Ask any parent or educator of a gifted child to describe what it means to be gifted, and you’ll get a large variety of answers. Words like tenacious, bright, and thoughtful come to mind, alongside perfectionistic and rigid. Perhaps the best way to describe gifted individuals is intense, concerning both their cognitive prowess and their emotional development.
The intensity that commonly defines giftedness refers to how a gifted person approaches his or her life. At its best, most-developed attribute, the intensity is the passion that drives people to achieve and produce amazing feats in any domain, a modern superpower. At its most immature state, the intensity is the turmoil that often consumes gifted people, creating many of the self-defeating behaviors they exhibit (Fonseca, 2015a; Sword, 2005).
Intensity can impact a variety of areas of a person’s life, from the way one approaches problem-solving and cognitive reasoning to the depth of emotions he or she exhibits. Cognitive intensity, those aspects of thinking and processing information, relates to the attributes of focus, sustained attention, creative problem solving, and advanced reasoning skills many gifted individuals exhibit (Hébert, 2011). Most people consider cognitive intensity a primary feature of giftedness and equate it to “being smart”—a positive thing.
Intensity has another side. Just as gifted individuals display intense patterns of thinking, they also demonstrate intense emotions. Emotional intensity refers to the passion gifted people feel on a daily basis; the way they interact with the world. It also relates to the extreme highs and lows many gifted individuals experience throughout their lifetime, causing them to question their mental sanity (Fonseca, 2015a; Sword, 2002). This type of intensity is often the most problematic for gifted children and the parents and educators who work with them. The attributes of emotional intensity can result in a range of behavioral outbursts that are internal (e.g., moodiness, anxiety, depression) or external (e.g., tantrums, verbal aggression, physical aggression).
Helping gifted children to harness the power of emotional intensity in its most productive and mature state requires both an understanding of the specific attributes and the problems that can manifest, as well as the specific interventions that can support the healthy development of each domain. The following sections outline some of the typical attributes of emotional intensity, the potential problems that can manifest, and targeted interventions for parents and educators that can positively impact the development of emotional intensity in our gifted youth (Daniels et. al., 2008).
EXTREME EMOTIONS – Perhaps the most frequently noted attribute of emotional intensity is the extreme emotions sometimes demonstrated by the gifted individual. Emotional swings between positive (very happy) and negative (very sad) happen at an ever-quickening pace, often leaving the child, parent, and educator at a loss to manage the changing emotional landscape (Fonseca, 2015a; Sword, 2002).
The adverse aspects of the emotional range will often include internalized feelings of sadness, stress, and anxiety and externalized feelings of frustration and rage.
Furthermore, the mood swings are easily misinterpreted as a mental health condition. Gifted children, especially when they are young, may be viewed as emotionally volatile, with extremely poor emotional self-control. Although this is true, the cause is seldom a mental health disorder (Webb et al., 2007). More often, the source of discomfort is the emotional intensity without the needed coping tools to manage the emotional swings (Sword, 2006).
TIPS TO ADDRESS EXTREME EMOTIONS – There are several things parents and educators can do to assist gifted youth as they learn to embrace their emotional intensity and manage the extreme emotions. The list below includes the most high-leverage interventions that can help with this aspect of emotional intensity.
- Teach an emotional vocabulary. Gifted children need to develop a vocabulary to discuss their emotional selves; however, educators and parents often assume this is an organic process, requiring little intervention. The more adults can intentionally teach children about complex emotions, the more a gifted child will be able to discuss and eventually manage his or her behaviors.
- Teach children about their escalation cycles. It is challenging for people to control something when they lack an awareness of it. This is particularly true with emotional self-regulation. For gifted children to adjust their emotional reactions, they must first become aware of how they respond to their emotions. The more they can understand how their body and mind react to emotional swings, the more they can learn to anticipate and regulate their reactions.
- Understand your own escalation cycle. Gifted kids are adept at pushing a teacher’s or parent’s buttons. Recognizing the catalysts that trigger an adverse reaction will enable others to remain calm during emotional outbursts, no matter how the behavior appears.
Next week I will bring more tips related to empathy and other aspects of emotional intensity.
Do you deal with intensity in your house?