In order to build your child’s capacity to rebound after overwhelming situations you will first need to learn and practice several skills. This chapter provides a variety of exercises that will enable you and your child to discover the rich sensory landscape that exists within the body. Likely, they will be fun and enlivening for you and your family. Guidance will also be given that helps parents and children acquire a new vocabulary for this new terrain. The language of sensation is communicated from the deep recesses of the brain—what we shall call the “body-brain.” You will become adept at recognizing these spontaneous internal signals and promptings that arise from this instinctual part of you. Becoming proficient in these skills lessens the rift between conscious and unconscious bodily processes. This experientialknowledge of sensations will not only give you the tools to assist your overwhelmed child; it has the side benefit of helping you, the parents, avoid becoming distraught as well. In this chapter you will learn how to attune to your child’s needs and rhythms, with a guide to hone your observation skills through looking, listening and resonating with him.
Giving Appropriate Support to an Overwhelmed Child
In order to prevent or minimize trauma and alleviate stress, it is important to make sure that you’re not overwrought by your child’s mishap. It goes without saying that this is not always easy! However, children, by their nature, are both fragile and resilient. It may be comforting to know that with the proper support, they are usually able to rebound from stressful events. In fact, as they begin to triumph over life’s shocks and losses, kids grow into more competent, resilient and vibrant beings. Because the capacity to heal is innate, your role as an adult is simple: it is to help youngsters access this capacity. Your task is similar in many ways to the function of a band-aid or a splint. The band-aid or splint doesn’t heal the wound but protects and supports the body as it restores itself. The suggestions, exercises and step-by-step guidelines provided here are meant to enable you to be a good “band-aid” for your child.
The importance of the adult’s composure cannot be overemphasized. Calm is essential! When a child has been hurt or frightened, it is normal for the adult to feel somewhat shocked and scared, too. Because of your own fears and protective instincts, it is not uncommon to respond initially with fear and anger. However, this can further frighten your child. The goal is to minimize—not to compound—the feelings of fright, shame, embarrassment and guilt your child may already be experiencing. The best antidote is to tend to your own reactions first. Allow time for your own bodily responses to settle rather than scolding or running anxiously toward your child, unless she is actually in danger. Experiences with our adult clients in therapy confirm that often the most frightening part of an incident experienced as a child was their parents’ horror reaction! Children “read” the facial expression of their caregivers as a barometer of how serious the danger or injury is.
Simple Steps to Build Resilience
The way to develop a calm adult presence is through practice. The experiential exercises provided will increase your ability to restore equilibrium, quickly and naturally, so you are more likely to experience grace under pressure. Once your body learns that “what goes up (charge/excitation/fear) can come down (discharge/relaxation/security),” you are on the way to a more resilient nervous system, one that can weather the ups and downs of life. You will become more like the tall bamboo or wispy willow that bends, sometimes to the ground, but does not break even during a monsoon! When your body “gets it,” you become contagious—in a good way. Through body language, facial expression and tone of voice, your own nervous system communicates directly with your child’s nervous system. This is how we trulyconnect with our kids! It’s not our words that have the greatest impact; it’s the non-verbal cues that create the feelings of safety and trust. Before you can attune to your child’s sensations, rhythms and emotions, you must first learn to attune to your own. Then your calm can become their calm.
The first step in this attunement process is to understand the importance of experiencing both comfortable and uncomfortable sensations while learning to tolerate and, little by little, befriend them. It is essential in becoming resilient. This deeper experience of ourselves, often neglected, shapes our core being. It is from our own breath and belly that we form our sense of self and help our children to sense theirs.
At first, when exploring physical sensations, it may be difficult to stay focused on them. But each time we do it becomes a bit easier. It is important to be able to tolerate displeasure long enough for the sensation to change, as it inevitably will. It is equally important to be able to experience increased pleasure and joy. As you practice, your body is able to hold (and “contain”) more sensation and emotion without getting stressed and making you feel like freaking out. Once adults feel more “at home” with their feelings and sensations, they naturally become models to their kids of how best to embody emotions.
Developing a Calming Presence
If being a balanced, centered adult presence in an emergency is not your normal mode, no need to despair. Given the modern stresses of juggling family and career responsibilities—not to mention personal problems and any of your own unresolved traumas—how on earth is a parent or other caregiver supposed to be calm and resilient? This is especially tricky in the case of a crisis, such as watching a toddler’s first acrobatic plunge down the stairs or through a plate-glass window!
In order for you to become more resilient and effective—not only in handling domestic disasters, but with parenting in general—it’s vital that you gain an experiential sense of how your own instincts operate when in danger or under stress. So how does one go about learning to be a bastion of cool when the baby’s crying and your toddler just poked himself in the eye with a stick? Let’s get started by learning about what goes on inside your “body-brain” (and your child’s) when you are frightened or unduly stressed.
