Some of the most overwhelming aspects of raising gifted children are all the quirks, idiosyncrasies and discrepancies in abilities. Without a thorough understanding of what overexcitabilities are and how they impact a child’s experience in the world, parents and others close to the child may contemplate attaching a pathological disorder to try and explain away the difficult behaviors and outbursts that unfold in daily life. To contemplate matters more, asynchronicity creates a layer of confusion when a child whose physical age, intellectual age and social-emotional age conflict with his chronological age concurrently and in any given moment. But, let’s not stop there kindred spirits. Until we sprinkle in a heavy dose of perfectionism, we haven’t even touched the surface of how complicated living with gifted children can be.
Overexcitabilities (OEs) can be troubling to live with and affect every day life; however, they are not pathologies and they do not need to be cured. It can be helpful for a child with many overexcitabilities to understand how they impact him and how to manage them in certain contexts. Despite the intensity and often awkward manifestations of overexcitablities, they are, in fact, an asset and an important ingredient in emotional growth and developmental potential. Gifted children high in multiple overexcitabilities are often victim to misdiagnosis as their outward appearance mirrors the symptoms of many disorders. Overexcitabilities are a heightened excitablity of the nervous system which fosters intensity and sensitivity in gifted children and explains why they perceive and experience the world so differently from mainstream society. Even though overexcitablities can be bizarre or even disconcerting, they are an asset and one should not attempt to work them out of the child. Partnering with your child to figure out which environmental factors trigger symptomatic overexcitabilities can help the child to anticipate certain situations and engage in self soothing activities to ward off disequilibrium. There are five overexcitabilities that gifted children may experience: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, emotional and intellectual. Some children may espouse all or just a few of them and each child experiences overexcitabilities in a different manner and magnitude. Let’s break down some overexcitabilities in a real world context.
Psychomotor OE is the one that most often gets pathologized as ADHD and, in unfortunate circumstances, may get medicated. You cannot discipline psychomotor OE out of a child and as mentioned above, you shouldn’t try. For children high in psychomotor OE, which both my boys are, they are in constant motion and are excessive talkers. These types of children often like to pace, fidget, move about, talk and almost never sit still. In a classroom setting these mannerisms are not well received but an ADHD diagnosis certainly is. In an unschooling or homeschooling lifestyle, a child high in psychomotor OE can easily move around as needed with no requirement to sit still and be quiet. In our home, my six year old tumbles in lieu of walking in between acting out fight scenes from movies. He is very physical all throughout the day and never needs much rest. His flip side of this high energy is his laser focus on his building projects or other creative endeavors. For him, no amount of exercise is too much. My older child’s psychomotor energy displays in less athletic ways as he prefers pacing, fidgeting and talking or a combination of all three. Both my children would have an ADHD label slapped on them within a school setting and yet, neither of them experience anything detrimental due to their abundant energy.
At times, their high octane energy is a little overbearing for my quiet, introverted husband but as time goes on he is realizing that this is just a part of their make-up and is not something that we can curb. ADHD is considered to be a disorder in the brain while psychomotor overexcitability points to a highly sensitive neuromuscular system. If traditional education and mainstream parenting principles are in place, then it may be that much harder to tease out whether a gifted child is twice-exceptional (gifted and ADHD) or merely high in psychomotor overexcitability. This is because in a traditional classroom, children are expected to sit still for much of their day and passively receive information. A gifted child high in psychomotor OE needs near constant activity, movement and freedom to talk. With some traditional parenting mindsets, children may be expected to sit still at the dinner table or comport themselves in a certain manner so as to appear disciplined and behaved. Children who need movement to feel alive and in tune with their bodies require an open and safe environment in which to express themselves fully regardless of societal convention.
