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

[Six weeks before the Columbine High School shooting, my family moved into the Columbine neighborhood.  Our teenage son continued to attend his previous high school, rather than transfer to Columbine, less than a mile from our house. Still, it had a huge impact on us. The night after the shooting there, I could not sleep.  So I got up and wrote this article. I’ve updated it and share it now, hoping that it will help those struggling to cope with the recent theater shooting. –Sharon Barnes 7-20-12]

Some children are more sensitive than others. You know if you have a highly sensitive 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 more by which ones are most comfortable, and less by what looks good. Clothes with scratchy labels or bulky seams are out. Old shoes are preferred over new ones, because they feel good to wear. And these kids or teens are traumatized by news stories about tragedies that nobody else in the family may even notice. When there is tragedy that captures everyone’s attention, this CASIGY (Creative, Acutely Aware, Super-sensitive, Intense, Gifted) teen or child can be easily overwhelmed with their response to the traumatic event.

What do you do when this child or teen is traumatized by tragedy?

It may not matter if it is something that has happened to your teen or child, your family or community, or if it is on the other side of the country or the world. It also may be 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 who are in the midst of the tragedy.

It’s important to know that highly sensitive people—adults, teens and children–comprise about 10-20% of the population. Within that group is an even smaller group that I call CASIGYs who are the most sensitive among us. That 3-5% of the population is creative, curious, alert, aware, super-sensitive, intense reactors, and likely highly intelligent or gifted.  What seems like an over-reaction to you, is normal and perfectly OK for a CASIGY. It’s normal, but also carries with it a burden of how to manage the sensitivity and intensity of reactions that go with it.

We’ll get to that, but before we do, let’s talk about what a normal reaction to trauma is.

Trauma is defined as any life-threatening experience. A trauma response can occur to anyone who has been in a life-threatening event. Vicarious traumatization or trauma exposure can be experienced by anyone who has seen it, in person, on TV, in a movie, or has read about it or heard others talk about it. CASIGYs–creative, acutely aware, highly sensitive, intense, bright or gifted teens and kids– are prime subjects for it.

Anyone who experiences trauma is, and feels, helpless in the face of what has happened.

Trauma also brings loss, for things are not the same as they were before the traumatic incident. People are injured; property is destroyed. People die. Because of this, we can all lose our sense of safety, our trust in other people, our trust in God, 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. And to a CASIGY, this trauma response can quickly reach astronomical proportions.

How do people usually react to trauma?

Trauma response is a process, not an event. For children, teens and adults, a trauma response 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 can involve 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. In vicarious traumatization, there can be a sense of being immobilized in a less literal, concrete way.
  5. Our fight or flight response is activated, our nervous system is signaled to energize our survival response. This includes physical responses of an increase in heart rate, difficulty breathing (shallow, rapid, panting, etc) cold sweats, tingling muscular tension, and mental responses of an increase in thoughts, mind racing and worrying.

Other normal responses to trauma are:

  • Hypervigilence, or being ‘on guard’ at all times
  • 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. (Levine, Peter)

What can we do to help a teen or child-especially a CASIGY- affected by trauma?

The first thing is to remind them to BREATHE. Yes, when we are stressed, anyone’s instinctive response can be to hold our breath, or to take tiny, shallow breaths. It can be helpful to actively hold our breath at first, to remind us that we DO have control over this one thing, and then when we’re ready, to breathe long, slow, deep breaths from the lower part of the lungs. To make sure the air is getting deep into the lungs, it can be helpful to do Belly-Breathing. Belly-breathing is to place our hands on our bellies and make our hands move up and down with our breath. If you notice your teen or child is hyperventilating, then have them breathe into a bag. These breathing tools can bring immediate relief.

Other things that can be helpful for your CASIGY teens or kids struggling with trauma 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.
  • Help them feel and release their emotions, not fight them, push them down or fend them off. Many emotions can be released as easily as letting go of a pencil and letting it fall to the floor. Breathe in, feel the emotion; breathe out, release it into the air; breathe in while sensing it, breathe out, letting go of it. I call this tool Catch & Release.
  • Hold your child, (and even your teen, if they allow it)
  • Take a break, get a change of scenery- go indoors or outdoors, into a different room, shut the TV off, play with a pet,
  • 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.
  • 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, whatever age we are.

Coping and containment are crucial skills for resolving trauma.

Coping involves helping the child or teen 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 teen or 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,

We put 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 away temporarily, 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 and teens can find that making or using a physical container to symbolically contain their emotions helps to keep the emotions 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. Making or designating a physical object as a container for our emotions helps to facilitate their flow through us instead of getting stuck inside of us.

Kids and teens may be afraid of acknowledging and expressing their emotions. They may be afraid that doing so will enable the emotion to take over and cause them to act the emotions out.  This is a common fear, but the reality is paradoxically that feeling our emotions and expressing them verbally or symbolically normally enables us to drain off the energy behind them and there is no longer a need to act them out. When expressing them only increases them, that is a clue that professional help may be needed.

How does healing from trauma happen?

 For children, teens 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 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 and teens 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, and 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. Your teens and kids are likely to 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 may be able to help them with some of this, giving you time and energy for other things. It can be important to stick with this until they find something that they can do to help in some small way.

This information is offered in the hope that it can support you in helping your CASIGY (creative, acutely aware, super-sensitive, intense, and/or gifted) child or teen cope with a trauma or tragedy that has happened in your community or 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 me.

© 1999-2012  Sharon M. Barnes, MSSW, LCSW




Featured Quote

Through art I was able to bring grace into my life. I tookt he things that were most bothersome and made them the subject matter of art. The toxin became the antitoxin, the medicine of art.

— Shaun McNiff, Art as Medicine