Lesson 3. Provide emotional first aid.

Story Donna and Emily were heading to the school ground to play. When they came to the street, Emily stopped to look but Donna darted forward. She was hit by a slow-moving car. Fortunately her injuries were minor. But they were painful. She had scrapes and bruises and was very frightened. If you were the first to arrive at Donna's side, what would you say to her?

What emotional first aid is NOT. Imagine an anxious parent arriving at Donna's side to say something like the following:

“Well, I guess you learned a lesson.”

“If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times to look both ways before crossing the street!”

“You're going to be grounded for your bad behavior.”

When people are hurting, they don't need blaming, lecturing, or punishing; They need physical and emotional comforting. They need emotional first aid.

Steps/Keys to emotional first aid

1. Notice clues about the child's emotional state

It would be unnecessary and insulting to run to Donna's side and ask her how she was. It was obvious that she was both frightened and pained. Very often we fail to notice the signs that a child is suffering emotional pain. It would be appropriate to kneel by Donna and offer her both physical and emotional comfort. We could stroke her cheek and let her describe how she felt.

Haim Ginott tells the story of a boy who came home from school tense and upset. Parents are tempted to ask: “What's wrong?” But the answer is predictable: “Nothing!” This approach is not effective. It is more useful to respond to what the child has already told us through his body language.

2. Act as a loving mirror.

A parent might respond to the tense boy by saying simply: “It looks like you had a bad day.” How will the child respond to this simple and sensitive response to his obvious distress?

It's hard to say. The child might not want to talk. But if he marches to his room, he knows that we are aware of his distress and we are concerned. Instead of marching to his room, he may choose to tell about the reasons for his distress. “Today the teacher called me to the front of the class and yelled at me!”

3. In response to the child's statements, try to describe what the child might feel. Often we adult have forgotten many of the pains of youth. Our effectiveness will be magnified if we can remember our own feelings of vulnerability so that we can connect with the experiences our children are having. How might we have felt in the same situation? We might say something like: “You must have felt humiliated to be yelled at in front of your classmates.”

With such a sensitive response, the boy is likely to add more detail. “Yeah! Everyone was talking and goofing around but the teacher blamed it all on me!”

4. Resist the temptation to preach. As long as the child shows distress, keep acting as a loving mirror. Most of in this situation probably feel a powerful urge to cross-examine or lecture: “You're saying that you weren't doing anything and the teacher just picked on you?” “I've told you before that you're going to have to behave in class!” Either response is like preaching to or threatening Donna as she lay in the street. As long as the child is in distress, we should provide emotional first aid.

We might say: “You feel very picked on.” or “It didn't seem very fair.” Notice that this show of compassion does not require us to take sides. We have not blamed the teacher or the child. We have simply offered emotional first aid.

Several more rounds of added description and parental compassion may be needed. The objective of this process is NOT “to get to the bottom” of the situation. The objective is to help the child feel safe and peaceful so he can start to heal.

A parent can tell when the anger and frustration has subsided. The boy will likely sag from a stiff and tight posture to a limp and tired posture. Even then, we can act as a loving mirror: “You seem pretty hurt and discouraged.”

5. Resist the temptation to take charge of repairs. Allow the child to lead the way. A parent might be inclined to go straighten out the teacher or to lecture the child. Neither is helpful. The objective is to help the child learn better ways to manage his life.

At some point the child's pleading words or sagging posture may ask: “So, what can I do?” That is the point at which we coach the child in a problem solving process. “That was such a bad experience today. I'm sorry it happened. What do you think you could do to make sure it never happens again?”

The boy probably has ideas we would never think of. “I get in trouble because I sit at the front and the teacher sees me. I need to be more quiet.” Or maybe he will say: “Tommy causes the most trouble but he knows when the teacher is looking so he doesn't get in trouble and I do. I probably need to move away from Tommy.” The boy knows facts about the situation that we do not. While we can coach the child in the process, the more the child is able to find solutions, the better equipped the child will be for future challenges.

Emotion coaching Providing emotional first aid does not come easily to parents. Most of us are inclined to lecture, punish or fix. That doesn't work any better with our children than it worked with us when we were children.

Providing emotional first aid is at the heart of everything Haim Ginott recommended and it is supported by research. Ginott's books are worth reading and re-reading so that we can learn to control our automatic reactions that are not helpful.

John Gottman has taken Ginott's classic work and added to language to it. He describes the recommended process as emotion coaching. Instead of dismissing, disapproving or floundering about children's distress, we can help them by being emotion coaches.

Watch for an opportunity Sooner or later your child will be distressed about something. It may be as simple a thing as knocking over a glass of milk or as earth-shattering as losing a friend. Welcome the child's distress as an opportunity to practice being a loving mirror. Resist the temptation to preach or punish. Try to provide emotional first aid by listening with your heart and responding with words that show understanding. The next lesson gives pointers for effective teaching.

Make a plan that works for you.
If reflection works for you, set a time for additional thinking. Anticipate future encounters and be prepared with words of understanding.
If you learn well from wise friends or professional helpers, make a specific plan to get input from them:
If you benefit from self-help aids, here are some recommendations:

Additional ideas:

Both Haim Ginott and John Gottman's books are excellent for teaching the principles of emotional first aid.

Haim Ginott Between Parent and Child (Buy at a local bookstore or read excerpts on this web site.)
Haim Ginott Between Parent and Teenager (Find at a used bookstore or read the text of the book on this web site.)
Enjoyability: high
Credibility: high
Size of contribution: medium to high
In all his books Haim Ginott provided many stories and sensible principles. They remain popular and top-rated because of the quality of the ideas and the enjoyability of the text.

John Gottman Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.
Enjoyability: medium
Credibility: high
Size of contribution: medium to high
Gottman has studied the impact of parents who have different reactions to children's emotions: dismissive, disapproving, laissez-faire, and emotion coaching. He shows why emotion coaching is best and teaches how to do it.

Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.
Enjoyability: medium
Credibility: medium
Size of contribution: medium to high
The authors of this book were students of Haim Ginott. They have written sensible and useful guides for parents.

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