ranger, wrote a book about what he calls Tactical Breathing, which he teaches to Special Ops personnel to overcome the body’s reactions to highest stress-filled encounters. Among other effects, these special force agents, SWAT members and others facing dangers must prove they can slow their own heart rates with their breath as needed.
Essentially, in my own way of expressing it, the breath can be like a reset button. Here is Lt.-Col. Grossman’s technique:
- Breathe in through your nose to the count of 4.
- Hold your breath to the count of 4.
- Breathe out through your lips to the count of 4.
- Hold your breath to the count of 4.
Repeat until you feel your body and mind relax.
Do this three or more times to free the hijacked brain back to reason.
When we’re frightened, we shallow breathe. When we shallow breathe, not enough oxygen gets to the logical part of our brain. When our brain feels oxygen-deprived, it panics and we shallow breathe, creating a loop that is only broken when we take that nice, deep breath. Even one.
The real point, as Amanda Ripley puts it, in The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes–and Why, Harmony Books 2008, is that “The breath is one of the few actions that reside in both our somatic nervous system (which we can consciously control) and our autonomic system (which includes our heartbeat and other actions we cannot easily control).” When we take a deep breath the “hijacked” logical part of the brain can come back on board.
She calls the breath, the “bridge” between the two systems. Breathing more slowly and deeply, brings more oxygen-rich blood to the prefrontal cortex, so that we can “de-escalate the primal fear response that otherwise takes over.”
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About Judith Simon Prager, PhD www.JudithPrager.com
Judith has been invited around the world and across the US to present and teach the Verbal First Aid™ protocol she co-developed. She was brought to China after a devastating earthquake, to Borneo’s medical university, and she has often taught graduates at the European School of Osteopathy. She has been a consultant to or consulted with a number of medical centers, including Cedars-Sinai, Children’s Hospital of Orange County and New York University Rusk Center.
Judith’s deep belief in the power of words and images has found itself in her most recent co-authored books, The Worst is Over: What To Say when Every Moment Counts (deemed “The ‘bible’ for crisis communication” by The International Journal of Emergency Mental Health) and Verbal First Aid—Help Your Kids Heal From Fear and Pain and Come out Strong. She has also written a picture book for children: Owie-Cadabra’s Verbal First Aid for Kids: A Somewhat Magical Way to Help You and Your Friends Heal.
All those books reflect on how words and images can heal the mind, body, and spirit.
She has a BA and MA in English Language and Literature and a PhD in Psychology, with a private practice in Los Angeles.
She has appeared on Good Morning America and PBS’s literary program, Between the Lines. She is a multiple-awarding winning instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program with her husband, Harry Youtt.
Most recently she has been training teachers at international schools in Los Angeles about How to Talk to Kids About Lockdown Drills without scaring or scaring them.