Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Supporting your emotionally excitable gifted child

She's just too sensitive. Why does he overreact to every little thing? I wish she would just go with the flow.

Have you heard these comments about your child?

Have you even said them yourself at times, especially during moments of exasperation?

Many gifted children exhibit heightened sensitivity and reactivity, or emotional overexcitability.  One of Dabrowski's five overexcitabilities, emotional excitability can create particular challenges for parents, teachers, and especially for the child who may feel she is held captive by powerful and overwhelming emotions.

Imagine what it must be like to:
  • Experience strong, intense reactions to seemingly innocuous events and situations because the place, person or situation triggers a powerful memory or association
  • React intensively to even routine situations, experiencing strong emotions and even physical effects such as headaches or heart palpitations
  • Feel drained because of overwhelming empathy and compassion for those who are less fortunate and suffering
  • Become distracted from routine tasks, responsibilities and even pleasurable activities because of a preoccupation with existential issues and injustices
  • Struggle with heightened sensitivity and fear of social rejection, and feel comfortable only with intense and meaningful friendships and relationships
  • Experience sadness and depression because of existential anxiety due to a precocious concern with death and the meaning of life
  • Weather criticism for being too sensitive, reactive, "dramatic," emotional, gloomy, introverted, pessimistic, serious, or even idealistic

Then again, as the parent of a gifted child, you are probably gifted, and may know all too well what it feels like to be emotionally excitable. But whether the emotional reactivity is eerily familiar or hard to fathom, there are some basic tools for managing your child's emotions:

Establish a no-shame zone

It is easy to unintentionally minimize your child's feelings. Even well-meaning attempts to help him gain perspective may instill feelings of shame. Gifted children are particularly sensitive to feeling ashamed as a result of their highly sensitive and introspective nature. When the parents they love and trust tell them that what they are feeling is nonsense, they may feel ashamed of their reactions and even of their basic nature. Establish an environment where feelings and reactions are acceptable, even if certain behaviors (e.g., hitting) are not allowed.

Help make feelings more understandable

Even young gifted children can learn to connect the dots when it comes to feelings. This does not mean launching into a discussion when she is in the middle of a tantrum. But it does include helping her understand that feelings are not magical and can be associated with actual events. You might point out, for example, that most people feel cranky when they are hungry, that it's normal to get angry when someone takes your toys, and the pit of fear in her stomach happens to a lot of kids on their first day of school. Simple, reasonable explanations help gifted children make sense of their inner turmoil.

Find outlets for emotions

Help your child feel comfortable expressing his feelings. Help him learn to verbally express what he feels in an open and respectful manner at home with his family (e.g., "I get mad when my brother can stay up later than me") to minimize the likelihood of either acting out the anger (i.e, hitting his brother) or learning to suppress anger altogether. Appropriate physical expressions of anger can also help (punching a pillow, engaging in exercise). Create an environment where sad feelings are acceptable and tears are never mocked or criticized.

Explore healthy tools for managing and containing emotions

Gifted children also benefit from learning how to contain their thoughts and emotions at times. Your child will learn a valuable lesson in social skills, for example, if she can refrain from telling her friends that they are clueless. You can also help her learn how to relax, calm herself, and use comforting and healthy distraction skills when upset. Deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, and calming music are useful tools even young children can learn. (Note: there are many apps and tools online that offer deep breathing and mindfulness techniques for children. If you don't find any that work, your child might benefit from a mindfulness class or meeting with a therapist.)

Emotional reactivity is part of who they are

Gifted children must accept and make peace with who they are. Emotional reactivity and sensitivity is not just a theoretical construct: research has identified greater activity in brain regions associated with empathy among highly sensitive people. Gifted children can learn to accept their emotional reactivity as one aspect of who they are, and as a trait that can enrich their world. It can enhance their lives with great sensitivity, insight, and intensity, but also bring pain and despair if left untended. As a parent, you can help them appreciate this gift by showing acceptance and appreciation for their sensitivity (even when it is exasperating), by guiding them to find the tools to manage their struggles, and by showing compassion when they need your support.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Overexcitabilities. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:



  1. I love how your structure your posts, Gail, so that readers can quickly get valuable information and not be overwhelmed by too many different ideas. You pack a lot into a very small space and provide links for the people who want more. Well done!

    1. Paula, Thanks so much for your comments. I hope that others find that the posts are helpful!

  2. Thank you for your advice on handling OEs. I can use them with my children easily.

  3. Can you please recommend an app for mindfulness?

    1. Daniela, Sorry that I can't recommend much in particular. While Breathe2Relax is a good one overall, there are so many out there, and a lot depends on your child's age and tendencies. Some kids benefit from imagery like imagining their belly is filling up like a balloon when they breathe in, for example. Others benefit from imaging a beautiful place they have visited. Still others benefit from using sounds like "Hmmm" and imagining a train as they breathe out. There are so many possibilities. You really have to experiment and see what works for you and your family. There is no right or wrong. Search around and see what you like that is out there.

  4. Hi Gail! Great timing for me as GT parent, since mine got her braces on yesterday! She was devastated all night!

    Also, as a GT coordiantor, is there a way I can seek permission to reprint this blog (with credits, of course) in my parent newsletter that will go out next month?

  5. I love every word of this, Gail, but I especially appreciate the no-shame zone suggestion. As a highly sensitive soul, I could have used that as a child. I love my parents to the moon and back but I was often told I "shouldn't" be feeling how I was feeling and I certainly felt shame as a young child. I want to avoid that with my children, even on those days where it's hard to muddle through their emotions. I just keep reminding myself that they are who they are and with understanding and support it will all even out in time :)

    1. Thank you so much, Cait. You raise a really good point. When children are highly sensitive, even well-meaning parents can stumble in their attempts to calm them down. It is such a challenge when you just want to tell them that their reaction is out of proportion and they need to take a step back. But that's not always how they hear it. You also highlight the importance of understanding and support - it sounds like you're doing a great job with your kids! Thanks again for your comments.