Will Life Always Be This Sad?

This is the first post in a series I’ll be doing on overexcitabilities (OEs) – the intensities that gifted kids often exhibit. There are 5 OEs: emotional, intellectual, psychomotor, sensual, and imaginational.

My 10 year old daughter and I love going to the theater, particularly musicals. We’ve seen several this last year, all with happy feel-good endings. Recently we got last minute tickets to see King Kong. The puppet was an amazing 2 story-tall gorilla, manned by 13 puppeteers, with an incredibly expressive face.

Before the show – and tears – started

The moment he appeared on the stage, my daughter started crying. She was scared for him when he was being attacked, she was upset when he was captured and wouldn’t eat, and finally she was devastated when he was killed and fell. She rationally knew that he was a puppet and not alive, but she still cried the whole way home. In a quiet moment later she asked, “Will life always be this sad?”.

A common characteristic of gifted kids is the intensity of their emotions, the depth of their feelings. The highs are high, and the lows are low. One minute they’re laughing and playing outside, the next they’re crying quietly about a worm on the sidewalk. They’re often described as ‘dramatic’ or ‘overly emotional’, told to toughen up or ‘get over it’ and are perceived as being immature. They also find beauty in simple objects or music, and are perceptive to how other’s are feeling. They empathize with a particularly expressive puppet. Kids in my class with high emotional overexcitability (OE) will be able to tell if I’m not feeling well even if I think I’m hiding it well. They are observant, sensitive, and deep feelers.

Of all the intensities, the emotional OE can be trickiest to handle. They relive upsetting events as if they were occurring all over again, have deep connections with people and objects, can have outbursts when they feel they are misunderstood or not being listened to. To them, what they are feeling is real and serious, even if it seems trivial to us.

As gifted kids become teenagers, the emotional OE can change from outward to inward. Depression and anxiety are unfortunately all too common in these kids. They have been told for years that their emotions are ‘wrong’, ‘babyish’, or ‘overly dramatic’. They learn to keep these feelings inside and attempt to manage them on their own. All teenagers experience strong emotions, but for gifted teens with an emotional OE, it can be an especially difficult time. Carve out time to spend one on one together to check in, watch their daily habits to make sure they aren’t withdrawing, and encourage get togethers with friends and like-minded peers. A therapist who understands giftedness is always a good option too!

For parents, it’s important for these kids to have a safe space to express their emotions and feel validated. It’s easy to be frustrated when your 5 year old refuses to throw away the rotting pumpkin because she loves it and it’s perfect (yes, this happened in our house every year for several years). Rather than saying “It’s just a pumpkin!”, have your child draw a picture of it, keep the stem in a special box, plant the seeds together in the yard. Most importantly, let them know that it’s ok to be sad that it’s rotting, and that their emotions are part of what makes them so special. Simply sitting with them and letting them know that you’re there for them can help pave the way to a healthy sense of self and expression.

My favorite piece of advice for parents with intense children is “Don’t try to navigate in the middle of a hurricane”. If your child is extremely upset about something you just have to ride it out; whatever advice you give will go to waste until they are calmer. It may take 5 minutes or 3 days, but once the initial storm has passed, work through the experience with them. Teach them constructive ways to verbalize their feelings or express themselves through journalling, art, movement. And again – validate their feelings! If they have the outlets and know they are safe and without judgement, they can thrive and grow with their emotional intensity rather than try to suppress it.

Overexcitabilities are part of being gifted, and just like being gifted, they don’t go away. And thank goodness! With awareness and understanding we can help to foster these intensities to encourage the empathy, creativity, and connections.

To Test or Not To Test

I’m often asked about neuropsychological evaluation/testing: is it worth it, when is the best age, what to do with it, whom do I recommend. In the labyrinth of giftedness, a neuropsych test can provide a bit of a map.

What is a neuropsych test?