The Body-Brain Connection
Humans have a triune brain (three distinctive brains functioning together as one mind). Simply put, this means that there are three parts that, ideally, work in harmony. The neocortical or newest part of the brain is responsible for complex thinking skills such as problem-solving, planning and perception, as well as social functioning. The mammalian (midbrain) or limbic system is also referred to as the “emotional brain”1 because it processes memories and feelings. The reptilian or “lower” brain is responsible for survival through the myriad functions that accompany the regulatory mechanisms of basic existence, such as heart rate and respiration. These include the workings of our nervous system that interact with our sensory and motor systems to move us quickly out of danger. These primitive brain parts form the basic body-brain connection.
Each region of our triune brain has very specialized functions, and each speaks its own “language.” The thinking brain speaks with words, while the emotional brain uses the language of feelings, such as anger, sorrow, joy, disgust and fear. Young children easily learn to label the emotions: mad, sad, glad, scared and “grossed-out” or disgusted. Unlike the “newer” thinking and feeling brain segments, the primitive reptilian brain speaks the unfamiliar, but vastly important, language of sensation.
The language of sensations is, to many, a foreign language. There is a world of sensation and sensation-based feeling inside you that exists whether or not you are aware of it. Fortunately, it is a language that with a little practice is easy to learn. It’s as essential to be familiar with sensations when traveling the “road to recovery from overwhelm and stress” as learning basic survival phrases when traveling abroad. In order to help your child, it only makes sense to get acquainted with your own inner landscape first. All it takes is some unhurried time, set aside without distractions, to pay attention to how your body feels. Sensations can range from pressure or temperature changes on the skin to vibrations, “butterflies,” muscular tension, constriction or spaciousness, trembling or tingling and heat. This is the language of the lower brain that acts on our behalf when in danger or when unexpected change occurs. It has a very different focus than most of us are accustomed to. Its signals may seem imperceptible, subtle or strange at first because of our customary reliance on feedback from language, thought and emotion.
Because it is the reptilian brain that ensures our survival and homeostasis, it is the wise adult who befriends this deep instinctual layer of consciousness. No computers, equipment or costs are involved. All that is necessary is time, attention and intent. With some quiet, focused time this specialized language of sensation can easily be mastered. Below are several exercises to give you the “feel” for it. Remember: because the reptilian brain does not register words, you cannot learn its language merely by reading about it. Sensations must be experienced! Paradoxically, as we become more instinctual like the animals, we also become more fully human.
Getting Acquainted with Your Own Sensations
Although children may not be able to verbalize what they are feeling because they are too scared and/or too young to talk, they know how a shocking upset feels and so do you! It is the undeniable dread in the pit of the stomach, a racing heart, the tightness in the chest or the “lump in the throat.” Turn on the news after a catastrophe or listen to a bystander who has just witnessed an accident describe his experience. “I don’t have words for it.” “It’s such a cold feeling.” “It was like getting the wind knocked out of me.” “I just feel numb.” “My heart wouldn’t stop racing, but I couldn’t move.” “My legs were like lead.”
Take a moment to think about your own experiences when something upsetting happened out of the blue. Can you recall some of the sensations you felt? Did your heart pound rapidly? Did you get dizzy? Did your throat or stomach tighten in a knot? And when the danger was over, how did the sensations gradually shift or change? Perhaps you noticed that you could breathe easier or felt some tingling or vibration as your muscles began to relax.
EXERCISE: NOTICING SENSATIONS
Let’s try this brief experiment to get you started on deepening your awareness. Find a comfortable place to sit. Take some time to notice how you are feeling physically. Pay attention to your breathing. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable? Where in your body do you register your comfort level? What do you notice? Are you aware of your heart beating, or conscious of your breathing? Perhaps you’re more aware of muscle tension or relaxation or the temperature of your skin; perhaps you notice sensations like “tingly.” When you feel settled enough to go on, try the simple exercise below:
Imagine it’s a pleasant summer day and you’re driving with your kids to the beach. You are playing a favorite song and the family is singing along. You’re not in a rush because it’s your day off and you love being near the water. The kids will be taking a swimming lesson and you will be able to do whatever you want, free of responsibilities for an entire hour. Take a minute to notice how you are feeling right now—before you read the next paragraph. Note the sensations in various parts of your body, such as your belly, limbs, breath, muscles and skin. Also notice any thoughts or mental pictures you might have as you think about having free time at the beach.
[Note: Pause here for a minute or two to give yourself enough time to notice your bodily sensations. When ready, continue with the second part of the story.]
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a hot-rod motorist cuts in front of you, nearly causing a collision. Furthermore, he is rude and shouts profanities at you, right in front of your kids, as if you had done something to cause the mishap. What are you noticing in your body and mind right now? Compare these feelings to the ones you had in the first part of the exercise. Pay attention to changes. What feels different now? Where does it feel different? Are you warm, hot or chilled? Do you feel tension or constriction anywhere? Notice changes in your heartbeat and breath. Notice if there is anything you feel like doing or saying. Or, do you just feel stunned?
