Parents and teachers of children who are gifted know that the experiences and abilities of these young people are different from more typically developing children. As well as having advanced intellectual abilities and special talents, these children have exceptional ways of experiencing the world –– qualitatively, quantitatively, or often both. Being acutely aware of both their physical environment and their emotional life, gifted children tend to be more intense, more sensitive, and more prone to experiencing emotional extremes –– whether exuberance or despair.
Intensity, Sensitivity, and Overexcitability
The intensities and sensitivities experienced by gifted individuals are often explained in terms of overexcitabilities – a greater capacity to be stimulated by and to respond to both external and internal stimuli. Overexcitabilities have been described in five forms – psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional. An overexcitability is like a lens that opens, widens, and deepens a gifted person’s experience. Overexcitabilities – or OEs – permeate a gifted person’s existence.
Dabrowski and the Concept of Overexcitability
Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980), a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist who had a strong interest in the development of intellectually and artistically gifted children, was struck by their intensity, sensitivity, and tendency toward emotional extremes. He did not view these traits as abnormal but as part and parcel of being gifted and creative. Dabrowski described these characteristics in terms of what we now call overexcitabilities –– a concept he developed through his clinical work with gifted individuals. (Note: The original Polish term that Dabrowski used would more correctly translate to “superstimulatability.” Overexcitabilities are part of a larger theory of development: Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration.)
Overexcitability means that life is experienced in a manner that is deeper, more vivid, and more acutely sensed. This does not just mean that one experiences more curiosity, sensory enjoyment, imagination, and emotion, but also that the experience is of a different kind, having a more complex and richly textured quality.
Behaviors and characteristics that frequently typify the five forms of OEs can be described as follows:
- Psychomotor – high energy, movement, restlessness, drivenness, an augmented capacity for being active and energetic.
- Sensual – enhanced refinement and aliveness of sensual experience
- Intellectual – thirst for knowledge, discovery, questioning, love of ideas and theories, search for truth
- Imaginational –vividness of imagery, richness of association, facility for dreams, fantasies, and inventions, endowing toys and other objects with personality, preference for the unusual and unique
- Emotional –great depth and intensity of emotional life expressed in a wide range of feelings, great happiness to profound sadness or despair, compassion, responsibility, self-examination.
- Discuss the positive aspects of psychomotor OE – energy and enthusiasm.
- Plan for reasonable movement in a variety of settings.
- Teach that time out can be a choice, not a punishment.
- Teach relaxation techniques.
- Discuss the positive aspects of sensual OE – appreciating sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and aromas.
- Provide environments that limit offensive stimuli and maximize comforting stimuli. Co-create a pleasing and comfortable aesthetic environment.
- Provide opportunities to dwell in delight. Take time to smell the roses or watch the sunset.
- Discuss the positive aspects of intellectual OE – curiosity, wide and deep interests.
- Honor the need to seek understanding and truth, regardless of the age of the child.
- Help children find answers to their own questions.
Imaginational OE brings with it a sense of the possible. Rather than being limited by what is, imagination provides opportunities to envision what might be. Imagination is evident in everything from preschool play to innovative works of art, science, and invention.
- Discuss the positive aspects of imaginational OE – make-believe play, creating something new.
- Encourage children to share imaginings –tell stories or draw images of imagined friends, pets, buildings, creatures, and worlds.
- Provide outlets for creative pursuits – writing, drawing, acting, dancing, designing, building, etc.
Emotional OE brings with it the capacity for intense feelings. Intense feelings manifest themselves in extreme, complex, positive, and sometimes negative ways. Children with emotional OE seems to have extra emotional antennae – to be permeable by feelings and impacted by emotions.
Strategies to encourage modulation of emotional OE:
- Accept feelings and their intensity.
- Develop a feeling vocabulary – include a continuum of feeling words. For example, feeling “bad” might mean being annoyed, uneasy, anxious and so on. Feeling happy might mean feeling content, glad, joyful, blessed, etc.
- Teach the child to share his emotions and feelings with others in positive and productive ways – verbally, through movement, art, journaling, or music.
Celebrating the Intense and Sensitive Gifted Child
OEs add vibrancy to the lives and talents of the gifted, and they also present certain challenges. Ideally, we can recognize that OEs contribute to the uniqueness of the gifted child, we can celebrate the positive aspects of having OEs, and we can help gifted children develop strategies for navigating the challenges of overexcitability.
Please Note: This article is based on the content of multiple chapters in the book Living With Intensity edited by Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski.
Susan Daniels, Ph.D. & Michael M. Piechowski, Ph.D., Eds. (2008). Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults. Great Potential Press.
Sal Mendaglio, Ph.D. Ed. (2008). Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. Great Potential Press.