Your Gifted Child’s Intensity Is Normal


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 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 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 expressed and listened to. For example, when your preschooler says goodbye to you, she behaves like she is falling apart because she imagines that you will never return. But your child will calm down. Or when a young gifted child sees a homeless person, he feels and thinks that he needs to save the homeless person or solve the problem of homelessness. You need to explain that homelessness is not a problem that children can solve.
    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. And I say this because, as smart and as precocious your kids are, is unfortunately or fortunately (depending on your state of mind) as intense as they may become in any given situation that triggers emotional confusion and stress. The stallion needs a horse whisperer and the gifted chid 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 direction that all parents can follow at all times. But, in general, alongside calmness and structure at home, appropriate schooling and socialization are obviously crucial tools. Without a doubt I can say it is not as easy for parents of gifted kids to find a school and social match as it is for the neighbor’s children, who have an easier time fitting in.
    While the intensity of a spirited smart child is common and predictable, the degree of his or her emotional reactivity can be confusing to parents, teachers, and specialists. In desperation to end the confusion about emotional reactivity, this gifted problem is often misunderstood and mislabeled with a psychiatric diagnosis. Books and internet articles are written on the differences between gifted children, autistic spectrum disorder, and attention deficit disorder because children who have intense feelings are singled out as having difficult-to-handle emotional and behavioral problems. Social-emotional and learning issues of gifted children are very different from issues of children with autism or hyperactivity. Correct diagnostic labels are critical because they prescribe the school and home environment that best fits the child’s special learning needs. For example, boredom in smart children who are perfectionistic will lead to underachievement. Most people do not understand that boredom in gifted kids is common when they are not in the right school environment. Teachers and administrators very often misunderstand underachievement as “this child is just not as smart as his parents think.” 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 related to autistic spectrum disorder.
    The spirited child’s sensitivity to people and events around them can be alarming to the uninformed and uneducated teacher, caregiver, grandparent or any other person who gets a glimpse of their intense feelings and “over the top 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 for 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, “Jack, you need to complete your school work,” can become a totally nonsensical position for a parent to request if the child finds homework boring or meaningless. “Sofia, let’s turn out the lights and go to bed,” is an impossible simple task if Sofia suffers from intense separation anxiety and truly believes that she cannot be alone.
    And to make matters worse and more confusing for parents of the quick and astute child, the child sometimes actually knows when he is creating problems, stops misbehaving, and helps out his mom or dad. Temporarily, the child’s reasonable and empathic behavior allows the parent to feel relieved and happy. The exhausted and frustrated parent has a glimmer of hope and thinks that her child is not a manipulative tyrant. Harry decides he can brush his teeth. Jack gets started on his homework. Sofia goes to sleep in her own room. The roller coaster is on the level part of the track. But quickly the child forgets to be empathic to her parents and reverts back to her original position wanting her own way. Graceful behavior goes by the wayside. And tyrannical attitudes take over again.