Words that Heal: Communicating with Kids


A teen boy was agitated with staff on a pediatric psychiatric unit – cursing, threatening, pacing – so he was sent to a small room to calm down on his own away from whatever had triggered his angry response.  Several staff members went into the room, one after the other, trying to bring him around, but without much luck.  Then they asked me to give it a try.  I stepped into the room reluctantly.  He clearly didn’t want to listen to anything I had to say let alone be “counseled.”  So I simply asked him if there was anything I could do to make him feel better and sat quietly not really expecting much. Slowly, we got to talking.  He was fed up with the program at the hospital and still felt plenty of the anger and anxiety that had initially brought him to this place.  I asked him if he would be interested in learning a mini-meditation.  Part of me thought this was an outrageous thing to ask a teenager.  Seriously…was meditation “cool” enough?  Surprisingly, he decided to give it a go.  After a 10 minute session of leading him through body relaxation and visualizing his favorite place in nature, he told me that was the best thing he had learned at the hospital during his whole time there. The power of the voice to heal was immediately obvious to me.  Unknowingly, I had gone from giving someone therapy to being the therapy.

In my work with children, common issues surface regardless of a child’s diagnosis.  Presented here are some approaches I have found to be quite effective.  However, it is important to remember that every child is different so what is appropriate and effective for one may not be for another.

Opening a window and keeping it open

Sometimes the most difficult part of talking with kids is starting a conversation.  Will they ’let you in’? Although several people have suggested I begin by asking questions such as, “What is your favorite subject in school?” or “What kind of games do you like to play?” more often than not I start by asking the child to show me something of theirs that they treasure.  It gives them a non-threatening topic to talk about and allows them to be the ’expert.’  They see that you care about what they care about.  If you are able to engage a child in conversation (even if it is unidirectional), then it is important to keep that precious window of communication open.  One of the things that often happens with children is that they will shut down if they feel disapproval or over directed.  They tend to interpret it as criticism rather than as an objective correction to their behavior.  I always do my best to offer five times the number of praising comments for every corrective comment.  If you are with a particularly challenging child, finding one positive thing to comment on may seem impossible.  “Thanks for saying, ‘please,’” “thanks for waiting,” “thanks for asking for a snack rather than simply taking one,” – even the smallest bit of appreciation can go a long way and help to restore a positive dynamic.

Connecting through the heart

Another teen came to my office because of the wishes of his parents.  Much to their dismay he had been using drugs and was ready to drop out of school.  Of course, he completely stonewalled me.  I told him if he ever wanted to quit, I’d be happy to help him and gave him one of my cards.  He seemed a bit shocked that I wasn’t doing more.  Mom was devastated because I hadn’t fixed this deep-seated problem.  I suggested that rather than trying to change his behavior that she try to understand it.  “For some reason this kid isn’t happy.  If he was truly happy he wouldn’t be using…it is only a symptom.  If you try to understand from his point of view why he thinks ’life sucks‘ you might have a chance of turning this around.”  I didn’t hear from them again for six months.  Then the mother contacted me to say he had stopped using and they were getting closer – no more family blowouts. She said this was because she had started to redirect her own efforts because of what I had said. She was proud to say he had even enrolled in college and was on the football team.  Often, children really need your empathy and compassion before they are willing or able to change.

Giving children more power and control…and responsibility

One family arrived complaining that the 12 year old had anxiety, was asocial, having nightmares and not doing well in school.  Regarding the school work, he blamed his mother for nagging him about his homework, which made him more reluctant to do it.  After listening for awhile, I asked him to tell me the exact same story except he had to start each sentence with, “I choose.”  Instead of coming from a place of blaming others, he immediately saw and felt how he was making choices that were working against himself…”I choose to not bring my textbooks home,” “I choose to play on the computer instead of finishing my math.”  This simple technique gives the child what they are really seeking – power and control – but also instills a feeling of choice and responsibility.  Three months later all of the complaints he showed up with had resolved –  the entire family was happy.  You can try this technique on one of your own favorite “victim stories” whether it be traffic on I-95 or your most bothersome co-worker.

Riding your own ride

While I have mostly been discussing how to communicate with kids to help them choose more constructive behaviors, perhaps the biggest challenge in this effort is dismantling your own hot buttons.  Most children are exquisitely good at pushing those buttons –  they start flipping out about not having mashed potatoes for dinner right before you are supposed to leave for a party which will make you late…AGAIN.  The more that you can remain calm and patient through both action and word with a child who is escalating the more likely you will be able to help them turn things around.  Sometimes this isn’t necessarily about what you say but the way you are ’being‘ with the child (sometimes called paraverbal communication).  Besides, if the adults in these children’s lives are unable to control their own emotions and impulses how can we expect much more from a child?  As painful as it can be sometimes, children are fantastic at pointing out the weak spots we still need to work on in ourselves.  Improving children’s behavior truly is a journey of discovery for the whole family.

Funda M. Gulmen, N.D., M.S. is a licensed naturopathic physician in private practice in Connecticut.  In addition to working with special needs children for many years, she has taught mind-body medicine and counseling to medical students.  For more information, contact 203.895.5534 or www.naturesourcecare.com.