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Are Your Child’s Intense Emotions a Sign of Giftedness?

What’s inside this article: Information about giftedness in children including emotional traits of gifted children, uneven development, signs of giftedness in young children, and how to support your highly sensitive child.

When I think about giftedness – an image pops into my mind. I was in 12th grade advanced math, and the teacher asked everybody to place their homework on their desk. I can’t remember what it was we were learning anymore, but I do remember that calculating an answer took more than a full page of written calculations.

This one student in the class had one line on his page. The teacher said “Graham, you need to show your work”. He replied “I can do it in my head”. She looked at him in disbelief, wrote a question on the board, and maybe 5 seconds later he said the correct answer.

On another occasion, same student, raised his hand and said he’d created his own math equation, that was easier to follow than the one given in the text book. We all tested it as a class, and sure enough, he was correct.

And for most of my life, that’s what I thought giftedness looked like. It turns out that isn’t the case a lot of the time I was wrong. A lot of gifted children really struggle in school and no one even knows they’re gifted.

I’m hoping to share some information and shed some light on what giftedness in children looks like, intense emotions and all.

What Is Giftedness?

What defines giftedness depends on who you ask – schools may classify students in the top 5% academically as gifted. Other definitions are based on standard IQ scores, which we know don’t provide the full picture of someones’ intelligence or exceptional talent in a particular area such as music or art.

However, psychologist Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Development Center (GDC), has studied giftedness since 1961 and has written over 300 articles, chapters and books, including the textbook, Counseling the Gifted and Talented, adopted at 50 colleges; she knows there is more to giftedness than IQ scores or special talents.

She added a new dimension to definitions of gifted when she included the uneven development of gifted children, which she called asynchronous development. Her definition of giftedness includes asynchronous development, and also emotional traits of gifted children, such as heightened sensitivity.

This is important as more evidence emerges that there are actually 8 different types of intelligence, not all measured by IQ tests, but people can be gifted in any of these domains.

Some things a lot of people don’t know about giftedness:

  • Approximately 5% of gifted children also have a learning disability.
  • Not all gifted children do well in school.
  • Gifted children are often highly sensitive and have intense emotions

Emotional Overexcitability as A Sign of Giftedness

People often misunderstand sensitive children. They are viewed as dramatic, or sometimes explosive if their intense emotions cause outbursts. These intense emotions, referred to as emotional overexcitability, are actually a sign of giftedness.

Some gifted children actually experience emotions more intensely than others, so they have bigger emotional responses than expected.

Some signs of emotional overexcitability in gifted children include:

  • Anxiety – This anxiety will sometimes have physical symptoms like stomach aches and headache
  • Showing concern for other people and animals
  • Existential depression
  • Extreme emotions
  • Intense self-criticism that can interfere with their ability to complete tasks like homework or household chores
  • Negative thinking patterns that lead to feelings of inadequacy.
  • Rigid thinking – Including a strong sense of right and wrong and difficulty adjusting to changes.
  • A strong memory of past feelings can lead to avoidance of places or people who triggered these feelings
  • Intense reactions – your child might be quick to yell “I hate you!” in small disagreements and it seems like they really mean it, for the moment.
  • Strong attachments to people and places – separation anxiety from parents/caregivers

Other Signs of Giftedness

Early signs of giftedness include:

  • Early verbal ability
  • Strong mathematical skills
  • A long attention span (but this may only be present in areas of interest, also note in young children even 20 minutes is considered long)
  • Early ability to reason abstractly – asking hypothetical questions, being able to complete puzzles, creating things from different materials like blocks
  • Early interest in time
  • Quickly masters basic skills – like the alphabet, counting, shapes, etc.

As children get older, signs of giftedness include:

  • Asking a lot of questions
  • Has a lot of information on many things
  • Wants to know why or how something is the way it is
  • Early interest in social of political problems
  • Dislikes or even refuses to do repetitive practice in academic subjects like spelling, math, or writing. This is because they understand new concepts almost immediately and repetitive practice is boring and redundant.
  • Criticizes other peoples’ ideas
  • Gets impatient in class when the teacher is spending a lot of time on a new concept
  • Natural talent for solving puzzles
  • has his or her own ideas about how something should be done and stays with it
  • Talkative
  • Likes learning about abstract or philosophical ideas

Overexcitabilities & Giftedness

Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski identified five areas in which children exhibit intense behaviors, also known as “overexcitability” or “supersensitivity.”

They are psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual, and imaginational.

 Gifted children tend to have multiple intensities, although one is usually dominant.

So in addition to the emotional intensities described above, your gifted child may also have the following:

Psychomotor Overexcitabilities

  • Competitive
  • Compulsive organizing
  • Compulsive talking
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Physical expression of emotions – such as outbursts and big reactions
  • Nervous habits and tics
  • Rapid speech
  • Sleeplessness

Gifted children with psychomotor overexcitabilities may be diagnosed with ADHD.

Sensual Overexcitabilities

  • Appreciation of music, art, or nature
  • Craving for pleasure
  • Need or desire for comfort
  • Sensitive to smells, tastes, or textures of foods
  • Tactile sensitivity (bothered by the feel of some materials on the skin or clothing tags)

These overexcitabilities are related to the five senses, and gifted children with sensual overexcitability could be diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder.

Intellectual Overexcitabilities

This overexcitability is most often associated with giftedness and most apparently in high academic achievers.

  • Analytical thinking
  • Asking probing questions
  • Avid reading
  • Deep curiosity
  • Independent thinking and learning
  • Love of knowledge and learning
  • Love of problem-solving
  • Theoretical thinking

Imaginational Overexcitabilities

  • Daydreaming
  • Detailed visualization
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Good sense of humor
  • Imaginary friends
  • Love of fantasy
  • Love of poetry, music, and drama
  • Magical thinking
  • Vivid dreams

Tips for Supporting Children with Intense Emotions

Gifted or not, it’s important for parents and caregivers to support children and help them learn to cope with intense emotions. There are many ways you can do this and this list isn’t exhaustive.

  • Emotion Coaching: Emotion coaching is the process of guiding your child through intense emotions by validating, relating, naming the emotion, and holding boundaries. It’s a co-regulation strategy that teaches children how to self-regulate over time. Read a step-by-step guide for emotion coaching here.
  • Social-Emotional Learning Programs: SEL improves self-regulation, reduces mental health challenges, teaches coping skills, addresses areas of uneven development.
  • De-escalation Strategies: These are some evidence-based strategies useful for children who have intense emotional outbursts. They can help you manage difficult situations.
  • Nurture your child’s intense emotions: Emotional overexcitability isn’t a weakness, it can be a great strength. But, it’s difficult for children to manage these emotions because they’re so intense. However, by nurturing your child’s intense emotions you can help them understand them better and find ways to use them to help others.

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