Tips of Helping Gifted, Highly Sensitive Teens & Kids Cope with Trauma
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Author Sharon M. Barnes, MSSW, LCSW Citation From the SENG Update, April 2009

Tips of Helping Gifted, Highly Sensitive Teens & Kids Cope with Trauma

Some children and teens are more sensitive than others.  You know if you have one. She gets mad at you and may even cry when you squish a spider with your shoe or swat a fly with a flyswatter.  He tries to keep up with his friends or siblings, but when they watch scary movies, he has nightmares.  She picks her clothes by which ones are comfortable, not what looks good. Clothes with scratchy labels or seams are out.  Old shoes are preferred over new ones, because they feel good to wear.  And these kids are traumatized by news stories about tragedies that nobody else in the family even notices.

What do you do when this child is traumatized by tragedy that is on the other side of the country or the world?  Or something that happens to them at school may hurt their feelings so much that in your opinion, they are grossly over-reacting. They may cry, mope around, worry, not be able to sleep or concentrate on school work or chores, or they may be irritable all the time, preoccupied about what is happening to the people in the midst of the tragedy.

It’s important to know that highly sensitive people–adults and children–comprise about 10-20% of the population.  What seems like an over-reaction to you, is normal and perfectly OK for a highly sensitive person.  It can also be helpful to know what a normal reaction to trauma is.  Trauma is defined as any life-threatening experience that is outside the range of normal human experience.

A trauma response can occur to anyone who has been in a life-threatening event. And anyone who has seen it, in person, on TV, or even in a movie, can experience what is called vicarious traumatization.  Highly sensitive, bright and especially gifted kids who have active imaginations are prime subjects for it.

Anyone who experiences real trauma is, and feels, helpless in the face of what has happened.  Trauma also brings loss, for nothing is ever again the same.  People are injured; property is destroyed. People die. Because of this, we lose our sense of safety, our trust in other people, our beliefs about control, predictability, and on and on.   This profound loss of the familiar is a hallmark of trauma. This is more upsetting to a child than to an adult, even if it is ‘only’ vicarious traumatization.

How do people usually react to trauma?

Trauma response is a process, not an event.   For both children and adults, it includes our  physical (biological) and emotional (psychological) responses to what has happened, and it recurs whenever we hear more about what has happened. These are normal, predictable responses to both trauma and vicarious trauma.   Others include:

1)  Hyperarousal:  increased heartbeat and breathing, agitation, difficulty breathing, muscular jitteriness, racing thoughts, high anxiety levels, even anxiety attacks.

2)  Constriction:  not being able to feel normally, physically or emotionally.  This is the brain’s way of protecting us from what is too much to bear all at once, and of focusing the brain and body to defend or protect ourselves.

  • Dissociation: Feeling disconnected from what has happened and from other people can be normal in the beginning, but should gradually subside as time passes and as we process physically and emotionally what has happened.  The reality sinks in gradually, a little at a time, as we are able to cope with it.  Denial is part of this.  We hear ourselves saying, “This can’t be happening.  Not here, not to me, not to our community.”   Disconnecting from our bodily senses can be a part of it.  We may feel like we are somewhere else, watching this happen to someone else.  We may be ‘spacey’ or forgetful.  We may feel physical symptoms when the cause is not physical, but displacement of emotions.
  • Freezing, immobility, connected with a feeling of helplessness:   This is the ‘deer in the headlights’ syndrome, or like pressing both the accelerator and the brake in an automobile at the same time.  It involves a sense of complete immobilization; the body cannot move, a paralysis so complete that a person cannot move or make a sound. This response is likely only for those whose lives were actually threatened in the incident, and can sometimes also be experienced in a delayed manner.

Our responses come from our fight or flight response being activated, our nervous system being signaled to energize our survival response. This includes physical responses of increase in heart rate, difficulty breathing (shallow, rapid, panting, etc) cold sweats, tingling muscular tension, and mental responses of increase in thoughts, mind racing and worrying.

Other normal responses to trauma are:

  •  being ‘on guard’ at all times ( hypervigilence)
  •  intrusive imagery or flashbacks
  •  extreme sensitivity to light and sound
  •  hyperactivity
  •  exaggerated emotional and physical startle responses
  •  nightmares and night terrors
  •  abrupt mood swings, such as temper tantrums, rage, shame, crying
  •  reduced ability to deal with stress in general
  •  difficulty sleeping

As we allow ourselves to acknowledge our reaction to trauma, we may experience trembling, shaking, vibration, waves of warmth, fullness of breath, slowed heart rate, warm sweating, relaxation of muscles, and an overall feeling of relief, comfort and safety.  These things are all normal and natural in response to trauma, and they will occur if and when we allow our reactions to flow, and to complete themselves.

What can we do to help a child affected by trauma?

The first thing is to remind them to BREATHE. Yes, our instinctive response is often to hold our breath, or to take tiny, shallow breaths.  It can be helpful to instruct the child to actively hold their breath at first, to remind them that they DO have control over this one thing, and then when they’re ready, to breathe–long, slow, deep breaths from the lower part of the lungs.  If you notice the child is hyperventilating, then have them breathe into a bag.  This can bring immediate relief.

