Parents of some gifted children know that this gift comes with more than a quick intellect. It can come with a will of iron and incredible emotional range. Gifted children can be expansively happy one moment, and intensely sad the next. No, it isn’t bipolar disorder, and it probably isn’t ADD (gifted kids are misdiagnosed with both at an alarming rate). Gifted children have an emotional capacity that often matches or exceeds their intellect. Here is why:
Their brains are different. They are qualitatively different, meaning that they notice, synthesize, and experience information differently, not just “more” or “more like an older child” than other children. Their brains work differently, but they are trying to comprehend how others understand situations and why they behave as they do. When they cannot get where other people are coming from, or when they insist on the world working their way, things can get explosive.
Yes, the same brain that allows a 4 year-old to read chapter books to her preschool class without having been taught to read is also feeling and connecting emotional information differently from her peers as well. She can’t “get over it” when arbitrary rules do not allow her to take materials out of the reference section of the library, or when she isn’t allowed to finish watching a documentary on sea creatures because you have to take her brother to swim practice. Functional imaging studies have been reported to see much more diverse brain activity in gifted individuals during simple tasks. They light up like Christmas trees because they are incredible thinkers.
All that thinking can get them in trouble with the day-to-day world of rules and good behavior.
The amazing brains of gifted children are understood to have what one researcher calls “overexcitabilities”. Only one is intellectual excitability. The others include emotional/empathetic, motor, and sensory excitability. This can lend itself to some explosive tantrums in toddlerhood and even disabling complaints of clothing or lights being far too irritating and distracting. The same child that can explain to you how the electoral college works can be sidelined by the scratchy tag in his shirt!
The drive for mastery and perfection is a heavy burden for the gifted child. Their perfectionism comes from the ability to imagine what the ultimate outcome could be, not an anxious concern with being judged or being found inferior. It is coming from an internal demand to create what their amazing brain can conjure. This isn’t “fixable” with meditation or deep breathing. Giving them information about where this drive originates is helpful, as are clear boundaries of time and resources. Learning to handle the drive for perfection is a goal for most gifted people, and the learning should start early.
Gifted children with strong wills aren’t always appreciated for their determination and their energy. They balk at instructions, refuse assistance when they need it, and aren’t easily distracted from their desires. I think that the first step in handling the emotional over excitability of a gifted child is to accept how difficult it is as a parent or a teacher, and then learn about how this aspect of giftedness works. From there it is a matter of building skills in self-control and social/communication skills. Read Want Better Self-Regulation in Young Children? Help Them Manage Aggression for some ideas on dealing with aggressive behavior. Gifted children do not have to get their way because their IQ is in the stratosphere. They still have to avoid aggression, including verbal aggression (something teenage gifted kids are virtual masters of). Read Why Gifted Children Aren’t Their Teacher’s Favorite Students…. and Is Your Child Bright or Gifted? to understand some of the shadow sides of giftedness.
My perspective is that gifted children need more help with social skills since they often have such disparity between their cognitive capacity and their emotional abilities. Feeling responsible for the world’s troubles doesn’t mean that you are, and knowing that the rules are arbitrary doesn’t mean you have the authority to change them. Parents who teach their children how to navigate these problems will give a huge gift to their children. Children need to understand that they aren’t bad, but they are different. And their behavior is connected to the way their brain works and always will work. They need to navigate their path within the wider world, making friends and dealing with authorities that do not see things in the same way. The world may not always understand gifted people, but if gifted people understand themselves, it could be a happier and calmer place for everyone.