There is no right or wrong way to answer. Each person has his or her own individual experience. You may have been scared and felt your shoulders, arms and hands tightening to turn the steering wheel quickly to swerve. Or, you might have blanked out and gone numb. When you imagined the other driver cursing at you, you might have felt irritated. If you did, where do you sense the irritation and what does it feel like? You may have noticed the muscles in your upper body tightening as your body prepared to fight. Or you might have noticed a word forming in your vocal cords to shout back, but the sounds never left your lips. When you check your body to feel your reactions and sensations in the present moment, you are experiencing your basic instincts of survival.
Now take a little time to let any activation (charged-up feelings) settle down. Think for a moment about the enclosed glass containers with a winter scene inside that you shake up to make white flakes that look like it’s snowing. Remember that it takes a little time before all the flakes accumulate on the ground so that the “snowing” stops. In order for you to settle, it certainly doesn’t help to get all shook up again. Instead, it takes a little quiet time of stillness and calm, just like with the snow scene, for the settling to occur. It can be very helpful to explore the room with your eyes, being aware that you are safe and that the visualization was only an exercise. As you continue to settle, place both feet flat on the floor to help you feel grounded. Next, direct your attention to something in the room that brings comfort, such as a flower, the color of the room, a tree or the sky outside the window, a photo or a favorite possession. Notice how you are feeling in your body at this moment now.
This brief exercise was intended to help you see that the language of sensation isn’t really so foreign after all. Sitting around the dinner table, it’s easy to feel a comfortable or overly stuffed stomach after a full meal or one that feels warm and cozy after sipping hot chocolate. But when people share their feelings, they typically express them as moods or emotions, such as happy, cranky, mad, excited or sad. Noticing sensations may seem odd at first, but the more you learn about the ups and downs of your own body’s “moods,” the more intuitive, instinctual and confident you will become. You may not know this, but your basic sense of well-being is based on your body’s ability to regulate itself—rather than to escalate out of control. To be in control this way means to be open to that which occurs spontaneously within you. This capacity for self-regulation is enhanced by your ability to be aware of your changing sensations and to know what to do if unpleasant sensations remain stuck over time, thereby causing distress.
Building a New Vocabulary Together with Your Child
When learning skills with any new language, it helps to develop and practice the new vocabulary. Since the vocabulary of resilience is sensation, building a “sensation vocabulary” is a central skill crucial in developing resilience. The box below is provided to get you started. To create a balance, be sure to notice and label sensations that are pleasurable or neutral, as well as those that may be uncomfortable. You can have fun with your child adding to this list and watching it grow as you learn to both sense and name the strange new feelings from the world inside you!
SENSATION VOCABULARY BOX
Note that sensations are different than emotions. They describe the physical way the body feels. A non-verbal child who seems frightened can be invited to point to where in their body they might feel shaky or numb, or where the owie is.
“Pendulating” Between Pleasant and Unpleasant Sensations, Emotions and Images
In Somatic Experiencing® (the method developed by Dr. Peter Levine to prevent and heal trauma), the term “pendulation” refers to our natural rhythm of contraction and expansion. It is vital to know and experience this rhythm. Being familiar with it reminds us that no matter how bad we feel in the contraction phase, expansion will inevitably follow, bringing with it a sense of relief. One way to follow or “track” your body’s own rhythm is as easy as paying attention to the pressure and flow of air in and out of your lungs and belly as you inhale and exhale. Notice if there is any tightness or whether the air seems to flow freely throughout your nostrils, throat, chest and belly. You might also note if the inhale and exhale are even or if one is shorter than the other. Are there pauses before the inhale and the exhale? How do the pauses feel? Do your muscles tense and relax as you breathe?
Rather than including only the expansion and contraction of the breath, however, pendulation is much more than that. It is the rhythm of our entire being as our internal state changes back and forth between uncomfortable sensations, emotions and images to more comfortable ones. This allows for new experiences to freshly emerge at each moment. When uncomfortable feelings don’t readily go away, they are usually associated with stress or trauma. If we were defeated and frozen in hopelessness, the ability to move out of that state through natural pendulation will be diminished. We may need a little help to get the pendulum moving again. When this natural resilience process has been shut down, it must be gradually restored. The mechanisms that regulate our mood, vitality and health are dependent upon it. When this rhythm is reestablished there is, at least, a tolerable balance between the pleasant and unpleasant. And no matter how bad a particular feeling may be, knowing that it can change releases you from a sentence of helplessness and hopelessness. And, as you assist your child with her natural rhythms, you are giving her a stable foundation for self-confidence.
EXERCISE: EXPLORING SENSATIONS AND THE RHYTHM OF PENDULATION
Note: You may wish to have a partner read the following story to you in a slow voice with plenty of pauses to give you a chance to develop more refined awareness. Another option is to record the story, listening to it privately or with someone else. In either case, it’s best to approach this activity with an attitude of curiosity as you deepen your awareness of sensations and the pendulation of your own natural rhythm.
Take time to get comfortable in your chair. Notice where your body is touching the seat; notice how the chair supports your back and buttocks. Allow sufficient time to settle down into the chair. Notice your breathing and how you are feeling overall. As you slowly follow the story below, take the time to notice the sensations, thoughts, emotions and images that come up. Some will be subtle and others obvious. The more attention and time you take, the more your awareness will grow. At the same time it is important not to overdo it; it is recommended that you take no more than ten or fifteen minutes with this exercise.
