Category Archives: gifted children

Sensitivity and Gifted Children: The Mind That Floods With Feeling

Gifted children are often the most emotional and empathic toddlers in the room.  They are the kids who cry when the ASPCA runs those tearjerker commercials.   They are the teens who want to develop an NGO to provide clean water in developing countries.  Gifted children don’t do this to get a boost on a college application, but because it physically hurts them to think of another’s suffering.  Your gifted child’s mind cannot help but to feel strongly and care deeply.  

How can you help your child navigate these feelings without crushing their altruism and energy? The first step in helping these children to handle their sensitive social and emotional nature starts with adults understanding that this isn’t a personality quirk; it’s a neurological bias that accompanies an impressively active and intense brain that doesn’t “turn off”.

Sensory Sensitivity, Autism, and Gifted Sensitivity
When OTs usually refer to sensitivity, we usually speak about the physical sensitivity that our clients may experience.  We know that sensory sensitivity can lead to avoidance of sensory input and poor modulation of arousal.  The poor modulator is the child who has a hard time staying in an optimal state of calm, struggling to focus attention on accomplishing their daily activities.  This can be true with gifted children, but is not always a feature of giftedness.

We also know that children with ASD find it difficult to connect with another’s emotional experience due to their neurological wiring.  It is not that they choose to misinterpret other’s emotions.  They may long to know what others are thinking and what to do and say in interpersonal relationships.  Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison have written about their difficulties and discomfort in understanding how friends and family feel.

The gifted client is swimming at the other end of this pool:  they have profound emotional connections to people (and sometimes feelings for objects as well!),  even strong connections with the imagined emotional experiences of strangers!  Again, this is not just their temperament or their personality; the emotional flood is coming from their brain wiring that generates deep connections between profound concepts and expansive comprehension of situations. Gifted kids see very clearly how the human race is all one, how affecting a part results in affecting the whole, etc. It can be overwhelming for them to know this at 4. Or 14. Gifted children are not little adults, even when testing indicates amazingly advanced mental abilities. Their asynchronous development means that they may understand concepts but still cry when they lose a game. They are still children.

There is some science behind the idea that gifted children are emotionally advanced as well as academically advanced.  Researchers on giftedness are eager to display their fMRI views of the gifted brain as it thinks, showing it humming along at warp speed, lighting up like a Christmas tree in areas that are mostly quiet for other people.  I would guess that those mirror neurons (proposed to support empathy and interpersonal skills) that seem inactive in ASD are probably switched on 24/7 in gifted individuals.  

Parents get their first taste of this quality when they see how attuned their baby is to their speech and their movements.  “She would just watch our faces all day long!” is a familiar report when asked about early development.  Toddlers begin to be aware of their own emotions and the emotions of others, and the gifted toddler can be quite a handful as she sorts this out. The gifted child may want to volunteer, may become upset when reading news stories, and may insist that the family participate in activities for social causes. On the other hand, a gifted child may become sad and overwhelmed by situations that other children are unable to comprehend. It can lead to feelings of powerlessness and anger when the adults in their world don’t respond in kind or disregard their concerns.

My message to parents and teachers of gifted children, and those who work with children showing strong emotions and advanced skills without a gifted label is to consider that the strong reactions that you see may be a brain effect, not a personality defect. Your next step: supporting a child to handle the flood of emotion, and help them channel their feelings into productive actions and interactions that build social skills, not isolation and a negative self-image.
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Teach Your Child To Fail Today. You Can Thank Me Later

Yes, I said it: fail.  We all will fail at something sometime.  Even, and most especially, the gifted kids who experiment and explore constantly, will fail at something.  Knowing what to do with your feelings when you fail is essential for a happy life.  And that is why you will thank me later.

Angel Duckworth is one of my heroes.  Her focus on building grit is so important in this new world we live in.  In the old days, say 50 years ago, families and religious institutions provided a roadmap for children to handle challenges in life.  Maybe it didn’t always provide the widest highway for people with differences, but opportunities to learn perseverance and receive support after a failure were more available.  I don’t believe we can turn back the clock, so it is time to move forward and create new structures.  And this time, everyone will fit under the tent and get more support.

When we fail, we have the choice to feel bad or feel inspired.  The child who believes that his intelligence and his abilities are fixed will feel worse, perhaps even ashamed.  That child will be less likely to want to feel those emotions again, and will look for situations that ensure success.  At any cost.  Even cheating.  The rise in anxiety disorders and suicide in the college-age population has me worried about how these kids see failure.  It doesn’t have to be a crisis, it can be a learning experience in the truest sense.  Why you failed and what to do differently (if possible) are things you can learn, but only if you aren’t crushed or horrified that you failed.

