How to Live with Your Smart Child’s Intensity

    “It is never stopping. It is continuous. 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 possess 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. My son has an intense need to find a place in the world. He is a negotiator who wants what is right for the world.”―Leeanne

    Learning to deal with the emotional intensity of a smart and talented child or adolescent takes a lot of energy, time, patience, understanding. Eventually parents learn to accept their son or daughter’s  emotional quirkiness. Parents, teachers, and therapists need to keep in mind that cognitive strength and cognitive complexity gives rise to emotional depth and profound feelings that the child or adolescent needs to express, or, rather, is compelled to talk about in detail. In other words, smart children who have high IQ’s 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 behave like they are falling apart because they imagine that you will never return. Or when young gifted children see a homeless person, they feel and think that they need to save him or solve the problem of homelessness.

    From reading and watching movies about race horses, I liken the parenting process of raising a gifted kid to training a high-strung race horse. I say this because smart and precocious kids are also as intense as they are smart in any situation that triggers emotional confusion and stress. The thoroughbred needs a horse whisper and the gifted child needs a parent whisperer. Calming down and refocusing the emotionally intense child is a serious challenge. It is truly a steep learning curve that parents have to navigate as they try to give their son or daughter the tools they will need to reach their potential. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for all parents. But in general, alongside calmness and structure at home, appropriate schooling and socialization are obviously crucial tools. Without a doubt it is not easy for parents of gifted kids to find  a school and social match as it is for their neighbor, whose children who 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. Parents need to know why their child is so reactive. Books are written on the differences among children who are gifted, or “on the autistic spectrum,” or who have attention deficit disorder. Children who feel 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. These labels are important because they prescribe 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 well, difficulty making friends and getting bullied ―socialization issues―are very very common but evolve out of feeling misunderstood by peers, not developmental delays.

    The spirited child’s sensitivity to people and events around them can be disarming and confusing to the uneducated 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 a totally nonsensical request for a parent if the child finds homework boring or meaningless. “Sarah, let’s turn out the lights and go to bed,” is an impossible simple task if Sarah suffers from intense separation anxiety and truly believes that she cannot be alone.

    And to make matters worse and more difficult, the quick and astute child occasionally knows when he is creating problems and decides to stop and 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 back to his original position, wanting his own way. 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 astrophysics or the behavior of Pacific rattlesnakes, need to be addressed and tamed or redirected. Wishing your son or daughter were less curious is a waste of your time―a thankless task or position to take. But wishing your child were 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.

    The parents I work with in my support group explain their experiences with their high-strung children and suggest coping strategies to help them be more realistic.

    “Ron is intense with everything, from learning, to food, to friends and family. He has a heightened sense of his surroundings and a passion for whatever he enjoys. On the flip side he has great disdain for what he hates and can react very strongly if he is unhappy. I have had to work with him to help him to temper his responses. I have helped him understand when it is appropriate to share his feelings.”―Rebecca

     Rebecca has put a great deal of careful thought into understanding her reactions and actions with her son, Ron. She has overcome her wish that Ron be a normal child who likes every play date and is eager to be a member of a sports team. As Rebecca accepted her son’s temperament and passion, Ron became easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Still, Ron is a challenging child who wants what he wants and knows his own mind. Setting clear limits for negative behavior has helped the family move forward. Rebecca’s quest to normalize her son’s behavior for herself and for her son has been extremely effective.     

    “The hardest part of Mandy’s intensity has been finding appropriate ways to deal with her overwhelming emotions. We have had such a hard time finding ways to NOT escalate tantrums or over- emphasize her fears. We had to learn to accept her intensities so we could dial them down instead of making them worse. Giving her rewards for appropriate behavior has helped.”―Rhoda

     Rhoda was at first sure that there was something “really wrong” with Mandy even though her husband reassured her that he was very much like his own daughter as a child. Eventually, like all of the mothers and fathers I work with, Rhoda came to understand that she just felt overwhelmed by her daughter’s energy. Gradually de-escalating tantrums and accepting that her daughter was not “normal” but gifted started to help Rhoda relax and take a different perspective. Gaining confidence in herself as a mother also helped her to deal with her daughter’s perfectionistic and demanding behavior.

    “Larry’s intense curiosity challenges my intellect and my patience. I have to be hyperfocused to answer his questions when he challenges me. He is always many questions ahead of me, anticipating my answers and developing new arguments depending on which answer I give. In minutes I am tied in knots.”―Janet

     Because of her own mother’s indifference to her, Janet was way too interested in being responsive to her son. Larry became dependent on her for feedback and understanding that teachers and friends were unable to give. Unraveling their inter-dependency became a very difficult process, which began with Janet being more sure of herself as a mother and not so threatened by her son’s critical comments. Janet had to learn to set very firm limits for Larry and Larry had to learn to respect authority. The problem of respecting authority intensified in adolescence as Larry felt more insecure with himself and more embroiled in his anger at his mother. Intense anger with parents is very common in adolescence, and gifted children do a very good job intensifying every developmental issue.

Ways to Calm You and Your Child in the Face of an Emotional Storm

    First and foremost, I suggest planning for these unnerving outbursts, because emotional intensity is 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 experiences in life. Gifted kids lack judgment but they are remarkable at reasoning. Teach your son or daughter to respect your wisdom.  

    ● Establish your credibility. This is so important because gifted children are KNOW-IT-ALL’s. Try in a calm moment to say, “You need to listen to me because I am smarter than you.” This answer works.   

    ● Find motivators to help your child follow the rules. Some special dinosaurs or Lego, whatever your child likes, 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.

    ● 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 do not disrupt the family or their safety.

    ● Find a school that challenges your child. This is a hard job that is worth doing well.