Why Can't They Loosen Up? Intensities of Gifted Youth

Feb 8, 2019

By: Dr. Christie McWilliams
Gifted Education Consultant

Bright children typically love to learn, process information quickly, have a detailed memory, can concentrate for long periods of time, excel without much effort, and exhibit many other desirable characteristics. All this means they will breeze through their young lives with relatively few challenges at home and school, right?

No! Parenting any child is never easy. And the misguided assumption that it is somehow easier to parent a bright child is far from the truth. In their book Helping Gifted Students Soar: A Practical Guide for Parents and Teachers, Carol Strip and Gretchen Hirsh (2011) illustrate how parenting a gifted child can feel:

Parenting a gifted child is like living in a theme park of full thrill rides. Sometimes you smile. Sometimes you gasp. Sometimes you scream. Sometimes you laugh. Sometimes you gaze in wonder and astonishment. Sometimes you’re frozen in your seat.  Sometimes you’re proud. And sometimes, the ride is so nerve-wracking, you can’t do anything but cry.

While giftedness is indeed a blessing, anyone who parents or is familiar with gifted children is likely aware that they do differ from other populations. In a variety of ways, their cognitive ability and unique social-emotional characteristics can pose challenges if they are not well-understood.

Are gifted children less socially and emotionally adjusted than other populations?

In past decades, students that exhibited social maladjustment from being gifted would have been labeled “nerd” or “geek.” However, if we asked what the research-based social-emotional characteristics of gifted children were before the year 2000, we likely would not have received a substantial response. Until the early 21st century, the idea of giftedness from an educational standpoint revolved solely around children’s cognitive abilities and potential. Around this time, though, Robinson et al.'s (2002) landmark compilation of research examining the social and emotional lives of gifted children uncovered common affective characteristics unique to this population which we briefly discussed in an earlier blog entry.

Parents of gifted children may feel relieved to know that, despite these characteristics and occasional challenges, research has generated consistent conclusions: gifted children exhibit an unlimited range of individual personal characteristics and are as well-adjusted as any other student group (Elijah, 2011; Freeman, 2006; Reis & Renzulli, 2004; Robinson et al., 2002; Roberts & Boggess, 2011). No research has shown them to be any “less hardy” (Robinson, 2002, p. xiv), more vulnerable, or more flawed than other children their age.

Perhaps the most well-known study in this area was conducted by Lewis Terman, known as the “Father of Gifted Education.” His renowned longitudinal study, called Genetic Studies of Genius, traced 1500 children with high IQs over a 35-year period. He found that gifted individuals over time showed good health, normal personalities, lower divorce rates as well as social, academic, and career success. Few fit the traditional negative stereotype, and his results disproved “the myth that brilliant students are predominantly weak, unattractive, and emotionally unstable” (Davis & Rimm, 2003, p. 32). Parents can hopefully rest a little easier knowing their children are not automatically doomed to life as a social outcast because of their giftedness. In fact, their futures look quite bright.

But why is my gifted child so sensitive?

We know that gifted and creative individuals are more likely than the average population to exhibit what Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski called “overexcitabilities” which are inborn, intense reactions to different types of stimuli. Dabrowski also observed that intelligence, combined with overexcitability, predicts potential for higher-level development (Meneaglio, 2008). Therefore, it is not uncommon to see gifted children react more strongly and for longer periods of time to things that appear “small” to others. Gifted children may exhibit several types of excitabilities, but one is typically dominant. Dabrowski’s five overexcitabilities include the following:

Intellectual: We recognize this overexcitability the most in gifted children—they are thinking all the time. Children exhibiting an intellectual excitability may:

  • Show curiosity about everything
  • Love learning, solving problems, analyzing, and synthesizing
  • Ask deep questions
  • Want precise answers
  • Read avidly
  • Observe keenly
  • Love moral thinking and show concern for ethical issues
  • Deeply concentrate on topics of interest
  • Recall information with remarkable detail
  • Exhibit impatience with those moving at a slower intellectual pace
  • Interrupt others due to excitement about their own knowledge

