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Words that Harm and Words that Heal (Part III)

Rachel Alexander Dec. 4, 2019

{3 minutes to read}  Words that Harm and Heal, Even well-meaning caregivers can miss or botch a critical opportunity to prevent trauma. Often this occurs because energies are reactively directed to fix a wrong when these efforts are first needed to keep the company with the child’s feelings. Sometimes the adult’s tolerance (or lack thereof), concern, and/or own needs supersede and steal all the air from the child’s need to feel the hurt — and feel heard, understood and held. This relational process has to occur before it’s made better or taken away from the child; before it’s subverted to the problem solving and processing of another (adult).

By way of contrast, below are some obvious examples of words (and attitudes) that harm:

What did you do? (Accusing, continuing the victimization, with you — the parent — now standing in as the perpetrator.) 

If your teacher reprimanded you, you probably deserved it. (Discounting the child, siding with the other, ganging up on the child.)

You’re always doing that. (More diminishing, use of “always” introduces a hopeless, impossible obstacle for the child to overcome in order to have you hear him or be on his side.)

Cut it out or I’ll really give you something to cry about. (The “safe” adult piling on, acting as another perpetrator or extension of the initial violation.)

These sort of secondary responses — the “two” of the “one-two punch” — increase the likelihood that the child will be traumatized by both the initial (and secondary) event. In fact, the secondary interaction — of demeaning, invalidating, punishing — may be the greater culprit in traumatizing the child.

Contrarily, keep these in mind:

Words that heal

Oh, honey, that must’ve been so frightening/upsetting. (Validating the child’s experience without drawing any conclusions or agreeing with the factual account.)

It sounds like that felt really unfair! (Trying to understand and reflect the child’s inner experience without imposing, disagreeing, arguing, taking sides.)

Tell me how you’re feeling. (Making space to listen, give the child a space to express himself that he was denied during the primary event.)

What would you have liked to have said when that happened? (Making room for the child to use his imagination, stretch his efficacy, play out what and how he would have liked to advocate for himself, with the support of an interested, loving audience. Maybe this helps carry the event forward and develop what the child needs to develop his voice and values, and to explore ways to protect himself in the future.) 

And maybe, later, there is further action for the parent to take to advocate for or protect the child. Regardless, the first necessary action was the loving listening and keeping company with the child in the aftermath of the upsetting event.

Children, having undeveloped internal resources and limited control over their environments, are particularly vulnerable to trauma. They are often dependent upon their perpetrators and innocent of how to care for themselves. Even when children are verbally actualized, they are susceptible to being dismissed or disbelieved. 

Young children have limited or no capacity to rescue themselves or skills to show themselves compassion when something unwanted has happened. The empathetic interventions of caregivers can be all the more impactful given the impressionable and tender nature of children. Therefore, the opportunity for skillful, informed, patient caregivers to powerfully shape their children in critical moments cannot be overstated. The space between hurt and trauma is among the most potent places where parental intervention can matter most.