Overexcitabilities and the Gifted Child
Does your child do any of the following?
- Fidget a lot, or seem to have more energy than other children his or her age?
- Have strong, unusual reactions to sounds or smells?
- Create such a rich fantasy life that it is difficult for him or her to distinguish reality from fantasy?
- Love nothing more than to think, solve problems, and ask questions?
- Have intense emotional reactions, such that it seems like he or she is "overreacting"?
If so, your child may have one or more overexcitabilities.
What are overexcitabilities?
Overexcitabilities are extreme intensities or sensitivities that affect the ways in which an individual experiences the world. The Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980) identified overexcitabilities as part of a larger theory of development. Although most of us may have extra energy at times or have strong reactions to various stimuli on occasion, those with overexcitabilities experience these distinguishing behaviors regularly. Most researchers believe overexcitabilities are innate and will be present in some form throughout one's life. It is important to note that not all gifted children have overexcitabilities, but they do seem to be found to a greater degree in gifted and/or creative children than in average-ability children.
Although having overexcitabilities can be a positive experience, they can also cause problems with social interaction, daily functioning, and school experiences. How a person responds to a situation is determined by which overexcitability is most dominant, as overexcitabilities may be expressed in one or more of five dimensions: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional.
A psychomotor overexcitability refers to a surplus of energy. Manifestations include extreme enthusiasm, rapid speech, love of intense activity, and impulsive actions. A person with a psychomotor overexcitability may act competitively, exhibit anxious behaviors, or act compulsively. A psychomotor overexcitability can be misdiagnosed as ADHD.
A sensual overexcitability is seen in those with an enhanced level of sensory experience and is marked by the pursuit of pleasure through the senses, such as through taste and smell. Manifestations may include seeking enhancing stimuli, such as trying to become the focus of attention or overindulging oneself in food, or removing oneself from stimuli, by taking the tags out of one's clothes or wearing ear plugs.
An imaginational overexcitability is characterized by daydreaming, fantasizing, dramatization, and the use of imagery and metaphors. In order to escape boredom, those with an imaginational overexcitability may create an elaborate imaginary world.
An intellectual overexcitability is associated with striving for knowledge and truth through questioning, discovering, and analyzing, but it is not the same as intelligence, which is seen as an ability. Those with an intellectual overexcitability enjoy learning and problem solving, are curious, and can spend a great deal of time concentrating and being introspective, regardless of their ability level.
An emotional overexcitability is marked by an intensified level of interpersonal relations to people, things, and places, and compassionate feelings for others. Its many manifestations include physical expressions of stress or emotion, extreme and often complex feelings, inhibition, empathy, and fears and anxieties.
Supporting the Gifted Child with Overexcitabilities
Several rating scales exist that allow one to assess the overexcitability levels of one's child or student. These scales (e.g., The Overexcitability Checklist) can be found online, but should be used with some caution as they are not necessarily valid or reliable. Self-report rating scales also exist, but are used primarily for research purposes (e.g., The Overexcitability Questionnaire-II).
Having overexcitabilities can be frustrating because of the intensity with which an individual experiences the world, but also because others may not respond favorably to a person with overexcitabilities. Often, others simply just do not understand. With proper nurture, though, a gifted child with overexcitabilities can have a wonderful and enriched life. The following are some guidelines for supporting the gifted child with overexcitabilities:
- Allow time for your child to express his or her overexcitability in a safe environment. For example, make time for physical activity or daydreaming.
- Educate your child and others involved in your child's life on overexcitabilities.
- Encourage your child to focus on his or her strengths and to use his or her overexcitabilities to an advantage.
- Teach your child skills to manage his or her overexcitabilities effectively. For example, teach your child emotion regulation techniques (e.g., deep breathing exercises for dealing with stress or anger) or how to effectively cope with offensive stimuli (e.g., politely declining a certain food or avoiding certain smells).
- Emphasize your child's differences as a positive and not a negative. Help your child to understand that being different is okay. We are all unique beings and should be celebrated as such.
—Anne N. Rinn, PhD
Anne N. Rinn is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown. She researches the social and emotional development of gifted adolescents.