This post continues the conversation started last week with managing extreme emotions. Now I want to address another common aspect of emotional intensity – extreme empathy. 

Extreme empathy is a typical characteristic of the social-emotional development of gifted youth (Hébert, 2011). Gifted youth not only sympathize with others to a great extent, but they can be easily hurt by others and are highly self-critical if they unintentionally hurt others.

Although empathy is a wonderful attribute, there are some unintended adverse outcomes of this aspect of emotional intensity when gifted individuals have not yet matured their skills. Gifted children may overreact to others, allowing the emotional context of situations to trigger their own emotional mood swings (Piechowski, 1997). Furthermore, youth may become entrenched in the emotional lives of their friends, taking on the problems of others and struggling to differentiate their issues from those of their friends. This can leave them emotionally vulnerable and reactive to the natural ebb and flow of friendships and the social contexts of life (Fonseca, 2015a).

Fortunately, there are a few things parents and educators can do to help gifted children harness the positive aspects of empathy.

TIPS TO ADDRESS EXTREME EMPATHY:

  • Teach children to discern situations. Whether it’s learning to distinguish between a friend’s problem and their own or learning to discern between various stressful situations, gifted children need to master the skill of perception and begin to differentiate their environment. Learning to tell which problems they need to solve and when to believe their internal chatter are both valuable tools gifted children may develop to manage their emotional responses to the world. The more we can help children with this process, the more rapidly they can learn this vital skill.
  • Normalize emotional intensity. Gifted children are acutely aware of the negative aspects of emotional intensity and how different this intensity is from the “norm.” But, viewing emotional intensity as a negative trait only makes gifted children react more negatively to life. It is important for the adults to emphasize the positive aspects of emotional intensity. Also, it is essential for gifted individuals to recognize that they are intense by nature—that feeling deeply for others is typical for them. Normalization of this aspect of intensity helps make the adverse elements manageable without triggering additional negative responses.
  • Help gifted children develop coping strategies, especially relaxation and mindfulness. Children need to learn coping strategies as a way to manage behavior. This is particularly true with our gifted children. The more they can learn strategies for relaxing, taking a mindful minute in which they acclimate themselves to the moment and become aware of their emotional chatter and internal state, the more they will learn to flow with their intensity instead of fighting against it and increasing the negative response.

Dealing with extreme empathy can be a challenge. But empathy is something we certainly need more of in today’s world. Hopefully these tips can help you guide your child to the development of healthy empathy.

Next time we’ll address the mind/body connection of emotional intensity.

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