“A neuropsychological evaluation, also called neuropsychological testing, is an in-depth assessment of skills and abilities linked to brain function. The evaluation measures such areas as attention, problem solving, memory, language, I.Q., visual-spatial skills, academic skills, and social-emotional functioning.” https://childadolescentpsych.cumc.columbia.edu/articles/what-neuropsychological-evaluation

Basically, it’s a test that will tell you how your child best learns, strengths and weaknesses, an IQ score, and recommendations such as after school programs, therapies, in-class differentiation, IEPs, etc. A full workup can take 2 days or more of one-on-one evaluations, and can cost $5,000 or more. It is rarely covered by insurance, so the decision to spend the time and money can be difficult.

There are several options for tests other than a full neuropsych panel (which can include the WISC, Woodcock-Johnson, CogAT, Otis-Lennon, etc). Some evaluators will charge by the hour and can do just an IQ test, or you can opt for an achievement test vs an ability test (what they know vs IQ). These options are considerably cheaper but not as thorough.

When to test?

Start by asking yourself why you’re thinking about testing. Is there an issue that you’re trying to get to the bottom of? You already know you have a gifted kid on your hands and are trying to get into a special school or receive services? A neuropsych test can uncover things like ADD, dyslexia, OCD, depression, social-emotional functioning, processing speed, and of course IQ. Many gifted kids are 2E, meaning high IQ with a disability, and pediatricians and teachers can become focused only on the disability side and insist your child isn’t gifted. A neuropsych can provide proof that support is needed not just for the disability but also for the giftedness.

As far as age, the best time to test for giftedness is between 4-8. Testing too early can yield inaccurate results, and testing later can mean missed opportunities and interventions if needed. If you want to re-test, know that most evaluators will not conduct a new test until at least a year has passed from the previous one.

How do I choose an evaluator?

You’ll start by looking at psychologists and neuropsychologists who specialize in giftedness. This is important for a few reasons: the evaluator needs to be familiar with ceilings of common tests like the WISC and adaptable to the common struggles of gifted kids, such as struggling with transitions, perfectionism, delayed fine motor skills. You’ll then want to speak with them about their philosophies, fees, and time lines. Many of the well-regarded evaluators will have wait lists of months, and the report itself can take several weeks to prepare. Your child will also have to miss several days of school unless you schedule it during the summer. When it comes down to the final decision, rely on your gut. You know your child better than any one else. Trust yourself to choose an evaluator who will work well with you and your child.

Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page has a list of some testers who work with gifted kids. It’s not a complete list but a good place to start! http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/psychologists.htm

What do I do with the results?

What you do with the results is completely up to you. Most evaluators will include a section on recommendations for your child’s teachers and school – which may include IEP/504 information. They may also suggest therapy or tutoring as needed. However, you do not need to share the testing if you don’t want to.

Your child will obviously wonder what the results are. Some families choose to not share any of the results with their children, while others hand over the full report for them to read. Again, it’s completely up to you and your family. I have found that acknowledging a child’s giftedness and explaining it to them is very helpful; they already know they’re different and having a label and numbers to go with it can help them embrace those differences. This is especially true if the child is 2E and feels ‘dumb’. Showing them that they just struggle in a particular area or two but are capable of amazing things can be very motivating and encouraging! However, you know your child best and will do what works for your family.

The Project That Wasn’t

Recently one of my students asked if we could do a ‘bottle flip challenge’. Sure, I said. There’s all kinds of physics involved: inertia, angular momentum, mass, center of gravity. I got the bottles, made up some tally sheets and after explaining the science behind it I set them loose to experiment.

Not all projects are winners – sometimes the directions are just too complicated or it doesn’t work as well as when I did it at home. Occasionally, however, a project becomes something completely different. This was one of those projects. After a frustrating ten minutes or so, none of the kids had landed their bottles (I’ll be talking about fine motor skills – or lack thereof – soon!), even at the ‘right’ amount of mass. Amidst a minor meltdown, one girl added a bit of soap to her bottle, stating “Well, it can’t hurt!”. That led to other students adding soap, leftover tea, some sugar from packets they found in a cupboard. Soon, they were all creating ‘potions’, laughing and naming their new creations. The angst of the bottle flipping was fast forgotten and creativity was flowing.

