What comes to mind when you hear about a child described as “gifted” or learn about a group of students in your local school’s “gifted and talented” program? If you’re like most adults, you probably think of high-achieving students who are well-behaved, do well on tests, and bring home straight A’s on their report cards.
You might also picture the kind of student sometimes referred to as a “geek” – the kid whose nose is usually buried in a book or who can be frequently found in front of his computer writing code.
In short, these are the kids for whom school is easy, who are bright enough to find their way in the world without much help, who have everything going for them, right?
Well, maybe not. While it’s true that these descriptions may fit a number of intellectually gifted children, you might be surprised to learn that they’re not accurate for many others who also qualify as gifted, nor do they capture the unseen social and emotional struggles so many of these children face.
We have traditionally identified students as gifted when they perform significantly above grade level in one or more academic subjects and, occasionally, parents and teachers may include artistically-advanced students in this category as well. However, we rarely recognize that children can also be gifted in other domains (including verbal, spatial-visual, interpersonal, and kinesthetic), or that many of these children endure significant emotional challenges on a daily basis, both at home and at school.
If you ask a parent of a gifted child to describe their son or daughter, you will likely hear the word “intense” included on their list of adjectives. In their excellent book Living with Intensity, Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski describe these children this way:
“As gifted children take in information from the world around them, they react and respond more quickly and intensely than other children. Because they can be so greatly stimulated, and because they perceive and process things differently, gifted children are often misunderstood.”
In short, our views of giftedness have been limited and often inaccurate, ignoring the emotional aspects of the child’s personality and development. Given what recent research is telling us, we need to update our understanding of gifted children and the challenges they face if we want to ensure that these children have the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.
Understanding the types of emotional intensity most frequently experienced by gifted children is the first step in enabling parents who live with gifted children to more effectively support their emotional development and advocate for them at school and in other environments.
Additionally, if you are a parent with a high-energy, sensitive child who has not yet been identified as gifted, you may recognize your child within the descriptions of the five common types of “overexcitabilities”. If so, there are some recommended sources of information at the end of the article to help you in finding additional information.
Gifted Children and Overexcitability
So what does “overexcitabilty” mean exactly? Daniels and Piechowski define it as “an innate tendency to respond in an intensified manner to various forms of stimuli, both external and internal.” In other words, it’s as if a person’s internal receptivity and response meters have been set on “high” without any additional filters. Researchers who study and work with gifted children (and adults) describe five common forms of overexcitability in the gifted population:
- Psychomotor: physical energy and restlessness
- Sensual: strong senses of smell, touch, taste; sensitivity to light or loud noises
- Intellectual: driven by ideas and desire for knowledge
- Imaginational: enhanced capacity for visualization, invention, fantasy
- Emotional: a wider-than-average range of feelings, from high “highs” to low “lows”
A gifted child who has trouble sitting still, who talks a lot or speaks rapidly, or who develops nervous habits (like nail biting or tics) may be demonstrating psychomotor overexcitability. These kids have extra energy that needs to be released through physical action, which means they are vulnerable to a misdiagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) given that these behaviors can look quite similar. For parents of children in this situation it’s important to find a clinical professional who understands the differences and can provide an accurate diagnosis.
Children with sensual overexcitability experience the world around them more intensely than other children. Colors are richer, smells are stronger, and tastes are more distinct. These children are often picky eaters well beyond the age of their peers, and can be easily overstimulated by loud or very bright environments – they just don’t have as strong a filter as others do. The sense of pleasure they get from touching soft or interesting fabrics and textures is also heightened, so they may hold on to a favorite stuffed animal or baby blanket well beyond the “normal” age, even into their teens.
Sensual and emotional overexcitability often occur together. Emotionally overexcited kids experience intense feelings, both positive and negative. Those who live with children like this often describe their days as “emotional roller coaster rides” and watch their child move from one strong, complex emotion to another. These children have difficulty hiding their emotions even when they try. As one boy describes it, “my feelings just come bursting out” whether he’s excited and proud, or whether he’s anxious and afraid. Supporting emotionally overexcitable children requires a high level of patience and understanding from parents, who may need support themselves during particularly challenging days.
Imaginational overexcitability often manifests in the creation of imaginary companions or in the tendency to fantasize or make up stories. These children are frequently described as “dreamers” or as “living in their own world,” and are usually highly creative in at least one artistic domain. Boredom is something for which they have a low tolerance – they are driven to experience new and interesting things all the time.
Finally, intellectual overexcitability is the type of giftedness with which we are most familiar. Intellectually-motivated children are curious, focused, and expert problem solvers. They love reading about new theories, discovering different ideas, asking questions, and have a general “thirst for knowledge.” In the classroom and at home, their questions and comments can be perceived as oppositional or challenging of authority, so it’s essential for both parents and teachers to understand the true motivation of these children.
It’s important to note that a gifted child may not exhibit sensitivities in each of these five areas – they may demonstrate overexcitability in only one or two, which can make identification difficult. Identification is made even more challenging when a child is both gifted and learning disabled (with dyslexia, for example), or gifted and disabled in some other way (like autism or depression). These children are often referred to as “twice exceptional” (2e) and require the assistance of knowledgeable professionals who can provide accurate diagnoses, along with suggestions and strategies for how the child might use their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses.
Supporting Gifted Children
Gifted children, even very young ones, frequently feel different or embarrassed, especially when adults and other children don’t know how to respond to their high energy, persistent questions, and strong emotions. Contrary to the common perception of “having it easy”, gifted children struggle too and feel anxious and alone in the absence of proper guidance and encouragement from the adults around them. Fortunately, there are some excellent resources available to help parents recognize and appreciate their children’s gifts and to support parents in raising their children and assisting them in developing to their full intellectual and emotional potential.
For more information:
Lori worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. She is now pursuing her long-held interests in research and writing, and writes regularly about education and parenting issues. You can visit her and read her blog at: http://www.teachyourown.org
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