As I scanned the landscape of sessions at the recent 2 Days of 2e Virtual Conference, I noted that each presentation – different as they were – had as part of their foundation, an understanding that the 2e or twice exceptional (gifted with a learning difference) population is under inordinate, constant stress. Each discussion described various factors in a noxious formula that results in undesired behavior by 2e kids and their adults. Experts addressed concerns such as, asynchronous development, emotion regulation, differential learning styles, and cultural minorities within the 2e minority. Sessions described typical fallout from the 2e experience; trauma, physiological manifestations, emotional dysregulation, and insecurity. I couldn’t help but notice that each expert described parts of a whole that result in PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) patterns of behavior.
A slide in my keynote, “Understanding and Addressing Emotion Regulation in 2e Children” displayed this formula for Emotion Dysregulation:
Note the feedback loop where reactions to behavior lead to more anxiety, stress, frustration and misunderstanding; around and around it goes, the cause and effect fueling each other. Dr. Joanna Haase taught us that this loop causes physiological effects – 2e kids becoming physically sick. Further we learned the importance of looking at 2e kids through a developmental trauma lens from wilderness therapist, Greg Burnham. Research and experience show that the twice exceptional population experiences groundhog days of PTSD.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes PTSD as demonstrating all of the following symptoms for at least 1 month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom
- At least one avoidance symptom
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms
Going to school. Whether it’s teachers, peers or administrators, patterns are set up, expectations solidified where the 2e student fails and knows they have disappointed at least one, but usually many, people with whom they come into contact. Likewise, the home environment is often challenging. Parents of the same genetic make-up experience their own frustrations and challenges and the 2e parent and 2e child become masters at pushing each other’s buttons. For the 2e child, they know they are disappointing their parent. Even though the parent acts with best intentions, the message is clear, “I’m hard to parent, I’m a difficult sibling.”
Re-experiencing symptoms are explained in the following way:
“The symptoms can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing symptoms.”
NIMH talks about re-experiencing symptoms as flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart, or sweating, bad dreams or frightening thoughts. Parents of twice exceptional children know that bedtime is often hard because once their child’s head hits the pillow, the bad thoughts they’ve kept at bay by staying busy, flood their minds. People who come into contact with 2e kids, adults and peers, often show frustration. 2e people can be tough to deal with. They are intense. They are impulsive. They are competitive. They can hyper-focus on things of interest for hours without noticing anyone or anything around them. But daily self-care and seemingly simple tasks elude them. They often respond from their gut, without noticing how others perceive them…until it’s too late. But they do pick up on negative attitudes and feelings aimed at them.
Twice exceptional kids, with their asynchrony and difficulty recognizing social cues, are incredibly sensitive and empathetic. It’s the greatest irony. This sensitivity and empathy cause them to replay a movie in their mind of all the ways they annoyed people, and it rises to a fever pitch of reminders of their “failures” that day. Their incredible memory serves to provide many sequels to their initial mind-movie, and over and over and over again it plays.
With all these negative thoughts and reminders, it stands to reason 2e kids want to avoid situations that add to their pain. Avoidance symptoms are described as “staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience, or avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event” (emphasis added). School avoidance occurs frequently in the twice exceptional population. Two other forms of “Self-help” or avoidance demonstrated by 2e kids include excessive gaming and excessive reading. Some might chuckle at the “excessive reading” example, but if a child constantly avoids social situations by burying himself in a book, he likely is avoiding difficult interactions or memories and is doing so because of the amount of failures he’s experienced in that arena. This serves to further alienate the child and “prove others right” about his social awkwardness.
The child may refuse to take part in activities they usually enjoy. Many parents share with me that they have a hard time getting their child to do something publicly that they have great interest in or love to do at home. At the foundation of this are likely embarrassing or shaming moments that occurred publicly. They are avoiding the bad feelings that are common when they interact with groups of people or are in classes where they struggle. When they cannot escape painful situations, they demonstrate hair trigger reactions – making parents and teachers feel that they must “walk on eggshells” around them. The 2e child seems easier to arouse and is described as “going from zero to one hundred” in a second flat. PTSD literature refers to this as arousal or reactivity symptoms and cognition or mood symptoms.
Arousal and Reactivity Symptoms
According to NIMH, the arousal and reactivity symptoms include:
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Having angry outbursts
Symptoms of younger children may include wetting their beds, refusing to talk, becoming clingy and acting out their trauma during play.
These symptoms, NIMH explains are constant. “These symptoms can make the person feel stressed and angry. They may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.” Sound familiar? For the 2e parent they can check each of these boxes. Arousal and reactivity symptoms are emotion dysregulation, and this is preceded by misunderstanding and an ongoing failure to give the benefit of the doubt to 2e kids. So often adults make assumptions that the 2e child’s behavior is wrapped up in factors they could control. Twice exceptional kids are labeled as defiant, disrespectful, destructive and disabled.
Cognition and Mood Symptoms
NIMH describes cognition and mood symptoms as:
- Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
- Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
Are you starting to realize why 2e kids don’t just “bounce back?” Are you wondering what experiences precipitated this level of stress in your child or student? Are you realizing that you have to adjust your response and take a break from reacting to your child’s or student’s behavior? If so, WONDERFUL.