Sensual OE is expressed as a heightened experience of sensual pleasure or displeasure that is received from any or all of the senses. Gifted children high in sensual OE experience more sensual input than average children which can greatly impact daily activities particularly while out in the world. As young children, very specific routines that relate to the senses may be very important to a child and almost imperceivable to an adult. Certain sounds, visual patterns, scents or tactile sensations may need to occur in a certain order or be avoided in an effort to make the child feel comfortable and in control of his world. This particularity could be seen as obsessive or autistic like but not all specificities are pathological. A child may be navigating his world in a way that makes him feel safe and secure. It is entirely common for gifted children, high in sensual OE, to be misdiagnosed with sensory processing disorder which oftentimes is co-morbid with giftedness. It can be difficult to tease out the difference between a gifted child who is high in sensual OE who enjoys a powerful aesthetic world and a child whose sensory world is so extreme that the child experiences an onslaught of offensive stimuli which pervades his being and interferes with his quality of life. Gifted children are highly sensitive generally; it is a part of their make-up. Sensual OE can manifest as an intolerance for uncomfortable clothing, an inability to tolerate strong smells, acute hearing, a limited palette and difficult time in large public gatherings. Some in my family are highly photosensitive and do not handle sun exposure well which makes living in Southern California an interesting endeavor. We are all pretty sensitive to bright lights, crowds and overly loud movie theaters. As a family, sensual OE may impact lifestyle and choices made outside of the home more than any other overexcitablity. The more one is prepared for the outside world and takes each person’s limitations into account, the more likely the family outing is going to be successful. Knowing who you are and what works well for the most sensitive members of the family is essential for maintaining minimal outbursts due to overstimulation.
Imaginational OE reflects a vivid imagination and rich dramatization. Gifted children high in imaginational OE are likely to create imaginary friends and/or worlds and may believe that inanimate objects have feelings and thoughts. These children are the daydreamers who have a need to create and enjoy lingering in their own vibrant world. A child high in imaginational OE will feel stifled in a traditional classroom where rote learning trumps creative expression and these children may be misdiagnosed with ADHD inattentive type as they prefer their own creative ideas over enduring busy work. As is common amongst gifted children who display imaginational OE, both my children had imaginary friends and created their own languages. One child enjoys staying in character much like a method actor and he has endowed his stuffed animals with animistic thinking. My other child imagines a utopian future and used to carry on in-depth conversations with our pets. Gifted children high in imaginational OE are the writers, artists, actors and are creative out-of-the-box thinkers who see the world differently and have an ability to mix fact with fiction.
Gifted children high in emotional OE may have an extreme emotional range as they are sensitive to the world at large. Little things are big things and everything matters. Children high in emotional OE are often accused of overreacting. Even if a child appears melodramatic, the feelings are very real to them and we must accept them and their wide emotional range. Emotional OE is easily noticed and often makes adults the most uncomfortable. Gifted children high in emotional OE have complex and intense emotions and may be preoccupied with death. As parents our job is to provide a loving, supportive environment that allows our children to freely express themselves with no limits, censorship or judgment. These emotionally intense children show strong emotional attachments to people and animals, create deep relationships and demonstrate compassion and empathy for others. My youngest child makes friends easily and goes from stranger to best friend within minutes when there is a real connection. At a young age he has already experienced the heartache that sometimes comes with a relationship that accelerates quickly and deeply and then ceases abruptly due to intensity. Both my boys feel deeply, are very sensitive and their emotional range can be quite alarming and all consuming. My youngest has been concerned with death since he was three and both children have an incredibly significant emotional attachment to me. In our house even the slightest unmet expectation can send my youngest into an emotional tailspin so I tread lightly and try to anticipate what might set off my little one’s emotional state. Children high in emotional OE could be labeled with a mood disorder when truly they are just highly sensitive and more in tune with their own range of feelings.
Intellectual OE is the hallmark of what people think of as giftedness. Not all gifted children are high in intellectual OE but when you have a child who is, your head may start spinning after a short time being around them. Their minds are ferociously at work and their ideas are front and center. Gifted children high in intellectual OE have incredibly active minds and they never stop thinking about thinking. These children have an unrelenting desire to know everything and their curiosity never ceases. Children high in intellectual OE love theory, often engage in moral thinking and have a strong sense of justice and fairness. My oldest child is incredibly high in intellectual OE and his moral compass is inextricably linked with his personality. He has a relentless drive, is internally motivated, requires high intellectual engagement and prefers complex problem solving. He spends nearly all waking hours researching, learning and creating new theories, discussing morality and questioning everything. These children are both exhilarating and exhausting and they exude intellectual OE through every fiber of their being. When my son’s intellectual needs are tapped into at a high level, he experiences a sense of palpable euphoria. As I, too, am high in intellectual OE, I am able to stay focused on mentally stimulating conversations with him for extended periods of time despite my often inferior knowledge about the subject at hand. Gifted children high in intellectual OE are likely to be the most bored in a traditional classroom as curiosity and status quo pushing are rarely built into instructional time. These children require depth and complexity to feel engaged and passive recipient style didactic learning will never keep their attention. A child engaged in an intellectual pursuit will be uninterested in banal grade level work that requires known answers as these children are asking the questions that have yet to be answered.