I encourage these rigid kids to try to be more flexible; things don’t always work out as you expect them to and it’s okay to go with the flow. Amazing inventions have occurred when things didn’t go according to plan. But this is a difficult concept, for gifted kids and adults alike. As a teacher, I sometimes need to that reminder too.

Working with gifted kids, we (parents, teachers, other adults in their lives) feel a lot of pressure to challenge them, expose them to new ideas, and foster their interests. We come up with activities and imagine them studiously plugging away. As any parent or teacher knows, however, that’s rarely the result. How many times do we start with one activity and end with a completely different one? Do you go with the flow or keep encouraging the original project? If we slow down and take cues from them, we might be surprised at the things they are actually learning and experiencing.

While gifted kids aren’t usually known for their flexibility, if given the opportunity they can sometime surprise us with their creativity and ability to adapt – and hopefully we can learn to join them!

Holiday Stress

The holidays are usually a stressful time for most people, gifted kids included.

Visiting family members, multiple breaks from school, gifts, large meals – all of these can cause stress and anxiety but combined can create a perfect storm. Let’s break this down:

  • Visiting Family Members: During the holidays it’s normal to have visitors in and out of the house, or perhaps you are the ones traveling to other’s houses. Either way, it can be exhausting for introverted gifted kids to find their normal spaces and routines interrupted. They might become destructive, rude or refuse to participate in activities. This response often gives them exactly what they need: a time out. Gifted kids (and adults!) often need time to ‘recharge’ their batteries by reading, drawing, being outside. Make sure that they know they are able to take breaks and if at someone else’s house show them a quiet area they can be alone in. Even if they’re excited to be surrounded by friends and family, it’s important that they know it’s ok to take breaks. Also set boundaries with visiting kids so you can avoid small hands smashing a newly constructed Lego city or ruin an on-going science experiment.
  • Breaks from school: Most gifted kids thrive on routine. As much as they cheer about a snow day or holiday, the reality of having no schedule quickly sets in. Gifted kids have a constant need to do but often struggle with the infinite possibilities of what to do. Before the break, have them make a list of things they’d like to learn about or do with all their free time. A stash of new books for down time and a few emergency lego kits/projects can be life savers too.  For easing transitions, write the schedule for the breaks as specifically as you can so they know what to expect. Try getting a large desk calendar so they can easily see upcoming events (including visitors!). It can take longer than you expect to recover from a long unstructured break, so be patient when getting back into the school routine in January.
  • Gifts: Everyone likes gifts, but the pressure of ‘performing’ can make the process less fun for the whole family. Gifted kids often have a heightened sense of empathy and can read expressions and body language at an early age. They can sense when they haven’t given the ‘right’ reaction to opening a gift and spend a lot of emotional energy on pleasing the givers. If possible, let them open presents when it’s just immediate family instead of a large audience, and reassure them that they don’t have to like every gift they’re given.
  • Large Meals: We all remember having to sit through large family meals with endless courses and the dreaded after-dinner coffee. For gifted kids, these meals are extra difficult. Picky eating is a common characteristic of giftedness, so chances are there are very few foods that they will want to eat. Parental pressure will mean heaping their plate full (and the foods will touch! gasp!) and grandparents who will be ‘disappointed’ if they don’t try their famous green bean casserole. Before a meal, discuss with your child what is expected of them. If you know they only eat brown things, encourage them to try one new thing from the table that isn’t brown. Even if they leave it on their plate, for some kids this is a huge accomplishment. If you know you’ll all be sitting around the table for long periods of time, let them know it’s ok to take breaks by asking to be excused for a few minutes. Also try to include them in conversation with topics that interest them!

With a little preparation and compromise hopefully the holiday season can be fun and relaxing. Be aware of their needs, be clear with your expectations, and choose your battles!