Now, imagine that today is your birthday. Even though it’s a special day you feel lonely. You don’t want to be alone so you decide to go see a movie. You start to get ready. As you reach for your wallet you have a dreadful feeling as you notice it is missing. What are you feeling? Take some time to notice feelings, sensations and thoughts in your body and your mind.
If you feel dread, what does it feel like? Where do you feel it in your body? Common places to experience sensations are: gut, chest, throat and the muscles in your neck and limbs. Do you feel a tightening or a sinking sensation—perhaps queasiness? Do you notice any temperature changes in your hands? Do they feel sweaty, hot or cold? Is there any place you feel unsteady or wobbly? And notice how these sensations change over time as you attend to them. Does the intensity increase or decrease; does the tightening loosen or change to something else? Do the feelings spread or stay in one place?
As you settle, the thought comes to you that: “Oh, perhaps I left my wallet in the other room.” Imagine that you go and look there. You check out other places you might have left it. You can’t find it and you begin to get a bit frantic. Again, focus your attention inward and take time to notice your bodily sensations, your feelings and your thoughts.
Now, you slow down a bit and your thoughts become a little clearer. You begin to hunt for your wallet more methodically. Is it in the drawer? Maybe when I came in I left it over there on the table … but then I went to the bathroom … (you wonder) … could I have left it in the bathroom; or was it at the supermarket? (Pause here to notice sensations.) However, while you’re looking, you are interrupted by the ring of the telephone. You pick up the phone. It’s your friend and she tells you that you left your wallet at her house. You take a big sigh of relief! Feel that and notice how you smile as you think about your previous frantic state of mind.
[Take plenty of time here, allowing your sensations to develop and be noticed before continuing with the story.]
Your friend tells you that she’s leaving shortly, but she’ll wait if you come right now. So you walk briskly to her house. Feel the strength in your legs as you walk fast. You arrive at her house and knock on her door, but there’s no answer. You knock a second time and there’s still no answer. You begin to think that you must have missed her. You feel a bit irritated. After all, she said that she would wait and you came as quickly as you could. Where do you feel the sensation of irritability? What does it feel like? Take your time and notice the range of sensations just as you did before. How do you experience the irritability? Where else do you feel it? What does it feel like?
From the back of the house, you hear your friend’s muffled voice. She’s telling you to come in. You open the door and it’s really dark. You slowly find your way in the dark. You begin to make your way down the hallway. Notice how your body feels as you fumble through the darkness trying to get to the back of the house. You call again to your friend, but you’re interrupted by a chorus of voices yelling, “Surprise!”
What are you feeling in your body now, in this moment, as you realize it’s a surprise birthday party for you?! Again, take the time to notice your sensations, feelings and thoughts.
This exercise was intended to acquaint you with a variety of sensations, such as frustration, expectancy, relief, conflict and surprise. If you noticed different feeling states and were able to move smoothly from the pleasant to the unpleasant and back again, you now know what it feels like to pendulate.
The twists and turns of the visualization above were filled with many surprises. Surprise excites the nervous system. In the case of a good surprise, something gets registered in the body that makes you feel better. In the case of a horrifying surprise, distressing sensations may become stuck, resulting in a diminished sense of “OKness” and in feelings of helplessness. When you experience your sensations consciously, you can begin to move with fluidity out of one state and into another. Remember, whatever feels bad is never the final step. It is the movement from fixity to flow that frees us from the grip of trauma as we become more resilient and self-aware.
Ideally, you were able to feel this fluidity within yourself. If you did, you are well on your way to learning the skills that will help you to help your child fluidly glide through their sensations. If, in any way, you felt “stuck” or frozen on an unpleasant sensation, emotion, thought or disturbing image while practicing, take the time now to look around, get up, move and take notice of an object, movement, thought, person, pet or natural feature that makes you feel better. Take some time to sense how you know you are feeling better and where those sensations are located inside you. Then briefly “touch in” to the place in your body where you were previously stuck and notice what feelings you are having now!
EXERCISE: TRACKING SENSATIONS WITH A PARTNER
Often it is easier to concentrate on internal sensations when you have a partner to support you and help you focus just by being there. Choose someone you feel comfortable with and sit across from each other. The object of this exercise is to “track” sensations with a partner’s quiet presence. Simply put, “tracking” means developing an awareness of your present state while noticing how sensations change moment by moment.
To begin, take time to reflect on something that happened today or yesterday that made you feel good about yourself or mildly upset. If you can’t recall anything, you can simply notice how you are feeling as you get ready to try this exercise. As images, thoughts and emotions come and go, make note of them and what impact they have on your fluctuating sensations. Your partner’s role is to track along with you. He may help you to become more aware of the details of your sensations. He can also keep you moving forward through time by an occasional gentle question—keeping pace with your rhythm—such as, “And when you feel …, what happens next?” After about ten to fifteen minutes of tracking, find a good place to stop and settle. Then switch places. Now you can practice helping your partner track sensations, creating safety with your quiet presence. You can also help him expand his awareness with a few well-placed questions, such as, “Where do you feel that? … and what else do you notice?” Be sure to discuss what you discovered with each other afterwards.
