Discussing a Crisis with Kids – The Words We Use – by Judith Simon Prager, PhD Discussing a Crisis with Kids – The Words We Use – by Judith Simon Prager, PhD
How We Handle Times Of Crisis Affects The Present And The Future When we find our way into calm, when we gain support by... Discussing a Crisis with Kids – The Words We Use – by Judith Simon Prager, PhD

How We Handle Times Of Crisis Affects The Present And The Future

When we find our way into calm, when we gain support by knowing we’re all in this together, when we have a plan because we’ve rehearsed it and automatically take steps to find safety in a scary situation, we have a less bumpy ride in the present.

Here’s a significant piece of information for you: How we remember traumatic incidents depends more on how we experience them than on how awful they really are.

So it’s in your hands. If the children can feel safe, instead of being traumatized by it, they can remember events and a scare as a time of rescue and maybe even as a time of their own courage.

The Words We Use—Verbal First Aid

When adults are in crisis, in emergencies, in pain and fear, they often slip into an altered state, of fight/flight/freeze. It has been estimated that:

  • 10-15% of us are clear headed and action oriented
  • 15% of us panic
  • 75% of us freeze, waiting for an authority figure to tell us what to do: “run,” “duck,” “hide.”

What is said to a person in that state is taken as a kind of “hypnotic suggestion.”

Children, especially under the age of about 6, are in and out of altered states. What that means is that they are generally receptive to suggestions and what we say can lodge in the mind as a truth. Additionally, we adults including teachers are the ones who tell children how the world works. We are the translators of life for them.

In our protocol, Verbal First Aid, we teach a special way of making suggestions so that they set a course for safety or recovery.

As an example of one of our techniques, when I do trainings I invite the teachers, doctors, parents to “close your eyes and imagine any animal in the world’s kingdom of animals. Any animal but Elephants. We tell them not to think about circus elephants, giant African elephants, mother and baby elephants…” And then we say, “ What are you picturing?” and everyone laughs. Because there is nothing in the sentence “Don’t think about elephants” to picture except elephants. We don’t register the don’t. It’s not a picture. So the “rule” is “Say what you want to have happen, not what you don’t.” You may be providing a mental picture, for better or worse, with your words.

When someone says “Don’t be afraid,” there’s all the reason in the world to wonder what we’re supposed to not be afraid of! I saw the effect of this when I trained nurses dealing with victims of domestic abuse. To a person who is sitting in the medical office with a broken arm, a black eye, or a swollen jaw, being told, “Don’t be afraid,” begs the question, “Afraid of what? Is he out there?” Instead, the nurses I trained now say, “You can feel safe being here with me.” It feels different when you say that. Safe is an important word, which is why I recommend it over “so you don’t get hurt.” Even words like lockdown and shooter could be so freighted with fright.

Mental Rehearsal

The way that fight/flight/freeze is often explained is that in an emergency, when we’re in fear or pain or crisis, the more logical parts of our brain, especially the later-developing prefrontal cortex, gets “hijacked” by the more primitive survival brain. Since that “reptilian brain” part relies on our more subconscious, past experience and automatic reactions, if we don’t have an “automatic program” for how to act in a frightening situation, we look for an authority figure to tell us what to do. It’s almost like opening up a file on your desktop and finding it empty.

Among the examples of how deadly freeze can be, there was the tragedy in the 1970s in which many airline passengers remained in their seats after their plane had crash landed, and some died, awaiting an authority figure (the flight attendant) to give the instruction to exit, although there were only 90 seconds to spare before the plane exploded. They hadn’t read the card in the seat pocket in front of them and didn’t have a procedure in mind for escape from downed plane that they could automatically fall back on.

So now you can see why the importance of practice can’t be overstated. In the military they insist upon it, calling it the 8 P’s “Proper prior planning and preparation prevents p*ss poor performance.”

When we have done what is called “mental rehearsal,” we have a program for action. We don’t even have to think about it. We can allow our subconscious automatic response to take over.

So, we practice those things we must do automatically, and that’s called Mental Rehearsal.


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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.




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  • Jaylen

    October 24, 2016 #1 Author

    The abtiliy to think like that is always a joy to behold


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