The child who knows that failure is common to all of us eventually, and is not a sign of weakness or lower ability, will give things another try.  In fact, that child will not want to engage in a “sure thing”, whether it is a class, a sport, or an interaction in which there is no challenge.  The child who isn’t afraid of failure will welcome novelty and risk. They have, as Dr. Duckworth would call it, a growth mindset.   Failure is their clue that some variable in the experiment should change; useful information for their next attempt.

Just imagine what your child could do if she wasn’t afraid to fail!  Solve the many health and environmental challenges we have, broker peace between groups and countries, raise a family that believes in the power of failure….anything!

If you have a fixed mindset about failure, if you were raised to take the sure thing, the easy road to success, use the emergency instructions you get from the airlines.  Change your mindset before helping your child to change theirs.  You can thank me later.

Your Bossy Baby or Toddler May Be Gifted. Really. Here Are The Signs You Are Missing!

Toddlers are known to be a challenge at times.  Tantrums over broken cookies, insistence on hearing “Goodnight Moon” for the 11th time in one night, etc.  They can be adorably cute and amazingly difficult in the same 15 minute period!   But lurking inside chaotic toddler behavior may be signs of genius.  Really.  Here are two important signs of giftedness that emerge before 12 months of age:

  • Makes eye contact early and frequently.  The gifted baby seems incredibly alert and appears to be constantly aware of what is going on around her.
  • Resists being left alone without anything to do; wants interaction with you and with the world.

Yes, the gifted baby is taking notes and making plans.  Once she can move, she is into everything.  The things that fascinate her might be objects you never suspected an infant would even notice.  She may have abandoned those rattles very early in life.  She might not be interested in chewy toys or tags on toys. In fact, one of the signs of a gifted baby can be a distinct disinterest in chewing on books and toys.  They realize that these objects have another (higher) purpose!

Here are some signs of gifted behavior in toddlers:

  • Obvious and strong interest in shapes, shape sorters, containers, letters and numbers in all forms.  This is way beyond being taught to sing the “Alphabet Song” in a cute way.  The gifted toddler is likely watching, listening and teaching herself what those symbols mean!  She may even gather three sorter toys and proceed to group all the circles, triangles, etc in a pile before 12 months old.
  • Completing puzzles and shape sorters beyond age expectations for the toy.  For example:  I expect a child to place a circle in a shape sorter by 12-14 months.  If I see a 9 month-old that can manage it easily, I assess that as significantly early motor and perceptual development.
  • Is eager to please, and feelings can get hurt easily.  Yes, this is one of those gifted characteristics that parents don’t brag about.  Sensitivity, in all it’s versions, (emotions, physical sensitivities, allergies, etc.) is very commonly seen in gifted people of all ages.
  • A long attention span, with insistence on finishing things and completing tasks independently.  This can lead to tears and frustration as a child imagines actions and creations he cannot execute to his satisfaction.  His physical development isn’t at the same level as his mental capacity. The frustration this asynchrony causes is a pervasive issue for gifted children well past early childhood.
  • Other adults describe your child as bossy, stubborn and possibly spoiled.  Yup, the gifted toddler isn’t always everyone’s fave grandchild.  They can be insistent on doing things their way, and only their way.

How can you tell the difference between typical toddler behaviors and signs of giftedness?  It isn’t always that easy.  The behavioral issues of developmental asynchrony and sensitivities can mask the underlying issue of giftedness.  I look for improvement in their behavior when they are given appealing but highly complex problems to solve. I might invite a toddler to join me in a play activity that is complex and intense, but has been selected to modulate arousal states.  The gifted toddler who is given a chance to shine in this environment is a wonderful thing to observe.  A typical child with behavioral issues often becomes more irritable and bossy when given the same situation.

When I am working with a child that is reported to have sensory processing difficulties and I ask the right questions, I start wondering if I am also seeing signs of early giftedness when I hear the following comments come out of a frustrated parent’s mouth:

  1. “From the minute we brought him home, he seemed to watch everything we did”
  2. She isn’t happy unless she has something new to play with, and then she always surprises us with how fast she figures it out”
  3. “He never stops exploring, from the minute he wakes up”
  4. “She put together her brother’s puzzles and then said “Store” so we would go get her more puzzles!”
  5. “He watched his sister drawing, and before we knew it, he drew a face, right down to the eyebrows and ears!”

