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Gifted children: Emotionally immature or emotionally intense?


Sword, L.
Gifted and Creative Services, Australia
This article by Leslie Sword examines the emotional intensity of gifted children in terms of the
overexcitabilities that are a component of Dabrowskis theory of emotional development.
Descriptions of emotional intensity are given together with examples of behaviour associated
with emotional intensity that are often mistakenly perceived as emotional immaturity. It
concludes that emotional intensity in the gifted is essential to the learning process and that gifted
children need understanding and support to accept their rich inner experiences and value
emotional intensity as a strength.
Abstract
This paper examines the emotional intensity of gifted children in terms of the Overexcitabilities
that are a component of Dabrowski's theory of emotional development. Descriptions of
emotional intensity are given together with examples of behaviour associated with emotional
intensity that are often mistakenly perceived as emotional immaturity. It concludes that
emotional intensity in the gifted is essential to the learning process and that gifted children need
adult understanding and support to accept their rich inner experiences and value emotional
intensity as a strength.
Introduction
I am a very misunderstood person...People think that my life is easy because I am talented but I
have a lot of problems of my own just because of these talents. I often get cut down for
something good that I do. This is very hard to cope with. I am a very sensitive and emotional
person. I get angered or saddened very easily. I can also get happy easily. I think I like this part
of me. All these emotions make me feel good about myself...I am not a very confident person,
though people think I am. (Male age 16; Piechowski 1998)
In the field of gifted education it is often not well known that giftedness has an emotional as well
as a cognitive substructure: cognitive complexity gives rise to emotional depth. Gifted children
not only think differently from their peers, they also feel differently. Michael Piechowski
explains this difference in feeling as intensity; an expanded field of subjective experience.
"Intensity, in particular, must be understood as a qualitatively distinct characteristic. It is not a
matter of degree but of a different quality of experiencing: vivid, absorbing, penetrating,
encompassing, complex, commanding-a way of being quiveringly alive". (cited in Silverman,
1993. p. 3)
The Overexcitabilities

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Emotional intensity can be understood as a positive characteristic for gifted children in the
context of Dabrowski's theory of Emotional Development. Emotional development proceeds as a
function of the interaction between the individual's developmental potential and environment.
Developmental potential is constituted of a person's talents, intelligence, five forms of psychic
overexcitability and the capacity for inner transformation. (Dabrowski 1972; Piechowski 1979)
Overexcitability (expanded awareness and a heightened capacity to respond to stimuli of various
types) is a translation from a Polish term which means the capacity to be superstimulated. The
term overexcitability was chosen to convey the idea that the stimulation is well beyond the
common and average in intensity and duration. The difference in intensity and sensitivity is not
only greater than normal, it is also a difference in the very quality of experiencing.
Overexcitabilities can be thought of as an abundance of physical, sensual, creative, intellectual
and emotional energy that can result in creative endeavours as well as advanced emotional and
ethical development in adulthood. As such, they are a positive force for the gifted, as they feed,
enrich, empower and amplify talent. (Piechowski 1999)
Overexcitabilities are assumed to be innate and appear in five forms:
Psychomotor - surplus of energy, restless, curious
Sensual - sensory and aesthetic pleasure
Intellectual - strong signs of analysis and synthesis, theoretical thinking, probing questions,
learning, problem solving
Imaginational - vivid fantasy life, spontaneous imagery, sensitive to imaginary realities
Emotional - intensity of feeling:, complex emotions and feelings, extremes of emotion,
sensitivity, identification with the feelings of others, difficulty adjusting to change. (Dabrowski
1972; Piechowski, cited in Silverman, 1993)
Emotional Overexcitability
High levels of Emotional Overexcitability are exhibited by gifted children, adolescents and
adults as the capacity for emotional depth. The depth and intensity of emotional life are
expressed by the gifted through a wide range of feelings, attachments. compassion, heightened
sense of responsibility and scrupulous self-examination. While these are normal for the gifted
and appear very early in gifted children, they are often misunderstood as signs of emotional
immaturity rather than as evidence of a rich inner life. (Piechowski & Colangelo 1984)
Table 1: Forms And Expression Of Emotional Intensity.
Intensity of feeling: positive feelings, negative feelings, extremes of emotion, complex emotions,
identification with others' feelings, laughing and crying together
Somatic (bodily) expression: tense stomach, sinking heart, blushing, flushing
Inhibition: timidity, shyness
Strong affective memory

