Helping Gifted Children Understand and Manage Intense Emotions
By Rachel Hanks, Administrative Assistant
In today’s media and news, I feel like I hear more stories about the benefits of sharing emotions and discussing mental health than I ever did growing up. This is a wonderful thing and through popular media including television and movie portrayals and celebrity confessions, we are growing more accustomed to talking about historically taboo or just unknown topics surrounding emotions and mental health.
With great strides being made in these conversations, it seems important to discuss emotional intensity among our country’s brightest, and sometimes most vulnerable, youth.
The Davidson Institute has a great explanation for why gifted youth tend to experience more intense emotions, saying, “Intellectual complexity goes hand in hand with emotional depth. Just as gifted children’s thinking is more complex and has more depth than other children’s, so too are their emotions more complex and more intense.”
Gifted youth are often more aware of and affected by their surroundings. Children who feel things with great intensity experience the world in a different way than their non-gifted peers. Emotional or physical reactions to events can last longer for gifted children. These experiences of heightened stimulation observed in many gifted individuals are referred to as intensities or Overexcitabilities. Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski identified five overexcitabilities and their associated behaviors:
- Psychomotor: Characterized primarily by high levels of energy
- Sensual: Characterized by a heightened awareness of all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing
- Emotional: Characterized by extreme emotional sensitivity
- Intellectual: Characterized by deep curiosity and thought
- Imaginational: Characterized by vivid imagination and visualization
The first step in managing intense emotions is identifying and understanding them. If you think your child exhibits overexcitabilities, talk to your child about how they feel and react to certain situations. Healthy discussions around expressing emotions make everyone feel safer and more understood. Starting these discussions at a young age enforces good habits for the future.
How exactly do these overexcitabilities manifest themselves? It varies from child to child, but there are common behaviors associated with all five overexcitabilities.
- Psychomotor responses can include pacing, rapid talk or use of hand gestures
- Sensual responses can include sensitivities to clothing textures, food tastes or a need for physical displays of affection like cuddles or hugs
- Emotional responses can include intense feelings of empathy or compassion, depression, anxiety or loneliness
- Imaginational responses can include visualizations, use of metaphorical speech, dreaming or magical thinking
- Intellectual responses can include constant curiosity, deep thinking or a propensity towards solving puzzles and problems
Understanding what emotional intensities are and the behaviors associated with them can help with misdiagnosis or just plain misunderstanding. While some of the more extreme behaviors associated with overexcitabilities can be worrisome for a parent or educator, such as a child’s depression or anxiety, there can also be a wonderful bright side to overexcitabilities.
Some of the benefits of overexcitabilities can include:
- Empathy and compassion towards others
- A desire to solve major world problems
- A high sense of self-awareness
- High energy
Intense emotions don’t always need to be feared or regulated. They are what make so many gifted children wonderfully unique. However, for the times that overintesities do need to be managed, here are some strategies:
- Outdoor physical activities such as going on walks, hikes or playing at a park
- Quiet reflection time
- Journaling or drawing
- Encourage discussions about how your child feels and why they feel the way they do
I hope this blog post helps with identifying and managing intense emotions in a gifted child. IEA’s Gifted Resource Center also hosts a list of books, articles, programs and professionals that can be used as additional sources of information about overexcitabilities.