The gifted infant and young toddler is almost always more work for parents than a typically developing child.  That constantly curious mind likes complexity, it is driven to explore the world and the world of ideas, and their non-stop intensity seems to begin at birth.  Some parents are also gifted individuals, and they recognize the situation right away.  They may be worried about being up to the challenge of parenting a gifted child, or they are overwhelmed by their job, their other family roles, and now the responsibility of supporting a gifted child.

Some parents aren’t gifted, even if they are professionally successful and personally content.  The perspective from their gifted child is hard for them to embrace.  They don’t see the world through the same mindset as their gifted son or daughter.  I believe that is because the mind of a gifted person is as different to a non-gifted individual as the mind of a developmentally challenged person appears to them.  Different processes, different problems.  Every parent can come to understand their child, regardless of brain differences.  Knowing what those differences are is the very first, but very important, step.

Do I rush to tell the parents my suspicions?  No.  I am not a neuropsychologist.  My license doesn’t give me the right to diagnose.  I watch, work, support, and trust that the truth about a child’s abilities and issues will come out in time.  And I go right on doing what I have been asked to do.  Addressing the sensory processing issues that some gifted children face is more than enough of a challenge for an OT, and I am happy to support these kids to have happier, calmer and more enjoyable lives because of my input!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Your Gifted Child Also Your Most Strong Willed Child ?

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 (these kids are misdiagnosed 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 it and why they behave as they do.  When they cannot 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 behavior.

The amazing brains of gifted children are understood to have what one researcher calls “overexcitabilities”.  Only one is intellectual excitability.  The others include 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!

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.  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).

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.

Your Gifted Child: More Than An Amazing Intellect

 

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The characteristic that convinces a parent that their child is gifted is often an impressive vocabulary or mathematical ability.  This is the criteria that will get them into the “G and T” program in school, and is often a source of pride for both parents and children.  Wait!  There are other characteristics of giftedness that aren’t always so well received.  Making the most of a powerful brain will sometimes mean addressing all the effects of giftedness on behavior, emotional reactions, social interaction and even physiology.

My primary point in writing this post is to mention that giftedness brings with it a host of abilities, and managing all them effectively will be your child’s lifelong challenge.  Poorly managed, a child can struggle internally or fail to use their gifts with joy.  Success starts with parental awareness and support.

Your gifted child, from toddlerhood onward, may demonstrate common patterns of behavior or thinking that can be challenging for parents:

  • intense feelings and reactions
  • high sensitivity to other’s feelings
  • idealism and a sense of justice, intolerance of rigid rules at school or home
  • daydreaming or preoccupation with own thoughts
  • intense focus on specific tasks or topics, ignores other’s interests
  • unusual sense of humor and playing with objects in atypical ways
  • vivid imaginations, including imaginary playmates
  • difficulty tolerating classroom routines and simple games
  • less interest in playing with peers; seeks out older children or adults
  • worries or becomes fearful of anticipated events or things they don’t understand

When children are assessed by a psychologist and found to have asynchrony in their development (a fancy term that describes a chart of testing scores that look like the Alps:  high in some areas, average or below average in others), this can add to the frustration of living as a gifted child.  Preschoolers with advanced cognition but poor articulation of speech cannot express themselves but are thinking amazing thoughts.  This is so frustrating for them!  Super-sensitive children may pick up on a teacher’s stress over her home life just by her posture and her energy level.  They know that something bad is going on, and wonder if they should be concerned.  Children with sensory sensitivity complain about scratchy shirts, irritating lights and can have difficulty with typical levels of noise, scents or movement.

Gifted kids can be incredible negotiators, remember every promise you make and hold to to them,  develop sarcasm to control people, or try to influence every game so that it reflects their strong interests.  They can be overwhelmed by commercials requesting donations for animals or children, and become upset when they listen to adults discuss political issues.  All at 6 years of age or less!

What can parents do to help their gifted children, right from the start?  Notice which characteristics seem to be most difficult for your child to handle.  Some kids are irritated by stimulation from the physical world, some are under stimulated or simply lonely for sure peers at school, and some are overwhelmed by emotions.  They are like snowflakes; each one is different.

Support your gifted child where she needs it most.  Energetic kids need lots to do, and ways to calm down.  Sensitive kids need to learn ways to manage the world without being overstimulated.  Children who wear their hearts on their sleeves can take action to help others and understand how many adults are working for the same purpose as we speak.

Gifted children who learn to manage all the characteristics of giftedness are the leaders of the future, the innovators, and the people that will bring us forward.  With the right support and understanding, they can use their abilities freely and joyously!