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Fears and anxieties, feelings of guilt


Concerns with death, depressive and suicidal moods
Relationship feelings: emotional ties and attachments, concern for others (empathy), sensitivity
in relationships, attachment to animals, difficulty in adjusting to new environments, loneliness,
conflicts with others over depth of relationship
Feelings toward self: self-evaluation and self-judgment, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority
(Piechowski 1979)
Emotional Intensity
Descriptions of emotional intensity experienced by gifted people include the following:
flooded by unexpected waves of joy
a feeling of being incredibly alive
so happy that I want to laugh and cry or be silent and shout all at the same time
beautiful music or the beauty of nature can move me to tears
even the greatest pain has been ecstatic and full of life.
These same people describe their inner experiences of emotional intensity as:
moments of disequilibrium and estrangement
the familiar suddenly feels alien
feelings of unreality
intense feelings of difference
rapid shifts in perspective
dissatisfaction with self
inner turmoil
feeling of being overwhelmed
despair. (Piechowski 1998)
I am often overwhelmed by emotion. At these times I feel the need to cry and not control
it, to sit in it and make sense of it. This emotional intensity is a strength that supports my
personal growth. (female adult)
Sometimes my feelings are so strong that my heart races, my chest feels tight and I can't
catch my breath. (male adolescent)
Whenever I am called on in class a tide of red rises up and ungulfs my face. It burns so
much that I am sure everyone can see it.(female age 10)
When I kill a fly or an ant or any other insect, I suddenly get a feeling like "should I have
done that? That's really like going and killing a human being. I bet the animals have their

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own life, feelings. They must because they are really intelligent". The next time a fly gets
in the way, I'll just let it go because I feel guilty. (female age 13, from Michael
Piechowski's collection)
Sometimes the beauty of trees flowering or birds singing fills me with awe and I just
stand there not able to move. (female age 12)
Two boys were fighting in the school ground and I burst into tears. I couldn't stand to feel
their pain and cruelty. The other children called me a baby and a wimp. The teacher told
me to act my age. (male age 9)
I pick up other people's feelings. I don't know how I do this. It's like being hit by a bag of
sand on a rope. It's like walking into someone else's life. I am overwhelmed by these
feelings. (male age 14)
Sometimes I am completely in touch with a person. It's weird and compelling at the same
time. I just want to reach out to them. I don't even have to have spoken to them. (female
age 18)
I was in class and a wasp flew in the window. The others were frightened and the teacher
chased it and killed it. It took a long time to die. I could feel its pain inside me and I cried
and shouted at them all at the same time. Nobody understood...to them it was just a wasp.
(female age 14)
I am a person who has feelings...I have friends. I love life... NOTE: I HAVE FEELINGS.
(female age 12)
Emotional Immaturity or Emotional Intensity?
Michael was 4 years old when his mother took him to see the movie "Charlotte's Web". He left
the theatre sobbing uncontrollably because the spider had died, leaving her children alone in the
world. He cried for hours that day and continued speaking about death and sadness for months
afterwards. His parents were concerned as he withdrew into himself. His teacher said that he
wouldn't mix with other children and didn't want to play with his friends.
Thomas, 7, is described by his teachers as a shy and sensitive boy who is very aware of the needs
of other children. In class, he is quiet and hesitant to do activities until he has had time to watch
and evaluate them. He is, at times, uncomfortable with the noise and activity level in the room
and displays extreme emotions during these times, often crying.
Rebecca 8 was working happily on her drawing in class when suddenly she threw it to the
ground, stamped on it and burst into tears, yelling "it's not right, I can't do it right".
Annabel 6 taught herself to read and write before she started school. She loved books,
particularly The Hobbit, which was her favourite. In her first at school she was made to read at
the level of other children her age and she became withdrawn. The teacher said that she had poor
social skills. In her second year she was frustrated and angry and began to misbehave and disrupt