Each overexcitability can bring both joy and the occasional dilemma. Although there is no one magical solution to any challenge, Lind (2011) suggests several ways we can help children channel their intellectual excitability in a positive direction. Showing them how to find answers themselves encourages their passion to solve problems and understand at a deeper level. Suggesting practical ways for them to act upon their concerns, such as collecting items for the homeless; helps them feel they can affect positive change. Encouraging them to understand how their words can help or harm a situation and providing more effective models can help curb their blatant criticism of others.

Psychomotor: “Exhausting.” That is how someone might describe children exhibiting a psychomotor intensity. As with children diagnosed with ADHD, these children have surplus energy. It is important to note that because gifted children demonstrating a psychomotor intensity may appear like they struggle with ADHD, they sometimes may be misdiagnosed as such. The difference lies in their ability to focus and intensely concentrate on something that is mentally stimulating even though they are constantly on the move. These children may also:

  • Talk rapidly and compulsively
  • Show zealous enthusiasm
  • Make animated gestures while talking
  • Exhibit nervous habits such as constantly jiggling their pen or foot
  • Act impulsivity
  • Show intense drive to complete a task
  • Compulsively organize their belongings
  • Have trouble calming their minds down
  • Need less sleep than their same-age peers
  • Exhibit misbehavior

Lind (2011) notes that when working with children exhibiting a psychomotor excitability, it is important to build activity into their lives because of their need to “do.” Another strategy is to provide time for spontaneous, open-ended activities rather than those that are controlled.

Sensual: Have you ever been irritated by the tags on the back of your shirts? Children exhibiting a sensual overexcitability might attack those tags with scissors. Anything related to touch, smell, taste, sight, and/or hearing can generate intense pleasure or adverse reactions among gifted children with this sensitivity; much more so than the average person. Because of the vast nature of this overexcitability, a comprehensive list of characteristics would likely never end. Some actions that may signify a sensual overexcitability might include:

  • Covering their ears in the movie theater
  • Being moved to tears by artistic expression (i.e., music, language, art) or the beauty of the natural world
  • Making sounds of joy while eating a tasty food
  • Becoming physically ill from a certain smell
  • Refusing to walk on grass while barefoot
  • Feeling overstimulated by sensory input, which may lead to either withdrawal or overindulging in activities such as eating

At times, these children may become so distracted by stimuli that they disregard priorities at home or at school. Therefore, it is important to create environments that limit distracting stimuli and are comfortable. At the same time, it is also important to allow time for them to delight in the sensual experiences that they love (Lind, 2011).

Imaginational: Children demonstrating this overexcitability have heightened, rich imaginations. We might notice that they:

  • Love fantasy, poetry, music, drama, images, metaphors, and anything else involving creativity
  • Mix truth with fiction
  • Daydream during the day
  • Have vivid dreams at night
  • Visualize worst-case scenarios, subsequently fearing the unknown and avoiding new situations or taking chances
  • Create imaginary friends and worlds

It is important to help them differentiate between their imagination and the real world, perhaps by having them transcribe or illustrate a factual account before they add their imaginative details.  These children may also have difficulty paying attention and completing assignments in classrooms that follow a rigid, lock-step academic curriculum. We can help them use their imagination to promote productivity, perhaps by helping them create their own organizational system to help them complete tasks (Lind, 2011).

