As some of you may know, I have been a SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of Gifted) national trainer and facilitator for many years. In this role, I have had the great honor of training facilitators, and working with parent groups and individual parents and educators regarding the social and emotional needs (as well as the academic needs) of gifted individuals. My training and interest has provided many opportunities to confer and coach, and, as you might imagine, there has been an uptick in concerns about the emotional health of all of us during this pandemic.
As a result, I have been researching, reading widely, listening to podcasts, and conferring with other experts regarding how to help our children (and ourselves) manage big emotions during these trying times. I hope that some of these ideas, others’ and my own, will be helpful to you.
Recently I listened to a podcast by Dr. Matt Zakreski, Clinical Psychologist, speaking for the Minnesota Council for Gifted and Talented(MCGT) that helped frame my thinking about the pandemic and gifted children. Dr. Zakreski used Polish psychologist, psychiatrist, and physician Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Overexcitabilities and his own personal experience as a psychologist to help explain how to best interpret and manage the big emotions that many of us and our children are experiencing. You can read more about Dabrowski's Theory of Overexcitabilities in Gifted Children here.
One of the overexcitabilities that Dabrowski researched was intellectual overexcitability. Signs of this overexcitability often include a high level of curiosity, deep concentration, the capacity for sustained intellectual effort, and a wide variety of interests. Children and adults with this overexcitability tend to be avid readers. They also may consume news and media frequently in their insatiable quest for knowledge. They may ask deep and probing questions, and may be preoccupied with issues that are troubling, such as issues of morality and ethics. During this pandemic, gifted individuals are often walking the tightrope of quantity of information -- too much or too little. Care must be taken to limit informational exposure, to examine quality resources, and to provide opportunities to process, question, and discuss the news and events with safe and trusted friends and family.
Additionally, gifted children’s intellectual curiosity may be adversely affected by our necessary rapid transition into virtual learning. While traditional schooling may not have fully met the needs of gifted learners, many students and parents report that much of the virtual learning currently being offered is relatively “one size fits all,” and is not challenging enough for their learners. Many parents are realizing what their kids have been saying all along about school in general for their gifted learners. To help ameliorate this, many gifted educators recommend using this virtual school time in a way that is both stimulating and effective. They suggest having students quickly complete regular schoolwork, and then allow them to work on “genius hour” or “passion” projects. There are many fabulous examples of kids doing just that. It is great to hear about kids creating COVID-19 tracking devices, writing their first symphony, experimenting with various art forms, tracking the stock market, pursuing a hobby, taking on service projects, or creating virtual theater and musical experiences. The possibilities are endless.
Similar to intellectual overexcitabilities, Dabrowski postulated that many gifted individuals display emotional overexcitabilities. Some characteristics could include extreme emotions, including anxiety, guilt, timidity or shyness, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy or inferiority, heightened sense of injustice or hypocrisy, and deep concern for others, Other characteristics could include problems adjusting to change, depression, and physical responses to emotions (stomach aches caused by anxiety, for example). Psychologist Dr. Matt Zakreski suggests these ideas to help deal with intense emotions: “Don’t fight this overexcitability; instead, go with the flow. Kids (and you) are allowed to be freaked out by the way things are. You and your children are allowed to feel what you feel, but we need to figure out what to do with this emotional energy. You may want to use the phrase “that sucks” to be approachably empathetic, and to show your children that you “get it”. Help your children name troubling feelings, encourage them to tell you more about the feelings, and figure out how to use this emotional energy positively.” Dr. Zakreski also recommends that we adults learn to assess our emotions too – our frustration, fear and fatigue can allow us to be sucked into kids’ emotions, and may be non-productive for all.
Dabrowski also postulated that gifted individuals may possess sensory overexcitabilities. The primary sign of this intensity is a heightened awareness of all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. During this period of social isolation, many people report that our worlds seem to have gotten so much smaller, and we may see an uptick in manifestation of sensory needs not being met, both in adults and children. (As an aside, I am wondering if the sudden craze of stress-baking is related to this need for sensory stimulation… Just think how many sensory needs are being met while baking or cooking). So what can we do? We can try to deliberately build in sensory experiences -- through cooking, through baking, with mud, and clay, and puddles, and playdough, to name a few. We can encourage kids to take a warm bath or shower. We can give back rubs while watching a movie. We can deliberately choose clothing that comforts. We can be cognizant of the different needs of different family members...who needs a quiet space, who needs a sensory-filled, noisy space? Who needs to go outside -- NOW!? Who needs a quiet cuddle on the couch? We need to remember that sensory needs unmet create anxious (and sometimes annoying) people.
Psychomotor overexcitability is also common in many gifted children and adults. It is characterized primarily by high levels of energy. Children with this overexcitability seem to constantly be on the move, and are sometimes misdiagnosed as having ADHD (attention deficit with hyperactivity). For more information on this, you may want to check out Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults. Even as infants, parents report that these children needed less sleep than other children. So, during this time of much confinement, how can we help these children? Experts recommend “steering into the overexcitability,” with scavenger hunts, runs, walks, exercises, running up and down stairs, bike rides, yoga, Nintendo Wii, online dance, youtube classes (martial arts, etc.). As the weather improves, simply getting outside will probably help all of us immensely.
Finally, imaginational overexcitability may be at play with you or your gifted children during this pandemic. The primary sign of this intensity is the free play of the imagination. Vivid imaginations can cause us to visualize the worst possibility in any situation.This can keep us from taking chances or getting involved in new situations. There are so many things we currently can’t control, and we all are acutely aware of this. Dr. Zakreski recommends that we don’t fight these fears. Instead, we need to admit to ourselves and to our children that grownups can’t always fix things. We need to acknowledge the worries, and move conversations into productive avenues by using statements such as these: “Tell me more, let’s problem-solve together.” We may need to teach about “catastrophizing.” and ask questions such as “How realistic is this worry? How likely is this to happen?” We may need to separate content (the things we say and hear) from the process (truly listening to the feelings behind the content). And we need to remember that our imaginations are also powerful gifts. They allow us to express our fears… and they may also help us imagine some of the best possible outcomes of our current situation. Our imaginations may be our best tool to help us plan for the future.
I hope this article has been helpful. As always, I welcome your ideas. Together we grow.
Past President, WI Association for Talented and Gifted
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think