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the class. The suggestion was made that she should attend counseling to correct her oppositional
and anti-social behaviour.
Heightened sensitivity to things that happen in the world is a normal response for gifted children.
However they may see their own intense inner experiences as evidence that something is wrong
with them. Other children may ridicule a gifted child for reacting strongly to an apparently trivial
incident, thereby increasing the child's feeling of being odd. Also, sensitivity to society's
injustice and hypocrisy can lead many emotionally intense gifted children to feel despair and
cynicism at very young ages.
The Colombus' Group's definition of giftedness includes both the cognitive and emotional
components and encompasses the concept of asynchrony. (Silverman 1993) Asynchrony in the
gifted means a lack of synchronicity in the rates of their cognitive, emotional and physical
development.
This lack of synchronicity creates great inner tension, as when a five-year old child perceives a
horse through eight-year-old eyes but cannot replicate the horse in clay with her five-year-old
fingers and so screams in frustration. (Morelock 1992)
Roedell (1984) discusses the unique vulnerabilities of gifted children that are associated with
asynchrony: areas of vulnerability include uneven development, perfectionism, adult
expectations, intense sensitivity, self-definition, alienation, inappropriate environments and role
conflicts.
The gap between a child's advanced intellectual capability and more age-appropriate social and
physical skills leads to unrealistic expectations for performance.
Young children become frustrated when their limited physical capabilities prevent the
construction of the complex projects created in their extremely capable imaginations. Adults
expecting social maturity to match high level intellectual development may label a highly
articulate, logical child as a behaviour problem when he or she exhibits an age-appropriate
tantrum. This situation worsens when pressures to excel from teachers or parents intensify the
child's frustrations. (Roedell 1984)
Because of their intellectual complexity, a gifted child can imagine a vast range of life scenarios
that are unthinkable to the average child. They can and do feel with great intensity the emotions
that are attached to each scenario and this can lead to them being overwhelmed by anxiety and
fear. If adults in their lives respond by moralizing, being dismissive or judgmental, emotionally
intense gifted children may feel abnormal and decide that "There must be something wrong with
me...maybe I'm crazy...nobody else seems to feel like this".
Smutny (1998) explains how gifted children feel deeply for others. "They sense the joys, pains,
sorrows and hopes of family members, friends, classmates and sometimes become distressed
when they cannot alleviate the problems of others...Gifted children will often weep at the cruel
treatment of an animal. They will frequently ask questions and express concern about world
problems - poverty, war, environmental devastation". (p10) This empathy for the suffering of

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others makes gifted children particularly vulnerable to the many forms of insensitivity they see
on television, at school or in the world around them. Often these children feel powerless to act
and this sense of helplessness can lead them to despair and being critical of themselves as they
feel a responsibility for these situations.
Gifted children feel a "yearn to learn". They feel driven to ask questions (about everything in
life) and find answers. Many emotionally sensitive gifted children, who are simply doing what
comes naturally for them, sense that their classmates do not like them, do not understand why
and feel a deep sense of pain when others sneer at them for having the answers. According to
Roedell (1984), if they are labelled as different and strange by their age mates, they may
internalise this designation and become eccentric social isolates.
Again because of their intellectual complexity, gifted children are idealists; they are able to
consider the possibilities of how things might be. At the same time they can see how far short the
world is falling of the ideal and they feel keen disappointment and sometimes despair. When
they try to share their concerns with others, they are often met with reactions such as denial,
minimizing, puzzlement or hostility. (Webb 1998)
Often adults in gifted children's lives unknowingly reinforce perfectionism by placing
expectations of high performance all the time in everything on them. Teachers, parents and other
adults often have inappropriately high expectations for gifted children; whether directly stated or
implied. (Lind 1998) Because gifted children are often emotionally sensitive to the expectations
of others, they feel obliged to meet them. Unfortunately, they often meet them at the cost of
denial and suppression of their own passion, their own self. (Grant & Piechowski 1999)
Also damaging is when adults ignore high level ability and focus instead on perceived emotional
immaturity, behaviour problems or social immaturity. Underestimation of ability can result in a
rapid decline in self-esteem and consequently self-confidence.
Emotionally intense children may then withdraw from social interaction because they feel they
have no one who can understand or accept them. This withdrawal may be diagnosed as
emotional disturbance.
Gifted children's intellectual complexity coupled with emotional intensity means that they are
more likely than others to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression.
(Webb 1998) They can become aware at a very early age that their life in finite and brief, that
they are alone and are only one very small organism in a quite large world and that there is a
frightening freedom to how one chooses to live one's life. They see that making choices among
life's possibilities is arbitrary and that there is ultimately no right choice. Their reactions to this
can be bewilderment, frustration, anger and then outbursts of emotion and inappropriate
behaviour. At this point they question life's meaning and ask the question "Is this all there is to
life? I am a small, insignificant organism who is alone in a an absurd, capricious world where my
life can have little impact, and then I die." (p25)
When I ask myself "who am I?", the answer is "An insignificant speck in the vast universe trying
to make something of itself but probably won't succeed. A biological imperfect human being