Overexcitabilities permeate every day which may confuse even the most understanding parents. Sometimes one parent may be more compassionate, understanding and well versed in overexcitabilities than the other parent which can create some conflict in parenting approaches when one parent thinks discipline is the answer. It can take time for some parents to truly embrace all the quirks that overexcitabilities bring to the family dynamic. The more we think of OEs as an inherent part of children’s personalities as well as an important part of their overall development rather than a problem to be solved, the more likely we are to accept and accommodate the needs that go along with living in a heightened state of awareness.
Asynchrony is another puzzling piece to the parenting experience. Asynchrony is uneven development and it is dynamic and constantly evolving. When you have a child who is many ages at once it feels like someone is always throwing you a curve ball. One minute the child is solving complex maths problems and discussing quantum mechanics and the next minute he needs help cutting his food and tying his shoes. These children defy all sense of logic so don’t bother using any. One of the most confusing aspects is when the disparity in their intellectual and social emotional abilities collide. The key is remembering their chronological age and appreciating that despite having a precocious mind, they are still children who may get upset and throw a fit when they don’t get what they want. Imagine the emotional toll and frustration a child feels when his advanced cognitive abilities conjure up wildly creative ideas that his physical body cannot yet execute. “A child is a total entity, a combination of many characteristics. Emotions cannot be treated separately from intellectual awareness or physical development. All three intertwine and influence each other. A gifted five-year-old does not function like an average ten-year-old. He doesn’t not feel like an average ten-year-old, nor does he feel like an average five-year-old. Gifted children’s thoughts and emotions differ from those of other children, and as a result they perceive and react to their world differently.” (Roeper, 1982, p. 21) In any given moment their limitations brought on by uneven development may also be exacerbated by the affects of overexcitabilities and the environment. A gifted child has a lot to navigate in their day and it can be quite taxing at times. As a parent, having patience is integral to maintaining a positive relationship with an asynchronous child replete with overexcitablities. Sometimes this is easier said than done.
Perfectionism can be displayed in myriad ways and is often a misunderstood aspect of gifted children. Perfectionism is oftentimes deemed as a negative trait but there are many benefits to it when cultivated effectively. For some, perfectionism fuels a relentless drive to learn, create and become self-actualized. Though perfectionism can cause frustration when everything isn’t, in fact, perfect children learn perseverance when they are so driven to achieve the high standard which they have set for themselves. In our home, perfectionism is omnipresent and it usually manifests as a positive or, at least, that is how I choose to view it. Perfectionism may be in the eye of the beholder. My default parenting mode is to observe my children through a positive lens. For my oldest son, perfectionism is a pervasive tool that enables deep concentration and unwavering focus on whatever project he has in the works. It also means that he will not settle for anything in the vicinity of mediocre. He takes no shortcuts and has a disdain for low quality. He has set the bar so high and will do whatever it takes to reach his goals. Our lifestyle can accommodate his perfectionistic needs. We rarely have to leave the home so when he is focused on any of his projects of which there are always many, he is able to stay engaged in his work for however long is necessary. Most of his time is spent problem solving, creating and executing his ideas. His all consuming drive is fueled by intellectual OE and perfectionism and is nurtured in an environment free from adult interference. He determines how he spends his time and he doesn’t have any to waste. The downside of being a perfectionist is that the world is not entirely perfect and one needs to learn how to cope with events that do not or cannot unfold as anticipated. We work on this as issues arise. Generally, a lengthy discussion of why and how an expectation goes unmet will get him through the heartbreak of a less than perfect situation. I call these moments our “life lessons” which are usually the only areas where I can impart any knowledge or wisdom.
Gifted children are quite multi-dimensional to their core and overexcitabilities, asynchronicity and perfectionism make their experiences richer and more complex than average children. Their depth and intensity in how they navigate the world doesn’t make parenting straightforward or easy and it certainly doesn’t seem like a breeze for them either. Empathy and understanding are essential tools for parents to espouse and keep at the ready. Gifted children require unconditional love and acceptance no matter how challenging and bizarre their quirks are. The joy of living with and parenting gifted children is an ever evolving experience where confusion and intensity meet to create an interesting and unique life. Unschooling allows us the opportunity to explore our trues selves without boundaries, limitations or forced societal conventions. My children freely express their emotions, quirks and individuality in a supportive, loving environment where being weird and intense is not just normal, it is preferred.
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