Emotional: Too sensitive. Irrational. Overreacting. These statements commonly are attributed to gifted children with a strong emotional intensity, which typically is the first overexcitability noticed by parents of gifted children. Children’s feelings are heightened, intense, and complex as compared with their same-aged peers. Children with an emotional overexcitability may specifically:

  • Be able to exhibit intense joy one moment and intense guilt or anxiety the next
  • Have a heightened concern for others and show deep sensitivity and compassion
  • Possess a strong sense of right and wrong
  • Show an intense sense of responsibility
  • Extremely dislike hypocrisy and injustice
  • Worry—a lot
  • Exhibit a physical response to emotions, such as vomiting if they become upset
  • Possess a deep need for connection and security
  • Seem overly concerned with death
  • Develop deep relationships with others
  • Have strong emotional attachments to people, places, or objects

As with other overexcitabilities, children who exhibit an emotional intensity may struggle completing everyday tasks and school assignments. It is important that we, as their parents, teachers, family and/or other caregivers, help them cope with their emotional situations and maintain control. For instance, we can help children anticipate and prepare for their emotional and physical responses by pinpointing the warning signs so that they may maintain control. Most importantly, we must realize their intensity is associated with their giftedness, and we should accept all feelings, no matter how intense (Lind, 2011).

(Dabrowski, 1972, Dabrowski & Piechowski, 1977; Daniels & Piechowski, 2008; Davis & Rimm, 2003; Faber & Mazlish, 1980; Lind, 2011; Meneaglio, 2008).

***

Understanding the sensitivities common among gifted children can help us shift our thinking, alleviating some of the frustrations we may encounter and allowing us to respond in healthier ways. Instead of misbehavior, we may now see passion and energy. Instead of overreaction or irrationality, we may now see empathy, compassion, and a strong sense of justice. Instead of inattention, we may now see creativity and ingenuity. And while helping these children understand their own unique nature and develop strategies to cope in everyday situations, we can also enjoy watching them indulge in the topics and experiences they love.

Coming Soon 

In the next blog, we will discuss why alternative programs (such as ATYP and GATE) are important for gifted students.

Recommended Readings

Helpful Links

Michigan Association of Gifted Children http://migiftedchild.org/
National Association for Gifted Children https://www.nagc.org/
Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted http://sengifted.org/
Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/

References

Dabrowski, K. (1972). Psychoneurosis is not an illness. London: Gryf.

Dabrowski, K., & Piechowski, M. M. (1977). Theory of levels of emotional development (Vols. 1-2). Oceanside, NY: Dabor Science.

Daniels, S., & Piechowski, M. M. (Eds). (2008). Living with intensity: Understanding the sensitivity, excitability, and the emotional development of gifted children, adolescents, and adults.

Davis, G. A., & Rimm, S. B. (2003). Education of the gifted and talented (5th Ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Faber, A. & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk. New York: Avon.

Lind, S. (2011, September 14). Overexcitability and the gifted. Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG). Retrieved August 20, 2018, from http://sengifted.org/overexcitability-and-the-gifted/

Meneaglio, S. (Ed.) (2008). Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Whitney, C. S., & Hirsch, G. (2011). Helping gifted children soar: A practical guide for parents and teachers (2nd ed.). Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.

Author Bio

Dr. Christie McWilliams has over a decade of experience teaching gifted and advanced learners in secondary English/language arts classrooms. Additionally, she has served as a college and university English instructor and Director of Programs and Student Admissions at the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts.

Christie holds an Ed.D. from the University of Houston in Curriculum and Instruction with a gifted education focus, and her ongoing, quantitative research focuses on teachers' differentiated practices with gifted students in mixed-ability classrooms. She also holds an M.Ed. in English Education, a BA in English, a Gifted and Talented Texas State Supplemental Certificate, and School Administrator Certificates in both Michigan and Texas. Christie has also received several honors including but not limited to being named an ASCD Emerging Leader, Phi Delta Kappa International Emerging Leader, Sam Houston State University Distinguished Educator, H-E-B Excellence in Education (Leadership) State Finalist, and Crystal Teaching Award recipient.

Christie currently serves as a board member for the Michigan Association for Gifted Children, provides professional development for educators serving gifted and high-achieving youth, and works in the test development field as a national, independent consultant for Data Recognition Corporation. She lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with her husband, five-year-old daughter, and one-year-old son.