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destined for certain death in the end and being forgotten, even though it attempted to make
something of itself". But sometimes I get an irrational response" "You are a perfect intelligence.
You are destined to become a powerful person." This response sometimes scares me. (male aged
15, from Michael Piechowski's collection)
Conclusion
Delisle (1995) feels strongly that the field of gifted child education has become so enmeshed in
curricula, instruction and educational reform that it has lost its soul.
Neglect of the emotional lives of children impacts on their intellectual lives and achievements as
emotions are critical to the learning process and to the full development of the individual and to
society. Gifted children have powerful resources to support themselves emotionally but they
need help to apply their critical thinking, reasoning ability, inventiveness, imagination and
willingness to explore to their own emotional intensity and sensitivity. They have not yet lived
long enough to develop the objectivity that this would require. Parents and teachers are in the
best position to help gifted children to alleviate their fears, frustrations, sadness and self - doubt
by teaching them to use their prodigious intellectual abilities to support their emotional richness.
(Silverman 1988)
It is vitally important to their intellectual achievement and to their emotional development that
gifted children understand that their intense feelings are normal for them and that they feel
accepted, understood and supported. After all, it is emotional intensity that provides the driving
energy, commitment and persistence that supports intellectual conceptualization and leads to
great achievement in the world. Gifted emotionally intense children need the help of significant
adults in their lives to accept their rich inner world of experience and value it as a strength. This
means that these adults have to accept and value their own emotional experience and feelings so
that they can be positive role models for gifted children. However, speaking about and valuing
emotions can be very difficult to do in a society that values logical thinking and sees emotions as
the opposite of rationality.
If emotional intensity is seen and presented positively to gifted children as a strength, they can be
helped to understand and value the gift of emotion. In this way gifted children will be
empowered to express their unique selves in the world and use their gifts and talents with
confidence and joy.
My intense emotions can, at times, be a burden; I feel intense pain as well as joy. The pain is
more bearable, is easier to see as positive if I am understood and supported in it. I don't want
other people to touch my pain, to interfere, to take it away. I want to be accorded the right, the
dignity, the integrity as a fellow human being to have and deal with my pain in my own way. I
want and need to feel supported in this. (Female gifted adult)

References

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Dabrowski. K. (1972) Psychoneuroses Is Not An Illness. London:Gryf.


Delisle. J. (1995 ) The Lost Soul of Gifted Education. Gifted Child Today V10 July/August
Grant. B.A. & Piechowski. M. M. (1999) Theories and the Good: Toward Child-Centered Gifted
Education. Gifted Child Quarterly V43/1
Lind. S. (1998) A Parents Guide to Perfectionism. Communicator, CAG. V29/3
Morelock. M (1992) Giftedness: The View From Within. Understanding Our Gifted V4/3, 1.
Piechowski. M. M. (1999) Overexcitabilities in Encyclopedia of Creativity, M.A. Runco & S.R.
Pritzker (Eds.) Academic Press
Piechowski. M. M. (1998) Emotional Development and Emotional Giftedness. Course Handout.
Institute for Advanced Development, Gifted Development Center. Denver, Colorado
Piechowski. M.M. (1979) Developmental Potential in New Voices in Counseling the Gifted, N.
Colangelo & T. Zaffrann Eds., Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co.
Piechowski. M. M & Colangelo. N. (1984) Developmental Potential of the Gifted. Gifted Child
Quarterly V28
Roedell., W.C. (1984) Vulnerabilities of Highly Gifted Children Roeper Review Volume 6/3
Silverman. L.K. (1988) Affective Curriculum for the Gifted in Van Tassel - Baska Ed.
Comprehensive Curriculum for Gifted Learners Allyn & Bacon Inc Massachusetts USA
Webb J.T. Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals in Communicator, CAG. V29, No. 3
1998

Permission Statement
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3
nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more
about the Davidson Institutes programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.