Suggestion: Study the “Language of Sensation Idea Box” below with your partner before getting started. This box will help you remember to ask only those questions that “turn on” the instinctual part of the brain, rather than engaging the thinking brain that plans, analyzes and judges. Also, refrain from asking “Why?” questions for the same reason.
LANGUAGE OF SENSATION IDEA BOX
Your body-brain responds better to open-ended than closed-ended questions. An open-ended question invites curiosity. It suggests sensing rather than thinking. It defies a simple “yes” or “no” answer, which can be a communication dead-end. An example would be: “What do you notice in your body?” which summons a leisurely exploration and limitless answers. This is different than: “Are you feeling tense?” which forces a person to think rather than feel and then give a “yes” or “no” response.
Other examples of open-ended questions that you might consider when tracking sensations with your partner are listed below. These questions can be used judiciously from time to time to increase the ability to focus or to keep from getting stuck. For best results, use infrequently, allowing plenty of quiet time between each one. Allowing sufficient time is the key to developing sensory awareness. It’s in the “quiet waiting” that our bodies begin to speak to us.
What do you notice in your body now?
Where in your body do you feel that?
What are you experiencing now?
As you pay attention to that sensation, what happens next?
How does it change?
What else are you noticing?
Would you be willing to explore how your body might want to move?
Would you be willing to focus on that feeling with a sense of curiosity about what might happen next?
Explore Sensation with Details to Increase Focus
What are the qualities of that sensation?
Does it have a size? Shape? Color? Weight?
Does it spread? Notice the direction as it moves.
Does the (pressure, pain, warmth, etc.) go from inward to outward or vice versa?
Do you notice a center point? An edge? (Where does the sensation begin and end?)
Broaden Awareness of Sensation
When you feel that, what happens in the rest of your body?
When you feel that in your (part of the body), how does it affect you now?
Movement through Time
What happens next? (Even if the person reports feeling “stuck”)
As you follow that sensation, where does it go? How does it change?
Where does it move to (or want to move to if it could)?
Savoring and Deepening Sensations
Allow yourself to enjoy that (warm, expansive, tingly, etc.) sensation as long as you’d like.
EXERCISE: MAKING A SENSATION TREASURE CHEST
Sensory awareness is a very important part of childhood development. It not only promotes intelligence and self-awareness, exploring the senses can provide family fun! The two easy activities described below will give your kids an opportunity to experiment with touch, taste and smell. You can make up your own explorations with sight and sound as well. So, shut off the TV and computer games and get started. All you’ll need is pencil and paper to make notes after your experiments.
1. Find an empty box, can or bag in which to hide about a dozen objects.
2. Select items that have distinctly different textures such as: a feather, a piece of sandpaper, a variety of rocks of different shapes, sizes and textures, a cotton ball, a slimy toy, a piece of satin or silk fabric, steel wool, etc., and hide them in the box.
3. Have your child close his eyes (or use a blindfold) as he reaches in to pick an object, then tries to guess what it is by the way it feels. (This can also be a fun party game to be played at birthdays and other gatherings.)
4. Once all objects have been identified, have your child touch each object, then tell how it feels on his skin (tickly, prickly, cool, heavy, etc.).
5. Next, have your child compare the rocks of different weights by holding them in his hands and noticing how his muscles feel when a rock is very light, light, medium-heavy, heavy and very heavy.
6. Ask him to notice the difference he feels in his body when he touches something slimy as compared to something soft, etc. Have him point to the place in his body where he notices the difference. Is it in his arms, in his tummy, on his skin or in his throat?
7. Have your child ask you about differences that you might notice and take turns continuing to compare and contrast sensations.
8. Make a list of the sensations that he discovered.
1. Now try the above game using a “tasting tray” instead of a box. Fill tiny cups with a variety of edibles with different tastes and textures such as: sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, tart, crunchy, soft, etc.
2. Using a blindfold to avoid visual clues, have your child identify the various foods. You can give a cracker between each taste test to clear the palate.
3. As your child tastes each sample, have her tell you how the texture feels (creamy, hard, slippery, gooey, etc.) and then how the sample tastes and smells.
4. Now ask how each sample makes her tongue feel (tingly, prickly, cold, slippery, dry, relaxed, curled, numb, hot, etc.).
5. Repeat steps 6 and 7 from Activity 1, contrasting sensations caused by taste and smell rather than touch.
8. Make a list of the sensations that she discovered.
Activities like the ones above can help your family become acquainted with their sensations. It’s a good idea to become familiar with your own sensations in a variety of situations, and to help your kids be aware of theirs, beforean emergency occurs. Together you can increase your family’s sensation vocabulary even more. It’s easy to do. But like any new skill, training yourself to notice how you feel from moment to moment, especially after an upset has occurred, takes a bit of practice. And, with this practice of deepening your internal awareness, you will be ready to assist your child under almost any circumstance! In addition, you will also be better prepared for the unexpected shocks and strains as you navigate your own life. And remember, “it’s never too late (for you) to have a happy childhood” … no matter how old you are.