Other things that can be helpful are to: listen to them tell the stories of what they saw or experienced (yes, over and over again).  Help them identify the emotions they are feeling, and help them to release them. Many emotions can be released as easily as letting go of a pencil and letting it fall to the floor. Hold the child, help them to identify when they need to use other coping or containment techniques; when they need to take a break, when they need to allow themselves to feel and cry or scream (into a pillow, in a closed car, etc), or otherwise allow themselves to release the emotions they are feeling.  Again, it’s important to make sure that they release their emotions in ways that are not harmful to those around them–an important life skill to learn, and a good opportunity to learn it.

Coping and containment are crucial skills for resolving trauma.  

Coping involves helping the child soothe himself when his traumatic arousal levels start to get too high.  What calms him (that is not self-destructive)? Things such as taking a warm bath,  playing a physical game or sport, lighting scented candles, making or listening to music, taking a walk, going bowling, petting a purring cat, shooting hoops, playing a game that engrosses her, doing repetitive tasks such as helping with gardening or housework, throwing ice cubes at a sidewalk or driveway, shoveling snow, journaling, drawing, painting, whittling or knitting; talking about what we are experiencing to a caring, accepting listener, are among the things that can be soothing. Different things are soothing to different people; it is also common for something that calms one person to be irritating or troublesome to others close by. We need to allow each one to do what they need to do, without judging each other about what they need to do.

It is important to help the child to know what helps, and to do what she needs to do to soothe herself. We might want to make a list (or help the child make one, depending on their age) so she can have it available when she is getting too upset to think clearly. It’s also important to avoid make sure that the child has no access to caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and excesses with food, which anyone may want to turn to at times like this.  These things usually make things worse in the long run for anyone, especially children.  However, it is important to make sure that children eat healthy meals at regular times as much as possible, so blood sugar doesn’t drop too low. Remember that coping does NOT mean that they can vent or spew their emotions on those around them, verbally or physically. Normal limits on what is appropriate behavior, and usual consequences for inappropriate behavior should remain in place.

Containment involves the skill of separating ourselves from overwhelming physical or emotional reactions temporarily, putting them in a box, so to speak, until we are more able to take them out and deal with them.  It is different from ‘sweeping things under the rug’.  In Containment, we put them awaytemporarily, and we choose what to take out, and when to do it; we don’t put them away forever and hope to forget them.  Children, especially find that making or using a physical container to symbolically contain their emotions helps to keep them under control until they feel more able to deal with them.  The emotions connected to trauma can be buried, but they will always come out later in some way.  If we do not let them out, they affect the body through illness, the mind through bitterness, and the soul through fearfulness, among other things.

How does healing happen?

For children or adults, the healing of trauma depends on the recognition of its symptoms.  Knowing about the cycle of trauma can help us cooperate with nature, and resolve our responses to it faster.   One important principle is: In abnormal circumstances, abnormal feelings are normal.   We do not need to be afraid of the trauma response.  It is the brain and body’s natural way of taking care of things.  Healing from trauma requires us to allow the process to take place–to allow the physical and emotional and mental responses to come and to go.  And if we do not block them, they will come and go.  If we try to block them, if we fight them, they will come and stay because the process does not get completed.

It can help to view emotions like waves in the ocean.  Ocean waves are caused by ongoing earth processes, like the electro-magnetic waves emitted by the moon, etc.  They are also caused by weather and events such as earthquakes.  Emotions are much like these waves: they come without our request or permission, and they are reactive to internal and external events.  And if we allow them to take their course, they come and they go.  When we fight ocean waves, they have much more power over us than they do when we learn to flow with them.  Ditto with our emotions. Traumatic events and tragedy in our lives cause emotions that are roughly equivalent to Tsunami waves in the ocean.  Extraordinary events and the emotions they bring in their wake require extraordinary responses on our part.

What if these things don’t bring relief?

We also need to identify when we are getting stuck, and need some professional help to provide the safety, support and guidance our child needs to deal with this.  Children with previous traumas and losses are likely to need more support and help to effectively cope with this than others will, but anyone can need extra help at a time like this.  In general, people need professional help when

  • they have done all of these things, but they are not getting relief.
  • they are still experiencing trauma related symptoms after others in the same circumstances have ceased to, and have returned to a more normal life,
  • their symptoms are interfering with their ability to function in their daily lives on a continual or frequent basis.

Another important thing to help anyone, especially children, recover is help them to do what they can.    Each of us notices different things that can be done, and has different abilities to offer.  Children have fewer options than adults, but they often have ideas about what they would like to do to help.  They may be over ambitious about what they can do, but let them solve the problems connected with it, and do as much of the research as possible.  Reference librarians and other adults can help them with some of this, giving you time and energy for other things. There are endless ways to help our children show their support and to process their own trauma at the same time.

This information is offered in the hope that it can support you in helping your highly sensitive and/or gifted teen or child cope with trauma or tragedy that has happened in your community or that you and  they are aware of across the country or around the world.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments that you have about it. 

Permission is granted to copy and share this article in its entirety, with complete contact information as it is below.  For permission to quote from this article, please contact Sharon M. Barnes, M.S.S.W., L.C.S.W. at email Sharon@AcademyofCreativeLiving.com, website www.AcademyofCreativeLiving.com.
© 1999-2007 Sharon M. Barnes, MSSW, LCSW
Licensed Counselor, Speaker, PlayShop & Retreat Facilitator 
Phone: 303-987-0346   Fax: 303-989-0099
3500 S. Wadsworth Blvd #203 Denver, CO  80235-2007

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