As we hit the ground running this school year, I have been dazzled by both the brilliance and intensity of our Grayson students! Our first months have been an exhilarating experience: I’ve seen bursts of overwhelming joy and wonder, fielded questions of free-will and metaphysics, and comforted tears of frustration. To sum it up in a single word: Intensity! You’ll notice that I am fond of using the word intense to describe both the gifted child, and the internal experience of the gifted individual. This is for good reason: Giftedness is a holistic phenomenon that affects the entire life experience of the individual in every way. It’s this intrinsic intensity that sets the inner world of the gifted individual apart from the neurotypical norm.
Giftedness in terms of intensity and potential, not necessarily ability
Much of our understanding of the gifted experience was borne from the work of a Polish psychologist named Kazimierz Dabrowski. Dabrowski describes giftedness not necessarily in terms of ability, but rather in terms of intensity and potential. Through his own research and experience, Dabrowski formulated his theory of overexcitabilities. In the simplest terms, overexcitabilities (OEs) are described as increased sensitivity to stimuli. These range across all parts of the nervous system: psychomotor, intellectual, emotional, sensory, and even imaginational. Not only are most stimuli more intense for gifted individuals; stimuli also tend to ‘stick with’ gifted individuals for longer, and leave a deeper, lasting impression. Intellectually, this is a boon: Ideas and concepts and more quickly understood, and facts are more easily retained by the gifted mind. This is also represented by intense curiosity and at times, incessant questioning! However, such overexcitability can be tricky when it comes to emotional and sensory stimuli. Perceived slights and injustices can cut deeply into the psyche of the gifted child, and worse traumas can affect the gifted individual for years. Emotions can easily boil over, as many gifted children have not yet learned how to cope with frustration and disappointment.
CHANNELING THEIR INTENSITY
As a counselor, I am particularly interested in the emotional overexcitabilities of our students. Oftentimes, gifted children react to events in ways that to adults can seem hyperbolic and overdramatic. However, it’s critical to remember that our kids are experiencing a different level of emotional stimulation than the neurotypical child. For this reason, active listening is an important skill to develop in order to better understand a gifted child’s state of mind. When gifted children are encouraged to give voice to their feelings, emotional stress can be ameliorated greatly. This also helps gifted children to develop their “emotional vocabulary”, and their ability to accurately articulate and understand their feelings. It is also important to maintain our own emotional equilibrium when helping a gifted child de-escalate. This can be difficult for anyone: A screaming child is a hard thing to weather! Our natural reaction to heightened emotion is to combat or resist it with our own emotional energy. This is why shouting matches, defensive posturing, blame gaming, and other harmful reactions are so common among children in conflict. Keeping a rational, calm state of mind and approaching the emotional episode from a selfless, open perspective can do much to defuse the problem, in addition to modeling healthy communication skills for our gifted kids.
MANAGING MOMENTS OF INTENSITY
In processing episodes of emotional upset with our students, I have noticed that some students lack the needed self-monitoring and coping skills needed to regulate their own emotional state. Of course, this can lead to multiple social and behavioral problems if left unchecked. My role is to intervene when needed, and to teach those skills so that our students can better cope with their emotional overexcitability. More importantly, I endeavour to teach students techniques that they can use any time to help themselves exercise self-control, and soothe their own emotional upset. These skills are continuously reinforced and encouraged, so that students can learn what coping skills work best for them and how to monitor themselves and take self-directed breaks when needed.
One of my goals as school counselor is to foster a culture of responsibility among my students. I want to empower students to be mindful of themselves, to solve their own problems, and to take pride in themselves for doing so! For an individual living with overexcitabilities of any kind, learning to self-regulate is very important life skill for maintaining one’s mental health. It’s for this reason that I seek to teach our students to understand their overexcitabilities, to practice self-compassion and to channel their intensity in positive, creative and productive ways.
FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES
I recommend Christine Fonseca’s book, Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope with Explosive Feelings. This book offers terrific insight into giftedness as an emotional phenomenon, and includes many case studies that illustrate common problems encountered by gifted students.
Susan Daniels , Ph.D. and Michael M. Picchowski, Ph.D. co-edited Living with Intensity, a resource for understanding the sensitivities, emotional responses and excitabilities that gifted children, teens and adults experience.
Silverman, Linda K. “The Truth about Overexcitabilities.” What Is Giftedness? | Gifted Development Center
Bailey, C. L. (2010). Overexcitabilities and sensitivities: Implications of Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration for counseling the gifted. Retrieved from Counseling Outfitters.
In addition to this great article by Sharon Lind, you can subscribe to SENGVine, the monthly newsletter from Social Emotional Needs of the Gifted for more resources and event updates.