Parenting Emotionally Intense Gifted Children
By Lesley Sword
What is Emotional Intensity?
Giftedness has an emotional as well as intellectual component. Intellectual complexity goes hand in hand with emotional depth. So gifted children not only think differently from other children they also feel differently.
Emotional intensity in gifted people is not a matter of feeling more than other people, it is a different way of experiencing the world.
One of the basic characteristics of the gifted is their intensity. Intensity is not a matter of degree but of a different way of experiencing: vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding – a way of being quiveringly alive.
How Is Emotional Intensity Expressed?
Emotional intensity is positively correlated with intelligence and so the higher the intellectual level, the more emotionally intense a gifted child will be. Emotional intensity is expressed by the gifted through a wide range of feelings, attachments. compassion, heightened sense of responsibility and scrupulous self-examination.
While these are normal for the gifted and appear very early in gifted children, they are often mistaken for emotional immaturity rather than as evidence of a rich inner life.
Intensity of feeling: positive feelings, negative feelings, extremes of emotion, complex emotions, identification with others’ feelings, laughing and crying together
Somatic (bodily) expression: tense stomach, sinking heart, blushing, flushing
Inhibition: timidity, shyness
Strong affective memory
Fears and anxieties, feelings of guilt
Concerns with death, depressive and suicidal moods
Relationship feelings: emotional ties and attachments, concern for others (empathy), sensitivity in relationships, attachment to animals, difficulty in adjusting to new environments, loneliness, conflicts with others over depth of relationship
Feelings toward self: self-evaluation and self-judgment, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.
What Does It Mean To Be An Emotionally Gifted Person In A Society That Doesn’t Value Feelings?
Many people seem unaware that intense emotions are part of giftedness and little attention is paid to this component of giftedness. Historically the expression of intense feelings has been seen as a sign of emotional instability rather than as evidence of a rich inner life.
The traditional Western view is of emotions and intellect as separate and contradictory phenomenon. Males stereotypically are brought up not to have emotions and females are often seen as the “keeper” of the emotions for the family.
There is however, an inextricable link between emotions and intellect and, combined, they have a profound effect on gifted people.
The emotional lives of the gifted are very intense. When society and other people emphasise only rationality, neglecting emotional experiences, gifted children can become anxious, depressed, alienated, socially inept or emotionally blocked.
Feeling everything more deeply than others do is both painful and frightening. Emotionally intense gifted people feel abnormal. “There must be something wrong with me….. maybe I’m crazy… nobody else seems to feel like this”.
Emotionally intense gifted people often experience intense inner conflict, self-criticism, anxiety and feelings of inferiority. The medical community often sees these conflicts as symptoms and labels gifted people neurotic.
Emotionally intense gifted children exhibit a super sensitivity of the nervous system that makes them acutely perceptive and sensitive, more discriminating of external stimuli and more analytical and critical of themselves and others.
This accounts for the tendency for young emotionally intense gifted children to be described frequently as “hyperactive” and “distractable”.
Heightened sensitivity to things that happen in the world may be a normal response for gifted children. However they may see their own intense inner experiences as evidence that something is wrong with them.
Other children may ridicule a gifted child for reacting strongly to an apparently trivial incident, thereby increasing the child’s feeling of being odd.
Also, sensitivity to society’s injustice and hypocrisy can lead many emotionally intense gifted children to feel despair and cynicism at very young ages.
How Can We Support And Nurture Our Emotionally Intense Gifted Children?
- Accept childrens’ emotions: they need to feel understood and supported. Explain that intense feelings are normal for gifted children. Help them to use their intellect to develop self-awareness and self-acceptance.
- Take time to listen to childrens’ ideas, opinions and feelings. Be non-judgemental: don’t interrupt, moralise, distract or give advice.
- Exercise appropriate discipline as this helps develop a sense of security that leads to the development of self-discipline and a feeling of emotional competency. Appropriate discipline is the consistent application of values, rules and behaviours that are held to be important in the family. Explain the benefit of rules to the child and enforce them through consequence of behaviour.
- Discuss feelings openly; the negative as well as the positive. Use an “emotional thermometer” to initiate discussion eg “on a scale of 1-10, how are you feeling today?”
- Appreciate their sensitivities, intensities and passions. Don’t try to minimise their emotions because you feel uncomfortable with their pain. It doesn’t help to say “you’re too sensitive” or “snap out of it” or “it’ll be OK”.
- Remember that they are children first and gifted second. Don’t expect them to be little “adults”. Play, fun and leisure activities are essential for strong emotional development.
- Reassure them when they are afraid and help them to find ways of expressing their intense emotions though stories, poems, art work, music, journal entries or physical activities.
- Realise that they become frustrated when their physical capabilities does not match their intellectual ability and help them to deal with this. Reward the process of effort and not only the outcome. Emphasise strengths and don’t dwell on shortcomings.
- Honour emotions in boys as well as girls. Listen to boys problems when they want to talk about them; avoid interference when they don’t want to talk.
- Realise that sensitivity does not mean weakness. Give them responsibility that is age appropriate and do not over protect them from the world and from the consequence of their actions.
- Find like minded peers for them to prevent social isolation. Help them to find role models.
- Provide professional counselling where appropriate; it is important both to support healthy emotional development and to prevent social and emotional problems.
As parents we can help our emotionally intense gifted children to accept their rich inner world of experience and value it as a strength. This often means we have to accept and value our own emotional experience and feelings so that we can be a positive role model for our children.
Speaking about and valuing our emotions can be very difficult to do in a society that values logical thinking and sees emotions as the opposite of rationality.
However, if emotional intensity is seen by parents and presented positively to children as a strength, children can be helped to understand and value this gift. In this way emotionally intense children will be empowered to express their unique selves in the world and use their gifts and talents with confidence and joy.