Managing Intensity in Gifted Children and Adults

7 min read

Toni, a thoughtful parent, shared with me: “My six-year-old son saturates himself with each feeling. He experiences life through a magnifying glass, strengthening himself with every feeling. Even life’s nuances are grand and clear. Sometimes people believe that he is overly sensitive but he is truly affected, multiplied by ten, in all things. I worry that his profound feelings, passion, and intensity will lead other children or adults to tease him or just think that he is over-emotional.”

I have been asked many times, “Is the quirkiness of gifted children and adults a reflection of how their minds and feelings compel them to behave, or do they have a mental disorder?”

In return, I ask, “Does it matter? You have to deal with your intense child, friend, or partner no matter the root of their personality problems or intensities. I wonder if the intensity of gifted people is really a problem. Think about the gifts of wisdom and talent that gifted people have given to the world. I think we should respect and value profound giftedness of any kind.”

It is common and understandable to believe that there is something “alarmingly unique” about the passionate intensity of extremely bright individuals in terms of intellectual curiosity and emotional sensitivity. You can see in young and extremely bright children and adults that they are motivated by their intellectual and emotional intensity. Perfectionism is often a part of who they are and that perfectionism can derail their success. And what about avoidance or fear of success — or of lack of success?

My personal and professional experiences suggest that many parents, teachers, or significant others of a gifted person will at some point wonder when that close person’s narcissism, perfectionism, and avoidance of success become out of control or pathological. For example, the talented musician who is reluctant to perform; the writer who won’t work on their writing for fear they will be evaluated negatively; or the child or adult so focused on their interests that they become oblivious to practical or social issues.

Many gifted individuals have unique personalities and behaviors rooted in their intensity of feelings and capacity to understand on a profound level. Simply stated, the more gifted a person is intellectually, the more intense and passionate their thoughts and feelings may be. For example, kindergarten-age gifted children are often afraid of separation from their parents and may even refuse to go to school. They intensify how much they will miss their mother or father and cannot be cajoled to leave the house. The only thing to do is drag your child to school and wait for them to feel secure. School fears diminish when new friends and teachers open up their thoughts and feelings. As school becomes interesting, fearfulness becomes less of an issue.

How to Think About Emotional Intensity and Accept It With Empathy

Emotional intensity is a vivid way of experiencing life. Intensity fuels an individual’s passion for learning, project-making, friendships, and more. Common characteristics of the expression of emotional intensity include but are not limited to:

  1. Moodiness, or strong feelings that change quickly: “I love you, Mommy.” “I hate you, Mom; you ruined my life.”
  2. Bodily sensations such as stomachaches, headaches, and nausea are symptoms of fearful feelings: “I can’t go to school; I might throw up.”
  3. Timidity or shyness and feelings of inhibition: “I can’t go outside and play; I am scared of the neighborhood children.”
  4. Fear of making mistakes: “I think I did my homework wrong and the teacher will be angry at me and think I am stupid.”
  5. Fear of criticism: “I think that Dad did not come home from work because he is angry at me.”
  6. Strong empathy for others: “Mom, my girlfriend lost her dog. Can we get her another one?”

Emotional intensity can make being ignored or criticized frightening or painful for a child. Parents need to openly address with empathy and courage their child’s behavioral characteristics of intensity. When strong feelings are handled appropriately, passion and talent can soar. On the other hand, strong feelings can turn to frustration, sadness, depression, and acting-out behavior, eventually perhaps with drugs, sexuality, and general alienation from their home community, and even their family. No matter how hard it may be to contain and control their emotional intensity, it must be dealt with by parents and teachers.

Gifted children are often as emotional as they are bright. A child with a 145 IQ may be highly sensitive and curious, but a child with a 165 IQ could be even more sensitive and excitable. A parent needs to understand in these cases that their son or daughter’s intensity is not due to a lack of good-enough parenting or a sign of psychological disturbance; rather it is a non-reversible trait, often tied to their being gifted. (Although some gifted specialists believe that gifted kids are more vulnerable to depression than others, there is as yet no clincial proof of this.)

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Gifted kids are not always intense; they can also be logical, reasonable, and calm. But if your child’s emotional side has a tendency to take over, and you can get used to their changes in mood and perceptions, your life and their lives will become easier to manage. Try to avoid labels such as “too smart,” “too emotional,” and “too sensitive.” Such labels can become self-fulling prophecies, as children who are labeled can become confused and begin to doubt themselves.

What Can I Do About My Child’s Intensity?

Respond with empathy to your child’s feelings, which will allow them to process what they are experiencing. Empathy will help them accept and not feel bad about their emotions. Try hard to remember that in these moments, you are teaching an understanding of the importance of feelings, which is critical for their healthy self-development.

Gifted children can sometimes be difficult to raise because of how deeply they think and feel. When you can understand why your son or daughter is upset, your interactions and relationship will grow. With understanding, solutions emerge that you will need to draw on again and again. Invest in knowing what types of knowledge help your children grow and what kind of support encourages them to try new friends, projects, and types of learning experiences.

Some parenting approaches for gifted and intense kids are limiting or dangerous. Avoid being perfectionistic with your child no matter what. Learn what they really want and try to support their dreams and hopes, as this will help them calm down and motivate them to become who they want to be. Understand that your child is not you and that you cannot live through their accomplishments. Being proud of your child is valuable; thinking that their accomplishments are a result of your input or your genetics is actually very demeaning. Give your child credit for their success without tooting your own horn. In other words, do not over-share their accomplishments or take credit for them.

Consider these tips as you go forward:

  1. Raising gifted children can be a challenge that changes as children grow and develop. Giftedness does not fade away or go into hiding.
  2. Develop realistic rules for your child.
  3. Become your child’s advocate, but not their business manager.
  4. Find friends and teachers who understand gifted kids.

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