It Doesn’t Have to Hurt Forever
By now, if you have practiced the exercises, you realize that with time, intention, safety and awareness, unpleasant sensations do and will change. Overwhelm cannot always be prevented; bad things will happen. That is a fact of life. However, trauma can be prevented or transformed; it does not have to be a life sentence. The physiological “chain of events” within the body only becomes traumatic because of an incomplete process. Remember that this process is naturally inclined to complete itself whenever possible.
The sensation activities and ideas that you have now experienced were designed to help you to help your kids feel, tolerate and transform their sensations. Children become more resilient as their bodies learn how to return to balance in this way. When a child experiences something awful it can be devastating. However, when that same child experiences the triumph of moving out of the fear and frozenness back into life, a very special kind of self-confidence blossoms—the newfound feelings of resiliency and capability.
First Aid for Trauma Prevention: A Step-By-Step Guide
Assuming that you have practiced the exercises presented so far, you are now ready to learn how to guide your child after she has been exposed to a threatening, frightening or painful experience. Trauma prevention involves assisting your child to “unwind” the energy that was stirred up during her upset. There are eight steps involved in this procedure. They are simple to learn. They should be followed in the order that they are presented here. The first seven steps teach you how to help your child’s body rebound from fear, shock and shut-down. Step 8 helps you to help your child recover emotionally, and to develop a coherent story of what happened. This final step helps your child put the bad occurrence in the past where it belongs. The eight simple steps outlined below can be used as soon as your child is in a safe, quiet place.
1. Check your own body’s responses first.
Take time to notice your own level of fear or concern. Next, take a full deep breath, and as you exhale s-l-o-w-l-y feel the sensations in your own body. If you still feel upset, repeat until you feel settled. Feel your feet, ankles and legs, noticing how they make contact with the ground. Remember that any excess energy you have will help you to stay focused to meet the challenge at hand. The time it takes to establish a sense of calm is time well spent. It will increase your capacity to attend fully to your child. If you take the time to gather yourself, your own acceptance of whatever has happened will help you to attend to your child’s needs. Your composure will greatly reduce the likelihood of frightening or confusing your child further. Remember, children are very sensitive to the emotional states of adults, particularly their parents.
2. Assess the situation.
If your child shows signs of shock (glazed eyes, pale skin, rapid or shallow pulse and breathing, disorientation, appears overly emotional or overly tranquil, i.e., acting like nothing has happened), do not allow him to jump up and return to play. You might say something like this: “Honey, you’re safe now … but you’re still in shock (or a bit shaken up). Mommy/Daddy will stay right here with you until the shock wears off. It’s important to stay still for a little while, even though you might want to play.” Remember, a calm, confident voice communicates to your child that you know what’s best.
3. As the shock wears off, guide your child’s attention to his sensations.
Indications of coming out of shock that are easy to spot include some color returning to the skin, a slowing down and/or deepening of the breath, tears or some expression returning to the eyes (which may have seemed blank before). When you see one or more of these signs, softly ask your child how he feels “in his body.” Next, repeat his or her answer as a question—“You feel okay in your body?”—and wait for a nod or other response. Be more specific with the next question: “How do you feel in your tummy (head, arm, leg, etc.)?” If he mentions a distinct sensation (such as “It feels tight or hurts”), gently ask about its location, size, shape, color or weight (e.g. heavy or light). Keep guiding your child to stay with the present moment with questions such as, “How does the rock (sharpness, lump, ‘owie,’ sting) feel now?” If he is too young or too startled to talk, have him point to where it hurts. (Remember that children tend to describe sensations with metaphors such as “hard as a rock” or “butterflies.”)
4. Slow down and follow your child’s pace by careful observation of changes.
Timing is everything! This may be the hardest part for the adult; but it’s the most important part for the child. Providing a minute or two of silence between questions allows deeply restorative physiological cycles to engage. Too many questions asked too quickly disrupt the natural course that leads to resolution. Your calm presence and patience are sufficient to facilitate the movement and release of excess energy.
This process cannot be rushed. Be alert for cues that let you know a cycle has finished. If uncertain whether a cycle has been completed, wait and watch for your child to give you clues. Examples of signs include a deep, relaxed, spontaneous breath, the cessation of crying or trembling, a stretch, a yawn, a smile or the making of eye contact.
The completion of this cycle may not mean that the recovery process is over. Wait to see if another cycle begins or if there is a sense of enough for now. Keep your child focused on sensations for a few more minutes just to make sure the process is complete. If your child seems tired, stop. There will be other opportunities later to complete the process.
5. Keep validating your child’s physical responses.
Resist the impulse to stop your child’s tears or trembling, while reminding him that whatever has happened is over and that he will be OK. Your child’s reactions need to continue until they stop on their own. This part of the natural cycle usually takes from one to several minutes. Studies have shown that children who are able to cry and tremble after an accident have fewer problems recovering from it over the long term.2 Your task is to convey to your child through word and touch that crying and trembling are normal, healthy reactions! A reassuring hand on the back, shoulder or arm, along with a few gently spoken words as simple as “That’s OK” or “That’s right, just let the scary stuff shake right out of you” will help immensely.
