What Are Dabrowski's Five Overexcitabilities in Gifted Children?

Why gifted kids may seem to be highly sensitive

girl with book smiling
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Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski identified five areas in which children exhibit intense behaviors, also known as "overexcitabilities" or "supersensitivities." They are psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual, and imaginational. Gifted children tend to have multiple intensities, although one is usually dominant.

Does your child complain about the seams in his socks? Put her hands over her ears when the movie starts in the movie theater?

Have trouble sitting still? Get moved almost to tears by a piece of music or work of art? These are signs of overexcitabilities.

Psychomotor

The psychomotor overexcitability is common in gifted children. It is characterized primarily by high levels of energy. Children with this OE (overexcitability) seem to constantly be on the move. Even as infants, they need less sleep than other children. As adults, they are able to work long hours without tiring.

Children with this OE also may be misdiagnosed as ADHD. But while they can be active, they are quite capable of focused concentration unless they are insufficiently mentally stimulated. The lack of mental stimulation can be a problem for these children in school.

The primary sign of this intensity is a surplus of energy. Children with a dominant psychomotor overexcitability are often misdiagnosed with ADHD since characteristics are similar. They may include:

  • Rapid speech
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Competitiveness
  • Compulsive talking
  • Compulsive organizing
  • Nervous habits and tics
  • Preference for fast action and sports
  • Physical expression of emotions
  • Sleeplessness

Sensual

The primary sign of this intensity is a heightened awareness of all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.

Children with a dominant sensual overexcitability can get sick from the smell of certain foods or, as toddlers, will hate to walk on grass in their bare feet. The pleasure they get from the tastes and textures of some foods may cause them to overeat.

If your child has sensual overexcitability, you may notice several of these traits:

  • Appreciation of beauty, whether in writing, music, art or nature. Includes love of objects like jewelry
  • Sensitive to smells, tastes, or textures of foods
  • Sensitivity to pollution
  • Tactile sensitivity (bothered by feel of some materials on the skin, clothing tags)
  • Craving for pleasure
  • Need or desire for comfort

Intellectual

This intensity is the one most recognized in gifted children. It is characterized by activities of the mind. Children who lead with this intensity seem to be thinking all the time and want answers to deep questions. Sometimes their need for answers will get them in trouble in school when their questioning of the teacher can look like disrespectful challenging. They may exhibit several of these traits:

  • Deep curiosity
  • Love of knowledge and learning
  • Love of problem-solving
  • Avid reading
  • Asking of probing questions
  • Theoretical thinking
  • Analytical thinking
  • Independent thinking
  • Concentration, ability to maintain intellectual effort

Imaginational

The primary sign of this intensity is the free play of the imagination. Their vivid imaginations can cause them to visualize the worst possibility in any situation. It can keep them from taking chances or getting involved in new situations. You may notice that your child exhibits:

  • Vivid dreams
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Good sense of humor
  • Magical thinking
  • Love of poetry, music, and drama
  • Love of fantasy
  • Daydreaming
  • Imaginary friends
  • Detailed visualization

Emotional

The primary sign of this intensity is exceptional emotional sensitivity.

Children with a strong emotional overexcitability are sometimes mistakenly believed to have bipolar disorder or other emotional problems and disorders. They are often the children about whom people will say, "He's too sensitive for his own good." Your child may show these traits:

  • Extremes of emotion
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of guilt and sense of responsibility
  • Feelings of inadequacy and inferiority
  • Timidity and shyness
  • Loneliness
  • Concern for others
  • Heightened sense of right and wrong or injustice and hypocrisy
  • Strong memory of feelings
  • Problems adjusting to change
  • Depression
  • Need for security
  • Physical response to emotions (stomach aches caused by anxiety, for example)

Wrapping Up

You can get a better understanding of your gifted child if you recognize their intensities which can help you to become a more effective and supportive parent. For example, if your child is emotionally intense, you know that she will have a tough time "just ignoring" teasing or bullying. She may need extra help in managing her reactions to hurtful behavior in others. 

These sensitivities are part of a larger theory, the Theory of Positive Disintegration, which you can read more about on The Positive Disintegration website.

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