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.

The Bright Child vs The Gifted Learner

Can you be smart but not gifted? Absolutely. Giftedness is much more than intelligence alone. Take a look at this comparison to see some key differences:

The bright child…
*Knows the answers
*Is interested
*Is attentive
*Has good ideas
*Works hard
*Answers the questions
*Top group
*Listens with interest
*Learns with ease
*6-8 repetitions for mastery
*Understands ideas
*Enjoys peers
*Grasps the meaning
*Completes assignments
*Is receptive
*Copies accurately
*Enjoys school
*Absorbs information
*Good memorizer
*Prefers straightforward tasks
*Is alert
*Is pleased with own learning
The gifted learner…
*Asks the questions
*Is highly curious
*Is mentally and physically involved
*Has wild, silly ideas
*Plays around, yet tests well
*Discusses in detail; elaborates
*Beyond the group
*Shows strong feelings and opinions
*Already knows1-2 repetitions for mastery
*Constructs abstractions
*Prefers adults
*Draws inferences
*Initiates projects
*Is intense
*Creates new designs
*Enjoys learning
*Manipulates information
*Good guesser
*Thrives on complexity
*Is keenly observant
*Is highly self-critical


Sleep – What’s That?



Sleep – or lack thereof – can be the first indicator that you have a gifted child on your hands. While your friends’ babies are sleeping through the night at 6 months and taking long naps several times a day, your baby is wide awake and ready to play. By a year they might be sleeping through the night, but are up at 5am to start the day. You read all the books, tried crying it out, co-sleeping, white noise, sleep sacks, aromatherapy. You put them to bed at 6pm because someone said they’re overtired and need to go to bed early. You keep them up later because someone said they’re not tired enough. And naps? You’ll spend an hour trying to get them to sleep only for them to wake up after 30 minutes.

My oldest daughter has been home for a solid week with mono. The only thing she’s supposed to be doing is resting and sleeping. Sounds easy enough right? She’s exhausted, bored, and her bed is a cozy oasis. Sleeping should be a no-brainer. But for her it isn’t.  

This week has me remembering her days as a non-sleeping baby and toddler (a time I had tried to forget). As a newborn she was awake every two hours like clockwork, and incredibly alert. She never wanted to be tucked into a wrap or carrier but was happy in the bouncy seat watching everything happen. I had the sense that she was worried she’d miss out on something if she closed her eyes. When she napped it was in 20 minute bites. As she got older she would wake early, nap for 45 minutes (if I was lucky), and stay up much later than the books said she should. By 18 months, she had given up the nap completely. I spent months trying to get her to sleep like my friend’s toddlers did: luxurious 2-3 hour naps, asleep by 7:30pm. Pediatricians told me I had to ‘make her nap’, other moms looked at me with a mixture of pity and concern. It took me a while to realize that she just didn’t need to sleep as much as her peers. I stopped fighting it and went with her schedule, resulting in less stress on everyone.

Kids Health (https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/naps.html) says that most 3-5 year olds should be sleeping 11-12 hours at night with a 2 hour nap during the day, but goes on to add a helpful list of signs that your child isn’t sleeping enough. We’re often made to feel like bad parents because our kids don’t sleep like other kids, but are they cranky, hard to wake up, inattentive, aggressive, unfocused? For the most part, nope. They’re alert and ready to go. The simple fact is that gifted kids need less sleep than their age mates. It took me a while to realize this and stop fighting the nap battle, and when I gave up we were all much happier and less stressed. She enjoyed sitting in her room with her books which was enough of a break for both of us.

As my daughter got older, there were many expectations we had to shift: she stopped napping at 18 months, was a ‘night owl’ who liked to stay up late but would also sleep in, she needed a fair amount of alone time to settle in to sleep. It also started getting harder to get her to sleep. She would want to have long, meaningful conversations about things like global warming, animal extinction, and homelessness. She would stay awake for hours saying she ‘couldn’t turn off her brain’.

This is a common complaint among gifted kids, and even gifted adults. Their brains are going all day and can be hard to turn off. Their anxieties and worries can creep in during this time, leading to a spiral of hard conversations and blurry eyes. 

Getting into a healthy sleep routine means different things for each child, especially for gifted children. It can be a frustrating and long process to figure out what works for your family, but eventually everyone sleeps through the night!

Here are some ideas for helping gifted kids fall asleep. Post in the comments if you have any ideas that have worked for your family!

For younger kids:

For older kids:

  • Listen to soothing music, an audiobook, or a podcast. For some kids this is too much stimulation, but it helps take their minds off of issues which are upsetting.
  • Keep a notebook by their bed to write in. Part of the stress and anxiety of big global issues for kids is that they feel powerless to do anything. Have them write down issues they’re worried about and some tangible items they can do to make a difference. Help them follow through with their ideas and record their successes!
  • Change the temperature. To reduce anxiety, apply ice packs to the wrists or back of neck at bedtime to calm the system, or drink ice cold water. On the other side, try a warm bath with calming scents to get ready to sleep.
  • Write some ‘dream starters’ on slips of paper and keep in a jar near their bed. They can choose a starter and close their eyes, playing the ‘movie’ of their paper in their minds while falling asleep.
  • A tent over their bed can block out the stimulation of their room and help them get to sleep sooner! https://www.privacypop.com/shop/tent/privacy-pop-bed-tent/
  • A soft light with aromatherapy can help them associate a smell with bedtime. https://www.muji.us/store/ultrasonic-aroma-diffuser.html
  • Weighted blankets can be very calming. (https://www.mosaicweightedblankets.com/benefits/)