The one take-away I wanted attendees to have after my 2 Days of 2e keynote this year, was to BE CURIOUS. I want parents and educators to stop making assumptions, stop setting expectations wrapped up in their adult desires. The bottom line really is, With Understanding Comes Calm; but 2e kids rarely feel understood.
In order to understand what lies beneath the twice exceptional child’s dysregulated behavior, we have to determine their triggers. All of the speakers talked about the importance of anticipating in order to mitigate the stressors leading up to reactive behaviors. By identifying the child’s sensitivities and struggles, the adults can help 2e children better understand themselves and can develop empathetic and intentional responses.
In my presentation I describe “micro-stresses,” many moments that occur all day long for 2e kids that make them look emotionally dysregulated or defiant. I discussed daily triggers based on their intensities and challenges that occur before they enter the classroom or come home from school. It seems like these kids show up angry and adults scratch their heads wondering why the child in front of them is so ornery. In fact, the child has gone through several triggers before they set foot in school or before they arrive home.
Dr. Renae Mayes shared the culturally diverse 2e child’s experience. A minority within a minority has less of a chance of being understood and risks more frustration, more stress and more misunderstanding throughout their day.
Maria Johnson shared the importance of “theory of mind” in social success. This requires awareness of one’s own state of mind, but if you feel poorly about yourself, this mood transfers to failure in social situations.
Wilderness therapist Greg Burnham shared his lens of developmental trauma in considering the twice exceptional experience. He taught that toxic stress during development leads to negative and maladaptive patterns of interacting and problem solving, and that attempting to teach is futile when 2e kids are in constant crisis. He recommended intentional, thoughtful intervention to remove layers of stress utilizing nature, therapy and self-sufficiency.
Dr. Richard Cash described “downshifting” in his session, as the experience of feeling insecure and threatened, transferring blood from the prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) to the limbic system (primitive brain) resulting in irrational and reactive behavior.
Dr. Paul Beljan discussed stimulus bound behavior. 2e kids are more likely to sustain attention when attracted or bound to a stimulus – this requires a lot of energy on the 2e child as well as the parent or teacher or peer trying to gain and maintain the 2e student’s attention.
Dr. Joanna Haase brought together psychology, medicine, psychiatry and neuroscience in considering interactions between the brain, body and being gifted. She taught that gifted people experience the world differently physiologically and that stress and inflammation impact gifted and twice exceptional people in different ways resulting in complicated medical symptoms.
Josh Shaine and Don Ambrose talked about differential ways of thinking and expression in their respective sessions on non-linear thinkers and utilizing visual metaphor to teach 2e learners. We saw how 2e learners’ struggles stay with them throughout life when Femke Hovinga talked about challenges for 2e adults in the working world. She iterated that the importance of meaningful work and an appropriate work environment are often what drives the gifted and twice exceptional person to personal and professional success in their careers. Inspiration came from Debbie Reber speaking about creating a secure world for twice exceptional children and LeDerick Horne’s personal experience as well as his expressive poetry as he urged us to look beyond classification.
So, the way I see it, going back to my formula above, the first step toward self-regulation in 2e kids is for them to understand their own unique characteristics. They must recognize that the way they approach and experience the world is different than their neurotypical peers. If they keep trying to be “just like everyone else” they set themselves up to fail. They need to understand who they are – intensities, abilities, desires, dreams and divergence. Then they need to love themselves, forgive themselves and keep a sense of humor.
Next they need to figure out how to communicate their perspective in a non-defensive or accusatory way. As much as they want others to give them the benefit of the doubt, they need to extend this consideration to others. Emotions get in the way and can exacerbate the negative loop that keeps our 2e kids in victim-mode. Once self-awareness, self-understanding and self-love occur, 2e kids are empowered to help everyone around them see their strengths and understand their quirks. Ideally this leads to adults making judgment-free efforts to organically connect with 2e kids and recognize their worth in the world.
Adults, on the other hand, need to resist making assumptions. Just because behavior looks clinical doesn’t mean it is. Twice exceptional kids have a wellspring of empathy and understanding, but they present as the opposite; self-absorbed, hard-shelled and as though nothing really matters to them. It’s imperative that adults interacting with twice exceptional youth look beyond behavior and appreciate their strengths. This “being ok with the authentic 2e person” paves the way for figuring out and addressing learning styles, as well as teaching modalities that work with the 2e student.
Efforts such as these defend against downward spiraling and deficit focusing. Having this deeper understanding and fuller perspective of the twice exceptional experience, allows adults to respond rather than react and abbreviates the child’s challenging behavior. There is an inherent trust when both people have an understanding of the other’s perspective, allowing for regulated emotions. This makes up the formula for emotion regulation.
Note: who you are as a gifted and 2e individual has not changed from the initial formula for Emotion Dysregulation. The change occurs when the twice exceptional person and the adults around them recognize and attend to their organic self. This approach gives the 2e person much needed resilience to approach the world in a more secure, less heightened way. This new approach engenders trust and breaks the cycle of dysregulation. We wouldn’t expect a PTSD patient’s to change his response to the world before addressing the underlying reasons for their behavior. Twice Exceptional people need the same opportunity and understanding.