“It never stops. Endless questions, introspection, analysis and a hot energy that prevails during the daytime and into the night. My son’s intensity extends to relationships with friends and family. Andy possesses a deep need to be in control and controlling as he tries to force his ideas on others, yet at the same time he has an equal interest in caring for and nurturing others. He is a negotiator who wants what is right for the world.” —Linda, the mother of 5-year-old gifted child
Learning to deal with the emotional intensity of a smart and talented child or adolescent takes a lot of energy, time, patience, and understanding. Eventually, parents learn to accept their son’s or daughter’s emotional quirkiness. Parents, teachers, and therapists need to keep in mind that cognitive strength and cognitive complexity give rise to emotional depth and profound feelings that the child or adolescent needs to express, or, rather, is compelled to talk about in great detail.
In other words, smart children who have high IQs or creative talents not only think differently—more quickly and profoundly—but their feeling states have a more vivid and encompassing quality of intensity that needs to be heard. For example, when your preschooler says goodbye to you, they may behave as if they are falling apart because they imagine that you will never return. Or when young gifted children see a homeless person, they may feel and think that they need to solve the worldwide problem of homelessness.
From reading and watching movies about horses, I liken the process of parenting a gifted kid to training a high-strung racehorse. I say this because smart and precocious kids are as intense as they are intelligent in any situation that triggers emotional confusion and stress. The thoroughbred needs a horse whisperer and the gifted child needs a parent whisperer. Calming down and refocusing the emotionally intense child is a challenge. Parents have to navigate a steep learning curve as they try to give their son or daughter the tools they need to reach their potential. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for every parent. But in general, alongside calmness and structure at home, appropriate schooling and socialization are crucial tools. It is not as easy for parents of gifted kids to find a school and social match as it might be for their neighbor, whose children have an easier time fitting in.
While the intensity of a spirited smart child is common and predictable, the degree of their reactivity is often misunderstood and mislabeled. I believe that parents need to know why their child is so reactive. Books have been written on the differences among children who are gifted, on the autistic spectrum, or who have attention deficit disorder. Children who experience their feelings very intensely are labeled as having emotional and behavioral problems. The social-emotional and learning issues of gifted children are very different from children with autism or hyperactivity.
Why are these labels so important? Labels give insight into the environment that best fits the child’s special learning needs. For example, boredom in smart children with perfectionism will lead to underachievement, which is often misunderstood by teachers and parents as “oppositional” or “lazy.” As well, difficulty making friends and getting bullied—socialization issues—are very common but evolve out of feeling misunderstood by peers, not social-emotional developmental delays such as autism.
The spirited child’s sensitivity to people and events around them can be disarming and confusing to the teacher, caregiver, grandparent or any other person who gets a glimpse of their intense feelings and behavior. The smart and spirited kid’s behavior and mood is often called over-reactive and lacking in perspective because of the depth of feelings that are manifested in a simple situation.
“Harry, you need to brush your teeth now,” can become an opportunity for war with his parents if Harry does not want to stop what he is doing. Likewise, “Jason, you need to complete your school work,” can become an easily ignored request if the child finds homework boring or meaningless. “Sarah, let’s turn out the lights and go to bed,” is an impossible task if Sarah suffers from intense separation anxiety and truly believes that she cannot be alone.
To make matters more challenging, a quick and astute child occasionally knows when he is creating problems and decides to help out his mom or dad. Temporarily, the child’s reasonable and empathic behavior allows the parent to feel relieved and happy. Exhausted and frustrated, mom has a glimmer of hope and thinks her child is not a manipulative tyrant. Harry decides he can brush his teeth. Jason gets started on his homework. Sarah goes to sleep in her own room. The roller coaster is on the level part of the track. But all too quickly the child forgets to be empathic to his parents and reverts to their original position. Graceful behavior goes by the wayside.
Learning to calm down your spirited child is so difficult and yet it is imperative. Curious and passionate beliefs, which can range from believing his parents are just plain wrong or wanting to understand physics or the behavior of reptiles, need to be addressed and tamed or redirected. Wishing your son or daughter was less curious is a waste of your time. But wishing your child was less of a challenge and more normal is unfortunately and understandably very common. Whether or not parents come out and say it, I believe that all parents just want normal children. Accepting the emotional intensity of giftedness is the first challenge. Your gifted child is not normal like the kid next door.
Parents with whom I work have explained their experiences with their high-strung children and suggested coping strategies to help their kids be more realistic:
- Work with your child to put their feelings into perspective while teaching them about “appropriateness.”
- Accept that your child is not normal and will not like every playdate or joining every sports team. Passion and sensitivity are normal for talented and gifted children. Setting clear limits for negative behavior can limit outbursts so family activities go forward more smoothly.
- Understand that fear is the reason for the tantrum. Confidence instead of being afraid will limit over-reactive behavior.
- Accept emotional intensity, in order to learn about “dialing it down.” Giving your child a reward for appropriate behavior will help.
Ways to Calm You and Your Child in the Face of an Emotional Storm
- First and foremost, plan for these unnerving outbursts, because emotional intensity is often a characteristic of gifted children. Accept that you have to deal with your child’s sensitivity even though you wish you didn’t have to. Remember, there are no easy answers, or you would have thought of them already.
- You are the boss. Be clear about the family rules, which should be child-centered but not child-driven.
- Try to get the point across that you are smarter than your child because of your many experiences in life. Gifted kids lack judgment but they are remarkable at reasoning. Teach your son or daughter to respect your wisdom.
- Find motivators to help your child follow the rules. Whatever your child likes is okay, but do not use “screen time.”
- Have some realistic short-term consequences that set limits but do not make your child feel totally humiliated. Remember, your child is a perfectionist. So just take away small increments of whatever works.
- Use praise to encourage your child. This is crucial to keeping up their confidence.
- Find a support group of friends and relatives who can listen to you and not be critical.
- Let your child make up some of the rules that are personal and that do not disrupt the family or impair safety.
- Find a school that challenges your child. This is a hard job that is worth doing well.