Dabrowski's Emotional Overexcitability of Gifted Children

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Mother playing with children (2-3, 6-11 months).
Tetra Images - Jamie Grill/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

The emotional overexcitability is probably the most significant of Kazimier Dabrowski's five over-excitabilities. The other four are the intellectual, the imaginational, the sensual, and the psychomotor. Dabrowski was a Polish psychologist who saw how differently people behaved in Poland during World War II. Some could commit acts of unspeakable cruelty while others risked their own lives to save others.

From his observations, he eventually developed his Theory of Positive Disintegration. These over-excitabilities, sometimes called super sensitivities are part of that theory.

What is Emotional Overexcitability?

The emotional supersensitive is the most easily recognized by parents of gifted children and others because children who have it display heightened and intense emotions and emotional responses to events and experiences.

Children with this OE have the capacity for great emotional depth. They develop strong attachments to people, places, and things. Because of their emotional intensity, they are often accused of over-reacting or being melodramatic. However, the emotions they feel are real. The molehills to them are truly mountains.

The emotional OE is also manifested in a deep concern for others. Even gifted toddlers high in this OE can show concern over a baby's cries or over the distress of a fellow toddler who has been hurt or become upset.

Not only do these children empathize with others, but they feel a connection to animals as well. These children may become vegetarians at a young age because they cannot bear to eat what was once a living creature.

Children do not grow out of this sensitivity. A child with intense emotional feelings will experience the same depth of emotion as an adult.

The Upside of the Emotional Overexcitability

Those with the emotional OE can sense and perceive things that others may miss or can't even imagine. They seem to be tuned into the world and to others in ways that provide them with a rich depth of understanding an appreciation. They are often sought out by friends and acquaintances for help and advice because of the deep connections they form.

Because of their intense feelings and empathy for others, those with emotional OE tend to form strong friendships. Their feelings for their friends are deep and they will be among the most loyal of friends.

Those with the emotional OE are also more likely than others to be aware of their feelings, and that awareness allows them to create deeply moving works of art, whether it be in writing, music, acting, or art.

The Downside of the Emotional Overexcitability

While those who have the emotional super sensitivity have deep empathy for others, they have little sympathy for themselves. They are highly self-critical and have a deep sense of responsibility - even for things they are not responsible for.

This self-criticism and sense of responsibility can cause anxiety, guilt, and a feeling of being a failure. The levels of anxiety they experience can interfere with simple tasks like home chores or even completing homework. They can also develop psychosomatic symptoms like stomach aches or suffer from depression.

The depression that those with emotional OE often experience is existential depression, which means that they become depressed over issues concerning the basic questions of life: death, poverty, war, and disease, for example. Bouts of existential depression can be caused by some specific experience, but they are just as likely to arise spontaneously.

Children with the emotional OE also have a hard time adjusting to change and can experience high levels of anxiety when they are put in new situations or unfamiliar surroundings. They may also be shy and slow to participate in social activities.

What You Can Do as a Parent

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your emotionally sensitive child is to accept all his or her feelings, regardless of intensity. Your first response might be to want to tell your child to stop over-reacting or stop making mountains out of molehills. But remember, those molehills really do seem like mountains to the highly sensitive child.

Avoid minimizing or dismissing your child's feelings. For example, don't tell her that she's "too sensitive for her own good" or that "everything will be okay."  Your child isn't choosing to be more sensitive than you might be comfortable with, nor is she going to believe that everything will be okay, even if you're positive they will be - and can you really be that certain?

Listen to what your child has to say without passing judgment. Sometimes your child just wants to be understood. He doesn't want a lecture or advice, and he certainly doesn't want - or need - to feel judged. This is especially true for little boys because they are so often expected to be less emotional than little girls. Too often children with this OE are seen as weak, particularly little boys. Avoid either criticizing your child for being sensitive or protecting her from the world. Neither is helpful.

Help your child understand that his emotional supersensitivity is normal for gifted children. This is one reason it is good to discuss giftedness with your child. You can help your child use his intellect to work through and understand those intense feelings. One way to do this is to create an emotional response scale. Of course, you should work with your child to create that scale when she's not upset. She can then think of what kind of event would not be important (a 1) up to an event that would really be horrible (10). Then when your child is upset, you can use that scale to help her put the event into perspective.

Keep in mind that emotionally intense children can become frustrated and upset when they are not physically capable of doing what they want to do. For example, a three-year-old might envision a beautiful work of art, but his fine motor skills are simply not developed sufficiently to allow him to create it. Don't tell him it's okay. For him, it's not. But do praise his efforts and emphasize his strengths.

Encourage your child to work through emotions by keeping a journal, writing stories or poems, writing or playing music, creating a work of art, or engaging in some physical activity, such as running or dancing. These activities are great outlets for strong emotions.

Don't expect your child to be a little adult. Don't expect her to have the kind of emotional control an adult would have just because she can sometimes think and talk like one. On the other hand, avoid letting your child get away with inappropriate behavior because he is upset. Breaking rules should have consequences. However, they should not be punished simply for having intense emotions. It's not the emotional response that is the problem; it is the negative behavior. For example, a child should not suffer any consequences for being emotionally upset, but should for throwing a toy at someone because he's upset.

Sometimes, a child may not professional counseling. If you believe your child might benefit from some counseling, be sure to find a counselor who is familiar with giftedness and gifted children.

Continue Reading