Now, I’m not saying that this was not a frightening experience. Having a child choke on your watch is a terrifying experience but there isn’t much to be gained by freaking out. And after the incident what is useful to do is give the child a sip of water and let them crack on again with eating their food. But the way that this particular family dealt with the situation – giving the child a break, not making him eat the rest of his food, and putting a lot of effort into overly comforting the child and recounting the story on multiple occasions in front of the child – all compacted into a highly dramatic and traumatic recollection of the event.
But how can we shrink the dramatisation of stressful or frightening events to avoid the impact being so severe. And to be clear, dramatisation is not all on parents and professionals. Young people excel in turning fairly mundane situations in to a hugely dramatic fiasco!
So, imagine your young person comes downstairs the next day and says, ‘I don’t think I can eat normal food after I choked yesterday!’ How should we respond?
A good tactic is to start your response at the same level of drama that they are at so that we can match their pace and engage them. If we minimise it too quickly then they might feel that we aren’t really listening or that we don’t have enough respect for them and what they’re going through. So, we start at their level and gradually minimise it down.
For example, a good response would be ‘I know that the choking incident was terrifying, however, when you were coughing it was lucky that that only lasted for just a few seconds. Fortunately, you were completely okay afterwards and your throat is probably feeling an awful lot better by now. As the day goes on your throat will continue to feel better and better until you don’t remember it at all. And you’ve had years and years of experience of eating without any problems – I’m sure you’re not going to let a one-off incident throw you off track for too long.’
Throughout the course of what we’re saying there we are shrinking down the problem more and more so that by the time we’ve reached the end of what we’re saying we’ve really neutralised the problem. Realistically we’ll probably get some kick back from that, but we just need to continue to follow the same structure of gradually minimising the issue. Pay extra attention to your tone of voice and the vocabulary that you use. Start on their level and gradually become more relaxed and conversational as you go on. Words like ‘choking’ become ‘coughing’ and the scary situation starts to be referred to in the past tense and as something that didn’t last for too long and was okay in the end.
So next time your young person comes to you with a hugely dramatic crisis event think about how you can minimise and distort the situation in a positive way using just your conversational skills, vocabulary and tone of voice.