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.