Last week I started a conversation about emotional intensity being a superpower. I started with a look at extreme emotions. Today, I want to continue the conversation by looking at another 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 beautiful 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).
5 TIPS TO ADDRESS EXTREME EMPATHY – There are several things parents and educators can do to assist gifted youth as they learn to embrace their emotional intensity and manage the often misunderstood negative impact and emotional distress that comes with extreme empathy. The list below includes the most high-leverage interventions that can help with this aspect of emotional intensity.
- 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 vital 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.
- Focus on supporting the development of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) overall. Development of balanced empathy relies on the development of all of your emotional intelligence skills, including cognitive skills like attention, executive functioning and inhibition, as well as social and emotional processing, like emotional regulation and social awareness. The more developed and integrated these skills, the more able you are to discern when your empathy is causing emotional distress. Look for everyday moments to build up your child’s EQ skills to help them harness the power of their intensities.
- Discover and develop your child’s strengths. There has been a lot of exciting research in the areas of strengths development. One of the key findings is the correlation between strengths-based practices and life satisfaction. The more we develop and use our strengths, the more satisfied we feel in life. Your child’s capacity for empathy is likely a key strength. Look for new ways he or she can use it in everyday life. Then call it out when you see it. This will help you continue to reframe intensities in a positive light and help your child begin to develop a strengths-based practice. All of this will help balance and prevent the potential emotional distress that can come with under-developed empathy skills.
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.
How do you help children develop empathy without becoming emotionally enmeshed in others?