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Help! My Child is so Intense and Sensitive!

By Paula J. Hillmann, PhD, LPC

crying-childI received a call the other day from a mom who was having difficulty with her son's ‘melt-downs' over what should be only minor problems. "Please help me!" she said. "Tommy cries at the slightest thing - today he couldn't find his baseball hat and he burst into tears. The other day, his school friend accidentally bumped him and you would have thought the world was coming to an end. I just can't figure out why he does this! My husband and I are at a loss - what can we do to stop this behavior?"

Calls for help like this are not usual for me. My specialty area is working with kids who are born with abilities that are usually described by others using phrases such as highly intelligent, highly creative, highly talented, highly artistic, etc. Guess what? It goes with the territory!  The emotional sensitivities and intensities we see in these kids is actually "normal" behavior for many of them. It has to do with the way the brains of gifted and talented people are uniquely wired. Brain imaging specialists like those at the Eide Neurolearning Clinic have researched and documented this phenomenon in children.

But are the scientific findings the final answer? NO!  Can you "stop" the feelings of intensity and sensitivity? No - they are probably part of your child's "personality package." Can you "change" the behavior? YES! There are things parents and teachers and kids can do to redirect or modify these intense feelings and extreme sensitivities. Children can learn and can use better, more appropriate ways to cope with these powerful emotions. AND the tips about "self-talk" I share with you in the next section of this blog can be applied to ALL kids, too.

As I suggested to Tommy's mom, try using "self-talk." What is "self-talk?" Self-talk is conversation we have with ourselves. It is also a common approach in managing and controlling stress. We can raise our awareness about our behaviors by talking about them to ourselves or talking out loud with others (ex: "I wonder if I could have made a better choice?"  "What was I thinking?" "I should have said that differently." "How bad was that - really?" etc......)

Some techniques parents can try are those recommended by Dr. Jim Webb & his colleagues in the book, A Parent's Guide to Gifted Children, and their chapter on "Intensity, Perfection, and Stress" (Webb et.al., 2007):

  • Talk about what self-talk is and how it can be used to ‘think out loud' about feelings and emotions

  • Model healthy self-talk and explain we all have problems (believe it or not, many children believe they're the only ones with problems - let them see you make mistakes or how you experience stress - and how you cope with your challenges)

  • Listen (rather than ask questions), but give little direct advice - more often than not a child can figure things out this way (As they self-talk out loud, they may suddenly say something like, "Hey - maybe it wasn't actually that bad...")

  • Avoid parental over-involvement - sometimes kids need to find out through self-discovery ("Don't sweat the small stuff.")

  • Practice making predictions (such as "What do think will happen, or what would have happened if... etc.")

  • Ask your child - "Is it your problem, or does it belong to someone else?" "Is it REALLY a problem, or is it a false alarm?"

  • Help your child develop other perspectives through books and movies

  • Have your child use a daily journal to record feelings or things they want to talk about. Or they may use the journal to "draw" feelings - sketching out images of emotions can help reduce the intensity. [PS - your child may want this to remain PRIVATE information, so please respect your child's wishes]

  • Model how to convert problems into opportunities ("How can I turn my sour lemon into lemonade?")

  • Learn how to ignore things that don't really matter [sometimes I tell kiddoes that's why we have 2 ears - things can go in one ear and out the other]

  • Relieve tension with humor ("Didn't I see that coming? I must have had a bag over my head!")

  • CAUTION: Monitor physical and emotional conditions - check out your child's physical and emotional health with an expert practitioner since you don't want to miss something else that co-exists

There are some additional tips on the Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted (SENG) website.

In a future blog I'll be talking about "Mindfulness" and how self-awareness and meditative behavior is changing children's behaviors and eliminating the need for other interventions and medications.

Until then, remember each child is different and no child comes with an instruction manual. AND I know very well how raising a gifted and talented child can be especially perplexing, exhausting, and definitely challenging.

Photo Credit:  coba

Posted on February 18, 2012 by Paula J. Hillmann, PhD, LPC

Paula Hillmann is a professional counselor and educational psychologist who specializes in gifted education and talent development, working with children, adolescents, families, and schools in building strong and engaged partnerships. She is an advocacy coach for parents and teachers, and she guides children and adolescents in becoming mindful learners. Contact her at Advanced Learning Resources.

© 2012  Paula J. Hillmann, PhD, LPC. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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Tags: *Diverse Families, *Parent Engagement at Home , Communicating, Gifted , Learning environment, Parents as teachers

Posted March 3, 2012 by Julia
Dr. Hillmann,
Thanks for this article. My son (6) falls into this category, and it\'s been a winding road (he\'s gifted, but it took us a while to figure that out). My husband and I are always looking for new ideas and tips on how to help our son manage his intensity. I look forward to your upcoming post on mindfulness.


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