6. Trust in your child’s innate ability to heal.
As you become increasingly comfortable with your own sensations, it will be easier to relax and follow your child’s lead. Your primary function, once the process has begun, is to not disrupt it! Trust your child’s innate ability to heal. Trust your own ability to allow this to happen. If it helps you in letting go, take a moment to reflect on and feel the presence of a higher power or the remarkable perfection of nature guiding you in the ordinary miracle of healing. Your job is to “stay with” your child. Your balanced presence makes a safe container for your child to release her tears, fears and any strange new feelings. Use a calm voice and reassuring hand to let your child know that she is on the right track. To avoid unintentional disruption of the process, don’t shift the child’s position, distract her attention, hold her too tightly or position yourself too close or too far away for comfort. Notice when your child begins to look around to see what’s happening with a sense of curiosity. This type of checking out the surroundings is called “orienting” and is a sign of resolution. It is a sign of completion, or letting go, of the stressful energy produced in response to the scary event. A natural orientation to what’s happening in the environment may bring with it more sensory awareness, aliveness in the present moment and even feelings of joy.
7. Encourage your child to rest even if she doesn’t want to.
Deep discharge and processing of the event generally continue during rest and sleep. Do not stir up discussion about the mishap by asking questions about it during this stage. Later on, though, your child may want to tell a story about what happened, draw a picture or play it through. If a lot of energy was mobilized, the release will continue. The next cycle may be too subtle for you to notice, but this resting stage promotes a fuller recovery, allowing the body to gently vibrate, give off heat and go through skin color changes, etc., as the nervous system returns to relaxation and equilibrium. In addition, dream activity can help move the body through the necessary physiological changes. These changes happen naturally. All you have to do is provide a calm, quiet environment. (Caution: Of course, if your child possibly has had a head injury, you want her to rest but not sleep until your doctor tells you that it’s safe.)
8. The final step is to attend to your child’s emotional responses and help him or her make sense of what happened.
Later, when your child is rested and calm—even the next day—set aside some time for him to talk about his feelings and what he experienced. Begin by asking him to tell you what happened. Children often feel anger, fear, sadness, worry, embarrassment, shame or guilt. Help your child to know that those feelings are OK and that you understand. Tell the child about a time when you or someone you know had a similar experience and/or felt the same way. This will encourage expression of what your child is feeling. It also helps him not to feel weird or defective in some way because of what happened or because of his reactions. Let your child know by your actions that whatever he is feeling is accepted by you and worthy of your time and attention. Set aside some time for storytelling or for relating the details of the incident to assess if there are any residual feelings. Drawing, painting and working with clay can be very helpful in releasing strong emotions. If you notice your child becoming unduly upset at any point, again have him attend to his sensations in order to help the distress pass. You can assist your child to continue the recovery process through play at this stage. Play, as you will learn with the story of Sammy in the next chapter, works especially well with children who do not yet talk or are too shook-up to speak. Additionally, you will learn how art activities and silly rhythms that you and your child can make up can be a fun way to promote further healing at the emotional level.
Now that you know what needs to be done, the next step is to increase your skill in doing it. The information that follows shows you how to select your words, pace and tone of voice to deactivate the “trauma charge.” Once you gain the ability to do this, you have the power to instill confidence that all is well, rather than unwittingly causing unnecessary fright.
Attuning to Your Child’s Rhythms, Sensations and Emotions
How can adults give appropriate support to set the healing process in motion? After assuring your child that any powerful emotions that she may be having are normal, it’s important to help your child understand that the distress she is feeling will go away.
Children are comforted and empowered by knowing that it won’t hurt forever and that you will stay with them until they begin to feel more like themselves again. Actually, kids tend to move through their feelings rather quickly when they are not hurried or inhibited by an adult’s time schedule. Being “attuned” means having the patience to withstand your child’s uncomfortable emotions rather than distracting him from them or suggesting that he should just get over it. It also means pacing yourself at the speed that suits your child. This gives him the permission to be genuine.
The importance of this acceptance and respect is not to be underestimated. Just like the splint sets a broken arm properly, your undivided attention and soothing, non-judgmental language set the conditions for your child, in his or her own time, to rebound to a healthy sense of well-being. And just as the mending of the bone happens on its own timetable, so does the mending of your child’s psyche.
We want to emphasize again that children read their parents’ facial, postural and vocal cues, so it is very important that you are aware of what your body language is saying. Often children react the way they think their parents expect them to because of a desire to please, to avoid criticism and scolding, or to do the “right” thing. They may act “strong” and “brave,” overriding their own feelings only to end up with trauma symptoms that could have been avoided. Countless adults in therapy have reported stifling their feelings as children to protect their parents from feeling bad. Sometimes their “brave face” is an attempt to reduce the anxiety of a bewildered parent.
