Is it hard for you to relate to your teen or tween child? Adolescents naturally have different concerns than adults. This makes it harder to empathize with them. For example, you might think your child’s back-to-school wardrobe is perfectly fine as-is. However, your child might be mortified at the thought of wearing their clothing from last year.
With gifted teens and emerging adults, it may be even more challenging to relate to them because of how they seem to overreact in certain situations. For example, a shirt tag that you wouldn’t even notice may be hard for your highly sensitive child to ignore. This then leads to disruptive outbursts or inattention. At the same time, you might find their enthusiastic responses to certain things—such as emotional situations, intellectual problems, or pieces of art—surprising and delightful.
According to Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski, gifted children can exhibit supersensitivities in five different areas: psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual, and imaginational. If your child is gifted, they may experience the world more deeply, leading to more intense reactions Dabrowski refers to as “overexcitabilities.”
Dobrowski’s Five Overexcitabilities
Let’s take a closer look at these five areas of heightened sensitivity and reactivity. While one area often dominates, gifted children tend to have multiple overexcitabilities.
This type of overexcitability (OE) shares many of the same characteristics as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Common behaviors include constant fidgeting and excessive talkativeness. As such, misdiagnosis commonly occurs. If your child prefers physical activity over other interests, they may fall into this category. Sleeplessness can also be a sign of psychomotor overexcitability.
A teen with sensual overexcitability will react strongly to scents, sights, tastes, and/or sounds. They may also have a heightened sense of touch. Regardless of whether the sensory stimuli are perceived as enjoyable, a sensually sensitive teen will react strongly. A teen who loves the taste of a certain food may be delighted when you present it for dinner and compliment it profusely. Conversely, a child who hates loud noises may cover their ears in a crowded theater or classroom. An adolescent who is sensitive to touch may complain when asked to wear tight or scratchy clothing.
Teens with intellectual overexcitability are fascinated by facts and theories. They are above-average problem-solvers and planners and often have great visual recall. While their passion for learning can aid them academically, it can also cause problems. They may repeatedly question their teachers, who may interpret such questions as disrespectful instead of curious. Peers who fail to keep up in class may frustrate an intellectually overexcitable teen.
If your child is a “dreamer” or has been described as having their “head in the clouds,” they may be imaginationally overexcitable. Teens that fall into this category often enjoy fiction, fantasy in particular. They tend to create their own private worlds with imaginary characters and stories. These tendencies can show up at inopportune times—such as during class—as a remedy against boredom. Imaginational overexcitability can range in severity from a tendency to doodle to an inability to separate an imagined world from reality.
The emotional outbursts associated with this type of OE are perhaps the most easily noticed. Events and ideas that most people would find easy to brush off are felt much more deeply with these teens. They might be shy around strangers but at the same time form deep attachments to family members, close friends, places, or objects. Emotional overexcitability also makes it more likely for teens to experience complex emotions and their physical manifestations (such as stomach aches or blushing) when they encounter emotional stimuli.
How to Celebrate and Manage Overexcitability in a Gifted Teen
Identify possible sensitivities
Much of the difficulty parents and teachers encounter when working with overexcitable teens comes from a lack of understanding. To remedy this, learn as much as you can about your teen’s overexcitabilities and how they can be managed through online research, parenting books, and other sources. A therapist who understands Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities and has experience working with gifted children can also help you identify your child’s strengths and areas of support. Your teen is the most knowledgeable source of information about their OE. Don’t forget to ask them about their experiences (sympathetically and nonjudgmentally).
Validate and celebrate
The world would be a very dull place if we were all the same. Your child’s differences may create difficulties from time to time, but you can also leverage them to help your teen thrive and enjoy life to the fullest. Overexcitable teens are some of the most curious, enthusiastic, moral, artistic, and compassionate individuals that walk this earth. By focusing on the positive elements of your child’s OE, you can help them make the most of it.
It is also worth noting that Dabrowski theorized that overexcitable gifted individuals have a higher potential for developing altruistic traits than individuals who are not overexcitable.
Suggest alternative behaviors
Some teachers and parents attempt to eliminate certain undesirable behaviors in their teens without providing alternatives. This approach fails to respect an overexcitable teen’s needs, leaving them with no outlet for their drives and passions. Instead of focusing on stopping those behaviors, find alternatives that satisfy everyone. If your child with psychomotor overexcitability taps a pen loudly in class, search for another, less distracting way of getting that energy out. For example, you can give them a fidget toy to occupy their hands.
Provide opportunities for people to pursue their passions
We commonly see parents withhold fun activities from overexcitable children as a form of punishment. While it is reasonable to limit the duration of activities that are getting in the way of a teen’s other goals, encourage your teen to pursue their passions. If your teen’s OE can’t be satisfied in certain venues, provide substitute opportunities. For example, if your music-loving teen is upset that they can’t have their headphones on in class, offer to sign them up for music lessons so they can express their interest at a more suitable time and place.
Teach communication skills
Teens who don’t have the necessary skills to communicate their needs will be much less likely to get those needs met. They may become incredibly frustrated and start acting out as a result. Teach your teen the intricacies of verbal and non-verbal communication skills. This will help them navigate difficult situations and seek any needed accommodations.
Offer a new perspective
A lack of internal awareness can cause a teen’s overexcitability issues to escalate. Sometimes, it escalates to the point that they are much more challenging to manage. For example, a child with emotional OE might not realize they are slipping into anxiety or depression until after it has begun to harm their schoolwork or relationships. Help your teen connect the dots between their emotional state and physical signs, like sweaty palms or blushing cheeks. This will enable them to better to cope in the future.
It is also essential that teens sympathize with other people and understand how their own behaviors affect others. For example, an intellectually overexcitable teen who thoughtfully considers how hurtful it is to be publicly criticized will think twice before brazenly correcting classmates’ errors.
Respect your child’s needs, interests, and emotions
From your perspective, stories about magic swords and dragons may seem silly and childish. To your imaginationally overexcitable child, they are a source of unmatched joy and wonder. If you’re having a hard time understanding or accepting your child’s OE, do your own internal work. Conduct research to ensure you have the knowledge and empathy to support your child’s interests and feelings, even if you can’t relate to them.
Create a comforting environment whenever possible
The wrong kind of stimulation can be incredibly distressing and distracting to an overexcitable child. Make it easier for them to stay on track. Do what you can to create a neutral and comfortable environment. If your child hates wearing certain clothing, get rid of it and find something more comfortable. When the TV volume is too loud for your child to do their homework, permit them to finish it elsewhere in the house.
If you have a twice-exceptional teen who needs support, Dr. Goldman can help. As a teen specialist who often works with 2e teens and emerging adults, she’s able to help people manage their over overexcitabilities. Book a free 20 minute consultation call to see how Dr. Goldman can support your gifted teen or emerging adult.