Comments
Contributed by: Student on 5/12/2013

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Today I was really down and thought I would search about being oversensitive as immature.
Then i found this article. It has described me perfectly. I thought I was antisocial of some sort
because I was shy and I lack confidence. I thought I was being childish of every single thing that
it even makes me cry when I see horses or other animals dying even now that im 21. I thought i
was being harsh and stupid to myself because I get affected and attached to others whom I don't
even know at all easily. I'm really thankful for this article because it made me understand that i
am not alone in this.
Contributed by: Student on 10/16/2012
Seeing myself in this, I feel I must add that this sense of inner turmoil and entanglement in
contradictions and endless possibilities continues. I am in my 50's and this article has helped me
to make valuable connections. I identify with nearly all aspects of the article. But in particular,
this has helped me to understand my sense of emotional immaturity that has hung with me since
receiving such evaluations as a young teen.
Contributed by: Parent on 6/21/2012
Thanks for this article. Its sounds like myself when I was young and my almost-5 yr old son. He
is made to feel different because of his emotional reactions to events and certain people. Teacher
says he is emotionally immature. I think he is a very clever and observant little boy who is
always asking questions about the oddest things. He asks how are cars made? right down to how
they are painted. He feels things so intensely and is so serious.
Contributed by: Student on 5/21/2012
My mother recently found this article and sent it to me, saying she wished she had seen it as I
was growing up. Reading this as a 20 year old, it describes me perfectly; I just wish there was
more about how to cope with this now, as opposed to a parenting perspective.
Contributed by: Student on 3/11/2012
I am 33 years old. For the first time in my life, I feel normal. The feeling of isolation is abating.
Thank you for posting this article.
Contributed by: Parent on 3/8/2012
As I read this article, it was as if it were written specifically about my 8 yo. son. In my search to
better understand his emotional intensities, it has given me a sense of piece and a different
approach. Thanks for the article!
Contributed by: Parent on 1/4/2012
I loved reading this article. Suddenly I see my 4-year-old son in a different light. He gets
extremely over-stimulated by things and has an incredible imagination, but at times lacks social
skills. I have always noticed he was different than other boys and looks at things differently.
Maybe he is gifted. Thank you.
Contributed by: Parent on 12/27/2011
Great article! It really describes both my husband and myself, and our oldest daughter (4 1/2).
Enlightening, thank you.

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Contributed by: Parent on 11/25/2011


From Harare, Zimbabwe: I suspect my child is gifted. Very misunderstood and intense, but with
excellent scores in each subject as well as piano. It is painful that even his teacher is unhappy
that 'things seem to come so easily to him'. Thanks, this article teaches me a lot.
Contributed by: Parent on 2/25/2009
This article is fascinating and enlightening at the same time. I can see so many similiarities in my
own G/T son.
Contributed by: on 12/6/2008
This article brought back a lot of memories of having grown up in the "gifted" program. I knew
some of these things later on, after growing up, but it's validating and a little upsetting to see it
spelled out. What a different experience I would have had if these considerations had been made
in creating gifted education.
Contributed by: on 6/11/2008
I, a gifted child, feel strongly about this article. I go through the same problems as many of the
children ages 6-10 in this essay. I'm still a teenager and have problems with parents. I always get
angry and try not to talk to them which lasts about a day. Very good article and well written.
Contributed by: Parent on 4/3/2008
This describes my eight year old daughter. She is often looked at negatively by other adults.
Either as emotionally overreactive or as depressed and sullen. She is very creative and becomes
depressed when an outlet is not available. She senses other people's emotions and reacts to them.
I hope as she gets older she learns how to deal more effectively with these emotions.
Contributed by: Parent on 10/30/2007
This article exactly describes my son and I. I hope to make life a little easier for him. I had a lot
of difficult times as a young person. This article has really helped me to understand. I will be
doing a lot more reading on this subject.
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informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author.
Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes
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at the sole risk of the reader.
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