Janie has a pretend world that is very real. Arms crossed and head cocked, no words are needed to convey her refusal to swim. She knows that the sharks will surface just as they did in her recent dream.
Sarah tries hard to stay focused in class, but she is so preoccupied by the buzzing from the overhead lights that she can’t concentrate.
As a roaring fire-truck blazes by, Jeremy hunkers down with both hands pressed against his ears.
Ben needs all tags cut out of his clothing, or a temper tantrum is sure to erupt.
Are these examples of emotional immaturity? Or are they merely the appropriate responses of children with overly excitable sensory systems? These behaviors could fall into the category of a condition we call giftedness.
Giftedness encompasses traits that extend beyond academic ability or expression of a skill or talent. For example, intensity is an almost universal characteristic of gifted individuals. It has long been recognized as one of the signs of advanced intelligence that appears quite early in life. Gifted people tend to be intense to the point of excess. At times, the passion of these individuals is such that their feelings, experiences or reactions far exceed what we would typically expect.
Intensity is a heightened capacity to respond to stimuli, and it is believed to be inborn. Intensity can be thought of as an abundance of physical, sensory, creative, intellectual and emotional energy that can result in creative endeavors as well as advanced emotional and ethical development. As such, intensity is a challenging yet positive force for the gifted, as it feeds, enriches, empowers and amplifies talent.
During the past decade, the work of Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902–1980) has made these traits in gifted children and adults more understandable. Dabrowski classified intensity, or overexcitability, into five categories: emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor.
Some individuals show intensity in all areas, others in perhaps only one or two. The following explain the categories of intensity, how children might express intensity and what parents can do to help children manage it.
Emotional Overexcitability — Alex cried and cried when he learned that his 2-year-old neighbor’s parents were divorcing. “But what about Tommy? What is going to happen to him? Doesn’t anyone realize that he needs a home with a mom and a dad?”
Emotional intensity is recognized as intense feelings, including positive feelings, negative feelings and complex feelings, and identification with others’ feelings. Those with emotional intensity have the capacity for strong emotional ties and attachments to others.
- Accept children’s emotions regardless of intensity. Take time to listen to their ideas, opinions and feelings. Be nonjudgmental; don’t interrupt, moralize, distract or give advice.
- Help them develop a feeling vocabulary and, with it, a greater awareness of emotions. For example, you might include many different ways to describe feeling “bad” (e.g., annoyed, irritated, frustrated, aggravated, uneasy, anxious, uncomfortable, bored, concerned, sad, etc.).
- Help them find ways of expressing their intense emotions through stories, poems, art, music or physical activities.
- Discuss feelings openly, the negative as well as the positive. It can be helpful to use an “emotional thermometer” to initiate discussion, e.g., “On a scale of 1–10, how are you feeling?”
Imaginational Overexcitability — Mia has difficulty at large holiday gatherings when the adults are stressed ensuring everything is “perfect.” As such, she retreats into her own inner world of how she would like the gathering to feel. When she goes back to school, she relates this “fantasy” holiday as reality when talking with her classmates and teachers.
Imaginational intensity is expressed through rich and unusual associations, a creative imagination and a penchant for inventiveness. Use of metaphors, animistic and magical thinking and dramatization are also expressions.
- Help children differentiate between their imagination and the real world by having them place a stop sign in their mental videotape or write down or draw the factual account before they embellish it.
- Cherish creative and imaginational expression, and provide outlets for creative pursuits: writing, drawing, acting, dancing, designing, building, etc.
- Help children use imagination to solve problems and cope with challenges.
Intellectual Overexcitability — Two-year-old Sarah wandered over to her mother’s computer. She was fascinated by the computer’s mouse and wondered how movement of that device could cause an arrow to move on the computer screen. She dismantled the mouse trying to understand and then attempted to put it back together.
Intellectual intensity involves an insatiable quest for knowledge and is exemplified by endless curiosity. The capacity for sustained concentration and a preoccupation with complex ideas and issues are indicative.
- Show children how to find answers to questions. This respects and encourages their passion to analyze, synthesize and seek understanding.
- Allow children to develop their own projects based on individual interests.
- Help them get out of their heads and into their bodies some of the time. This could include nature hikes, yoga, molding clay, etc.
Sensual, or Sensory, Overexcitability — As Michael and his mother were dining at a very crowded and noisy restaurant, Michael slid from the booth to the ground and started screaming and crying.
For the sensually overexcitable child, the sensory aspects of everyday life—seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing—are much more heightened than for others.
- Prepare children for environments where they might experience overstimulation.
- When children are upset, help them find self-soothing techniques to seek comfort.
- Create an environment that limits offensive stimuli and provides comfort.
- Provide appropriate opportunities for being in the limelight by giving unexpected attention or facilitating creative and dramatic productions that have an audience.
Psychomotor Overexcitability — After school Nicole needs to run and climb at the park before going home. Sammy plays a game of baseball with imaginary teammates that can last well over an hour, and Nathan talks with fervent enthusiasm and gestures when describing his day.
Psychomotor intensity is a heightened excitability of the neuromuscular system and is characterized by high levels of physical activity and surplus energy. It is demonstrated through rapid movement that is sometimes compulsive, such as excessive talking, nervous habits such as nail biting, intense drive, competitiveness and acting out.
- Allow time for physical and verbal activity before, during and after normal daily and school activities. These individuals love and need to “do.”
- Be sure the physical and verbal activities are acceptable and not distracting to those around them.
- Provide time for spontaneity and open-ended, freewheeling activities. These tend to satisfy the needs of a person high in Psychomotor Overexcitability.
- Avoid activities that require sitting still for a long time; plan for movement before and after a long period of stillness.
It is often quite difficult and demanding to live with overexcitable individuals. Those who are not intense might find the behaviors unexplainable, incomprehensible and even bizarre. Implementing management strategies and teaching self-soothing techniques can be very beneficial. Discussing the concept of overexcitability, teaching clear verbal and nonverbal communication skills and focusing on the positives might diminish power struggles. If redirected, intense individuals can focus their energies to unlock their potential. By feeling understood, these children might allow the tenacious, creative, loyal and empathetic individuals they really are to emerge.
Daniels, S., Piechowski, M. (2009). Living with Intensity. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.
Lind, S. (2001). Overexcitability and the gifted. The SENG Newsletter, 1 (1) 3-6.
Mendaglio, S. (2008). Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.
Sword, L. (2003). Overexcitability checklist. Gifted & Creative Services Australia Pty Ltd
Webb, J., Amend, E., Webb, N., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., Olenchak, R. (2005). Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.
Ann R. Smith is the director of the Gifted Support Center in Menlo Park and serves as the Bay Area region parent representative on the board of directors of the California Association for the Gifted. She provides consultation, assessments, resources and referrals to gifted families. Ann can be reached at email@example.com or (650) 238-4400.
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