Today is the last part of my series on turning emotional intensity into a superpower. Together we’ve looked at the extreme emotions associated with emotional intensity, intense empathy, and the mind-body connection. To finish up the series, I want to talk about existential depression and self-actualization.
Self-actualization is one of the more sparsely researched aspects of emotional intensity. That said, there is evidence to support the view that gifted children strive toward self-actualization at an early age (Hébert, 2011). How old, you may ask. In my experience with thousands of families, including my own, gifted children stat contemplating the meaning of their existence as preschoolers. This push toward understanding self and the role of self within the universe can result in feelings of existential depression (Webb et al., 2007) when children have not yet managed their intensities or recognized their attitudes about self and their role in the world.
Existential depression can hit at a young age with gifted children, resulting in behaviors that mimic generalized anxiety and panic attacks. The origins, however, are different. Gifted children wrestling with their internal purpose may engage in morbid thought patterns that involve death or dying, asking questions that lead parents and educators to become concerned over potential suicidal ideations (Peterson, 2006; Webb, 2008).
Although it is essential that such concerns always be addressed, it is vital that adults understand that such questions may be indicative of the child’s push for self-actualization and the accompanying existential depression, as opposed to more significant mental health problems. Dealing with the existential crisis head-on, as well as employing the previously mentioned tips, can significantly help our gifted youth embrace the positive aspects of their internal drive (Fonseca, 2015a).
In addition to the tips throughout this series, here are additional things parents and educators can do to support gifted children as they begin to discover their passions and role within the world.
- Help your child discover her personal “why.” Sinek’s (2011) quintessential book Start With Why speaks to businesses about embracing the why behind the product or service they offer. The same model can be utilized with gifted children as they begin their journey toward self-actualization. Helping them discover their passions at an early age, connecting the things they are interested in with their global values and beliefs can help them establish their personal why. This can then begin to frame how they interact with the world and give meaning to their internal drive. Adults often enter into these types of conversations way too late with children, if at all. As soon as the gifted child can begin to discuss his or her values and passions, adults should start helping the child discover his or her why.
- Align the child with like-minded peers and adults. It is never too early to find a mentor or establish a tribe. Helping children find other gifted peers with similar interests, as well as adult role models, can help them develop a healthy approach to self-actualization (Cross, 2010; Renzulli, 2012). These relationships can be the foundation required to work through periods of existential depression and manage emotional intensity.
- Engage in open dialogue and safe spaces. The world can be a scary place for our gifted children. This is especially true once a child begins to experience an existential crisis. All too often, the crisis is greeted with a silencing or distancing response instead of open communication. Gifted children need someone they can talk to when they are worried about their future. They need guidance to work through their extreme emotions and beliefs, a life coach. The emotional coaching will provide the structure necessary for these children as they strengthen the positive aspects of their intensity.
- Encourage the exploration of interests and passion projects. Gifted children often have many interests. Allow ample time for them to develop these interests and explore the world and their passions. If your children have a wide range of interests, allow them to deeply examine them. Try to avoid “niche” thinking – many gifted children are renaissance people, with a full and deep range of abilities and interests.
- Engage in service projects as a family or class. Gifted children often derive significant meaning and purpose from engaging in service-related activities. Engage in some of these as a family. Encourage acts of service. This may help feed your children’s need to give of themselves as part of how they find meaning.
Intensity is not a bad thing in and of itself. Intensity is passion—the kind of passion necessary for creation and innovation; the type of passion sorely needed on the planet now. Intensity, especially emotional intensity, is not the problem for our gifted youth. instead, how the child copes with his or her intensity can be a problem. Utilizing some of the strategies discussed throughout the series can go a long way to helping both kids and adults embrace the intensity and recognize it for what it is – the superpower every gifted child has at his or her disposal. Welcoming intensity, and helping it develop into this superpower, is the best gift we can give our kids; now and in the future.