This Tips for Parents article is authored by Christine Fonseca based on a seminar she hosted for Young Scholar families. She provides advice on helping gifted students identify and deal with their emotions.
Gifted kids are a unique and challenging group – for teachers and for parents. They view the world through an entirely unique lens, one that is best summed in one word. Intense.
This intensity refers to how gifted individuals approach life. At its best, intensity is the driving passion that enables some people to achieve amazing things – in any domain. But at its worst, it is the turmoil that has the power to consume these same individuals from time to time as they learn how to manage that aspect of their personality.
Intensity comes in the form of cognitive intensity – those aspects of thinking and processing information that all gifted individuals use to problem solve. It relates to the attributes of focus, sustained attention, creative problem solving, and advanced reasoning skills. Most people think of cognitive intensity as intellect, or “being smart” – all good things.
But a gifted child’s intensity does not stop there. The emotional aspects of a gifted individual are also intense. Emotional intensity refers to the passion gifted people feel daily. It also refers to the extreme highs and lows many gifted people experience throughout their lifetime, causing them to question their own mental stability from time to time. This type of intensity is a natural aspect of giftedness. However, in my experience, it is also one of the most misunderstood attributes – and it is the reason gifted kids sometimes struggle.
Typically, emotional intensity results in a range of behavioral outbursts that can be internal (including moodiness, anxiety, and depression) or external (yelling or crying, temper tantrums, and physical expressions of anger or frustration). Regardless of how a gifted child chooses to demonstrate his or her intensities, there are a lot of things parents and educators can do to help lessen the outburst and help teach coping strategies.
- Start early by helping the child talk about his or her emotions. Trust me, they may not want to – but taking the emotions from some raw feeling to a tangible thing that can be defined is an important first step in learning to control the behavior. Further, the development of an emotional vocabulary can assist in providing a common language with which to discuss emotions and behavior.
- Help the child discover his or her unique escalation cycle. Likewise, know your own. Gifted kids have considerable talent for pushing a teacher or parent’s buttons. Knowing the things that push you over the edge will enable you to remain calm during emotional outbursts, whatever form they may take. Further, helping children discover their escalation pattern will give them a chance to learn to manage and redirect the feelings before they become too overwhelming.
- Once the child can identify his or her pattern of escalation, work with the child to make a plan for what to do when he or she is overwhelmed – when life becomes too intense. This plan should include a way to relax and redirect his or her energy away from the emotional throngs of intensity.
- Should the explosion happen anyway, it is important to remain calm and create a distance between your emotions and the child’s. Anger and frustration always beget more anger and frustration, so it is really important for the adults working with the child to stay emotionally neutral.
- Take a breather. This goes for the child and the adults. The best way to create the distance I talked about above is to remember to take a break and calm down.
- Remember to focus on the good behavior you want to see. All too often we get into a pattern of responding to the negative behaviors strongly (because these behaviors emotionally hook us) and not responding enough to the positive behaviors. The result – more negative behaviors. So do a mental inventory and make sure to focus your time and energy on the positive behaviors.
- Behavioral outbursts, whether internal or external, are teachable moments. Yes, they are frustrating and annoying. Maybe even infuriating. But they are still teachable moments. Take the time to redirect the behavior, focusing on teaching the GT child how to understand and redirect the behavior.
The bottom-line to all of this: Intensity is not a bad thing in and of itself. Intensity is passion – the kind of passion we use to create. But the way in which the GT child copes with his or her intensity can be a problem. Utilizing some of the strategies above can go a long way to helping both kids and adults embrace the intensity and recognize it for what it is – a wonderful aspect of what it means to be gifted in the first place!