How to Avoid the Pitfall of Overriding Your Child’s Needs
The first step is to be alert to the possibility of your own feelings of terror or vulnerability when something unexpected happens. The second step is to connect with your own body. When you are momentarily “beside yourself” you literally need to get back inside yourself. Ideally, you will be prepared by what you learned from the previous exercises. Perform emotional first aid on yourself; take the time to notice how your feet contact the floor. Are the soles of your feet feeling supported solidly by the ground? Can you feel the weight and strength of your lower legs or do you hardly feel them? Do you feel planted and stable or like you could be knocked off center easily? How do your arms and hands feel? The more experienced you are at being aware of your own sensations, the easier and quicker this brief check-in period will be.
If you need more stability, bend your knees to lower your center of gravity and sway back and forth or dance slowly, moving your ankle joints and pelvis until you feel more energy in the lower half of your body. As you become more grounded and check your new sensations, you may be pleasantly surprised to experience a spontaneous breath and a feeling of being back on center. It is amazing how these two simple steps can make it easier to be fully present with your child. It’s the same idea as with the announcement made by the flight attendant to bring the oxygen mask to your nose and mouth first and then assist your child with her mask.
By tending to yourself first, paradoxically, you are in a better position to tend to your child. When you can feel your center, can notice that your breath slows down and you experience the fluidity of changing sensations, you have moved out of a momentary “freeze.” Your energy is now available to pay close attention to your child’s needs and expression. In this way you will naturally circumvent complicating your child’s reactions with your own.
Of course, it is easier to be calm when you’ve had some practice recovering from your own stressful or frightening situations using what you have learned so far to complete and discharge the energy from any incomplete responses. You can begin by applying your internal awareness with small incidents that happen during the course of an ordinary day. Sometimes it can be helpful to observe how others calmly handle emergency situations, especially if you grew up in a chaotic family and have never observed a model of composure. When a parent’s body language and words convey safety, it’s amazing how quickly kids can return from an altered state of shock and shake off the excess “emergency” energy. The following example of “emotional first aid” clearly illustrates how a calm adult presence can facilitate completion of a discharge cycle after a terrifying accident.
A teenager on a motorcycle had been struck by a car and knocked off his bike on the city street. He hit his head, but luckily he was wearing a helmet. His arms and legs were scraped badly. Most obvious was his pale skin, wide eyes and altered state. The teen crawled, in shock, to the curb. After a passerby was asked to call an ambulance, I took a moment to feel my breath and heart settle from what I had just witnessed. As I noticed that the teen was alive and able to move, I placed my attention on my breath, lower legs and feet settling a little more. I kept in mind that the most important trait I needed to assist this injured stranger in coming out of shock was my own calm presence. I sat down on the curb next to the young man and simply said, “There’s an ambulance on its way” in a very calm voice. Knowing the importance of emotional first aid and what needs to be done to help, I said (with a soft voice of authority and confidence), “You’re in shock. I’ll stay right here with you until the ambulance comes; you’re alive and you’re going to be okay.” As soon as I finished my sentence, the teen began shaking. I placed my hand firmly but gently on the muscles of his upper arm (deltoid) and encouraged his spontaneous sensations: “That’s right … just let it all go … let the shaking happen … you’re doing good … you’re going to be fine.” Three minutes later the color returned to the teenager’s face. Soon his shaking changed to gentle trembling and he released a few tears. A spontaneous breath came all of a sudden and he looked around to survey what had just happened. He was returning to his senses, to himself!
The critical idea here is that when we are vulnerable, we benefit most from feeling a connection with a calm person who is confident of what to do and is able to convey a sense of safety and compassion. Your child will feel safe if he knows that you are strong enough to withstand (contain) his shock without becoming overwhelmed yourself.
Remember that “shock energy” is survival energy and can be frightening as it is being released. The parent becomes the “container” of this energy by keeping present and grounded in the knowledge that this is a normal process and their child will be alright.
Another thing to know when assisting your child following an emergency is the importance of rhythm and timing. Think about it—everything in the wild is dictated by cycles. The seasons turn, the moon waxes and wanes, tides ebb and flow, the sun rises and sets. Animals follow the rhythms of nature in their mating, birthing and hibernating rituals. This is in direct relationship to nature’s pendulum. We also resolve overwhelm through the natural cycles of expansion and contraction. This tells us that no matter how badly we are feeling right now, this contraction will be followed by an expansion toward freedom.
But for human beings, these rhythms pose a two-fold challenge. First, compared to our video game and BlackBerry world, they move at a much slower pace than we are accustomed to. Second, they are entirely beyond our control. Healing cycles require an open receptivity as they are observed and respected; they cannot be evaluated, manipulated, hurried or changed. When given the time and attention needed, children are able to complete their own healing cycles.
Resolving a stress reaction does much more than eliminate the likelihood of developing trauma later in life. It also fosters an ability to move through any threatening situation with greater ease and flexibility. It creates, in essence, a natural resilience to stress. A nervous system accustomed to experiencing and releasing stress is healthier than a nervous system burdened with an ongoing, if not accumulating, level of stress. Children who are encouraged to attend to their instinctual responses are rewarded with a lifelong legacy of health and vigor!