How Occupational Therapy Can Help Gifted Children (And Their Exhausted Parents!)

rockybeachGifted children have abilities that make them more sensitive to their bodies, their world and the people in it.  They notice sensations, emotional states and the interplay between the physical and the non-physical world in ways that non-gifted people do not.  Exquisite sensitivity often comes at a price for gifted children and their parents.

Think about this in the same way an electrical device cannot support additional volts of current.   A parent’s pride in her child’s amazing abilities can be overshadowed at times by the fatigue and frustration in dealing with tantrums, rigidity, sensitivity, and a child’s seemingly inexhaustible energy.  Occupational therapy can help manage the current and “keep the lights on” without power surges destroying the functioning of the computer.

Particularly in the early years, gifted children can become easily overwhelmed when their emotions, their impulses and their perceptions exceed their ability to process everything they experience.  They may feel clothing or food as intensely strong sensations.  They may want to swing for an hour, then cry when it is time to leave the playground. They might be aware of a parent’s sadness or another child’s frustration more acutely, but have no idea what is happening or what to do.  They really “get” the plight of the polar bears on the disappearing ice sheets.  After all, they can read the New York Times at 5!    They just don’t know what to do with all these feelings, thoughts, desires and sensations.

Some abilities in gifted children are advanced by years, such as reading or math.  The ability to share with a sibling?  Not advanced at all!  This “asynchronous development” can cause internal conflict and may result in more frequent and more intense outbursts, refusal to participate in school or playdates, sleep issues and more.

OT’s with a strong sensory processing background can help gifted children and their families navigate the complex sensory-motor, cognitive and emotional/social overload that happens when brainpower exceeds management capacity.  What unique skills does an OT bring to the table?  The ability to assess and implement a whole-person approach.    Talking about behavior, making a rewards chart, and cognitively understanding where all that energy comes from is simply not enough to make the days and the weeks easier for a gifted child.  The occupational therapist’s toolbox is deeper and wider, and includes physical interventions that look like play, social/emotional mastery experiences (not just talk), and sensory-based activities that support self-regulation as a child grows into their amazing abilities.  Take a look at Gifted and Struggling? Meet the Twice Exceptional Student and How OT Can Help if your child is gifted but dealing with issues such as sensory processing, ADD, learning issues or ASD.

Occupational therapists do use cognitive strategies such as the “How Does Your Engine Run?” program by Williams and  Shellenbarger.  A cognitively gifted 4 year-old may be fully capable of engaging in this useful program.  A sensory diet, one of the core concepts of most sensory processing treatment programs, can help children discharge and manage sensitivity and excitement throughout the day.

Parents that know how to help their child regulate their arousal feel empowered, not defeated, when their child becomes overwhelmed.  Children learn that their parents “get” them, and that they can turn to them for support instead of criticism.  Feeling understood and feeling capable is the bedrock of self-confidence and self-esteem.  Gifted individuals need to know that they are more than their stratospheric IQ, and this is where it begins.

Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block program is amazingly effective at teaching children how to handle the strong emotions of early childhood, and teaching parents how to support their children without crushing their spirit.  I use his incredible techniques with every gifted client I see.  Children with ASD respond, children with SPD respond, and gifted children respond.  Dr. Karp’s strategies allow children to learn how to express their feelings without judgement, and teach parents to set limits and place consequences on behavior without crushing a child’s spirit.  Isn’t that what we all want for our children?  Check out Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today! even if your child is not a toddler.  It turns out that Dr. Karp’s easy technique for handling demands works on impatient people at almost any age.  You just alter your presentation to fit their emotional state and communication level!

Research suggests that the way a gifted brain functions is always going to be different than the typical child.  I believe that therapy for gifted children effects change in a very similar manner to therapy for the autistic child; therapy can make daily life easier, and it can help a child learn to handle their thoughts and experiences with greater comfort and ease.  Brain function changes as it learns to adapt and make better connections, but the structure remains unique.  Occupational therapists support gifted children and their families in exactly the same way we support people in the special needs community:  without judgement or dismissing problems that arise in living.

If you are the parent of a gifted child, and you would like more support, take a look at some of my previous posts on The Happiest Toddler strategies such as  Is Your Gifted Child Also Your Most Strong Willed Child As Well?Your Bossy Baby or Toddler May Be Gifted. Really. Here Are The Signs You Are Missing! and on sensory sensitivity Dressing Without Tears: Sensory-Sensitive Strategies That Work.  You can use these concepts today to help your gifted child!

Want more personalized support?  Visit my website tranquil babies and purchase a phone consultation.  You will have a chance to ask questions and get answers that directly give you more calm and more joy in your home…today!