Updated: Feb 26, 2019
By Kate Bachtel.
Meet David and Anna. David is a seventh grade student attending an urban middle school with a strong equity orientation and also a high percentage of students from low-income families. Thirty minutes away in the suburbs, Anna attends a private school where many of the parents are in the top five percent of income earners in the country. Both David and Anna are gifted and have a history of trauma. Anna has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression as a result of having experienced severe social bullying at school. David’s teachers and parents are currently working in partnership with mental health providers to better understand David’s strengths and needs. The signs of injury in David and Anna look different. David frequently fights in response to trauma – at school he has yelled, punched lockers, cursed and turned over desks. It is unreasonable to ask David’s teachers to play the role of a therapist simultaneous to teaching nearly forty children. In contrast, Anna tends to respond to trauma by freezing. Anna convincingly hides her sadness with a joyful smile so as not to be a burden to friends or family. Still, those who know her best realize something is “off.” When Anna’s parents became aware of the relational aggression she was experiencing, they reported details to the school. Teachers were asked to play the role of investigator which felt uncomfortable and politically precarious. Sadly, by not exploring the issues in depth from multiple perspectives, the school inadvertently contributed to continued suffering. The staff at both schools have the best intentions. David and Anna remind us when students have a history of trauma, support for healing and learning in school environments becomes particularly complex.
Given the dearth of research on trauma in gifted youth, parents and educators often feel helpless and uncertain as to how to best support; moreover, adults may be unaware trauma is the root cause of challenging behaviors. Trauma occurs when an individual’s brain becomes stuck in survival mode (Walker, 2013). This article will provide a brief introduction to signs of trauma and introduce strategies to support healing while partnering with a mental health care professional.
Why Understanding Trauma Matters
High emotional development, advanced cognition and strong mental health may strengthen our resilience, but they do not immunize us from trauma. Anyone can experience psychological injuries from violence, abuse and/or neglect. Unbearable feelings can result in extreme coping behaviors.
Bullying behavior can cause injuries, including trauma in some cases. Jean Peterson’s research reveals two-thirds of gifted students have experienced bullying by eighth grade (2006) which is more than double the incidence of bullying in the overall population (StopBullying.gov, 2016). The more gifted a student is, the greater the likelihood he/she will experience bullying (Peters, 2012). If we want to end the cycle of violence and keep youth safe, it is critical educators and parents work together to further our understanding.
The National Institute of Mental Health reminds us trauma can occur independent of physical injuries. Further, trauma reactions can be immediate or delayed (2013). Trauma may occur as a result of assault, violence or subtle, chronic forms of neglect or oppression occurring over time. High cortisol production associated with trauma or chronic stress can destroy neurons in critical regions of the brain. It can also lead to disassociation or hyperaruousal (Center for Non-violence and Social Justice website, 2016). It is common for youth who have experienced trauma to have significantly elevated heart rates, even when appearing relatively calm (Devereux, 2016).
In the American Psychological Association (APA) Journal, Tori DeAngelis elaborates youth who have challenges resulting from complex trauma currently receive a variety of less than ideal diagnoses which typically inadequately describe their mental health needs. DeAngelis continues listing some of these imperfect diagnoses which include: pervasive developmental disorders, oppositional defiant or conduct disorder, reactive attachment disorder, affective disorders, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms of developmental trauma could include: anxiety and depressed mood; distrust and conflict in relationships; distorted beliefs about people and the world; feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, fear and shame; dissociation, negative self-beliefs and avoidance (DeAngelis, 2007). Sadly, intense shame and guilt can often interfere with traumatized individuals seeking and receiving much needed support (Firestone, 2010).
Importantly, Devereux, the U.S.’s leading behavioral health care provider, delineates complex trauma from other forms of trauma. Devereux describes complex trauma as exposure to chronic trauma perpetrated by people in positions of power. This is contrasted with acute trauma which is a single traumatic event occurring over a limited time period and chronic trauma which refers to multiple traumatic events (Devereux, 2016). Firestone further explains complex trauma is repetitive, often exploitative, and typically occurs at a time of particular vulnerability, whether developmental or situational (2010).
Symptoms and effects of trauma can vary significantly in intensity and duration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Health conducted a seminal study on the relationship between traumatic childhood experiences and physical and emotional health outcomes later in life (the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE Study). The study found ACEs are occurring more frequently than predicted in youth. Moreover, as ACE scores increase, so do a variety of health and social problems including disabilities, teen pregnancies, smoking, substance abuse, risk of revictimization, poor workplace performance, relationship instability, suicide; as well as greater incidences of heart, lung and liver diseases (Devereux, 2016).
Signs of Trauma May Include: