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Do you know a child who seems to interpret life more intensely than most kids her age? Does she:
- notice more details and nuances in her areas of interest than most adults?
- seem extra sensitive to certain smells or “uncomfortable” clothing, like socks or shirts with tags?
- turn what you’re serving for dinner into inspiration for her latest song (a joyful one if she likes it; a despondent one if she doesn’t)?
These are examples of overexcitabilities (a.k.a. intensities) – and they’re part of everyday life for “gifted” and twice-exceptional (2e) children.
Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski was the first to give this phenomenon a name.
When he was studying kids with higher-than-average intellect in the 1960s, he realized that all of them had an unusual level of intensity when it came to their interests and how they experienced (and responded to) their surroundings and everyday input.
Dabrowski concluded that there are five types of intensities, which research has confirmed. Some kite kids, as I call them, have all five overexcitabilities (OEs); others, have just one or two of them.
A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children (which many parents and mental health professionals consider “the Bible on giftedness”) says these intensities are like “the difference between receiving information with rabbit-eared antennae versus a satellite dish.” I love that analogy. It’s so true!
Here are descriptions of each type of intensity:
Kite kids who are intellectually intense have an insatiable sense of curiosity. They often love mental challenges, like puzzles, brainteaser toys and strategy games. My son even loved the intelligence tests a school psychologist administered – so much so that, as we left, he kept asking me when he could go back and do more!
Children with this OE also become laser-focused when a project or topic interests them. For example, if you give my aspiring engineer something new to build, like a big LEGO set or a TinkerCrate, you won’t see him again until it’s fully assembled, no matter how many thousands of pieces there are. (Then, he’ll want to give a 20-minute presentation, explaining each and every feature, so you can appreciate the new masterpiece as much as he does.)
These kiddos also are keen observers, constantly taking in – and analyzing – the world around them. Their minds never stop. Here are a couple examples of what I mean by this:
A few days after my son’s 8th birthday, he announced from his bedroom that finally lost his front tooth. It had been loose for a while, so as I entered his room, I asked how it came out. I expected to hear a typical explanation.
“All it took was a two-pound push,” he replied instead. I paused, trying to decide if I’d heard him correctly. “Did you just say a two-pound push?” I asked. “Yes, it only took about two pounds of pressure,” he said. “Maybe less,” he added, after thinking about it more.
Another example of kite kids’ constant analysis and putting information in context is from when my son was nine. At a football-playoff party, the sound level in the stadium flashed on the TV screen. He and I were standing with a neighbor when this happened, so he began telling us how it compared to the sound level of fireworks and rockets. Then, he told us the point at which ear damage begins to occur. Our neighbor, who is a physician, looked bewildered; not by what my son was saying, but who was saying it. (I’ve seen looks from adults like this before.)
The downside of intellectual overexcitability is that these kids can become impatient, even despondent, when they’re in environments where they’re rarely, if ever, challenged or learning something new. In fact, some of these kids even become “gifted underachievers” because of it.
What do I mean by that? Unlike a student who is a high achiever (but not intellectually “gifted”), the intellectual OE isn’t simply about being good at grasping concepts and memorizing information.
That happens, too, but when it’s true giftedness (which is a type of neurodiversity) they constantly crave new information. They rarely need the repetition of formulas or concepts that most students do; therefore, they’re often waiting on the review process to end.
They also want to explore topics that interest them at both the micro and macro level, and understand how everything is connected and influences each other. This strong need drives their curiosity and is the reason they constantly ask questions. (When they aren’t getting screen time, that is.)
When they go for long periods of time without acquiring or analyzing information, they can feel trapped – even hopeless.
I know, the name of this OE is weird. What it means, though, is that kids with this intensity live in a heightened state, when it comes to the five senses. My twice-exceptional (2e) daughter, for example, is obsessed with all things plush. So much so that, when she was six years old, she declared that she had “an acute case of the fuzzies” after wrapping herself up in a plush blanket. 😂
She also loves the “very satisfying” sensation of putting her hands in kinetic sand or in a container of Perler beads.
A creatively-gifted child may experience music or art in a deeper, and much more fulfilling, way than most children – or adults. It creates a visceral response. My daughter’s third grade teacher commented on this once when we were discussing some of her challenges at school, like lack of focus and math anxiety. (The quote pictured right reveals part of what she observed.)
Another example of the sensual OE is when I posted on Instagram once about my son’s “very satisfying” experience with peeling stamps off stamp books when you buy them. Several of my followers instantly knew what he meant, even though I didn’t.
And when we moved into a “new” house, both of my kids commented on the satisfying feel of inserting push pins into a cork board and sharpening pencils in an old-fashioned pencil sharpener.
On the flip side, sensual OEs can be unpleasant. Sock seams or shirt tags may drive a kite kid nuts or she may not be able to stand foods with certain textures. She also may be particularly sensitive to smells that most people don’t even notice. With some kite kids, it’s all of these and more.
These sensory-related experiences can even be misinterpreted and contribute to medical misdiagnosis of autism or sensory processing disorder. Think about the consequences of that!
Children with emotional intensity have deep connections to people, places and things. They may worry a lot or show unusually strong levels of empathy for their age. Other emotions are amplified, too. If something makes them angry or someone hurts their feelings, their 𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀 𝗰𝗮𝗻 𝘀𝗲𝗲𝗺 𝗼𝘃𝗲𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘁𝗼𝗽, especially when they’re no longer toddlers.
In fact, this OE is so noticeable, when it’s present, that there’s even a book dedicated to the topic: 𝘌𝘮𝘰𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘐𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘪𝘯 𝘎𝘪𝘧𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘚𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘴 by Christine Fonseca. Don’t let the title fool you, though. While educators were Christine’s target audience for the book, as she – or any kite kid parent – will tell you, overexcitabilities make frequent appearances at home, too. And everywhere else, for that matter! Like the old saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Children with the emotional OE also may have a 𝗵𝗲𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁𝗲𝗻𝗲𝗱 𝘀𝗲𝗻𝘀𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 and 𝘄𝗿𝗼𝗻𝗴. Teen activist & twice-exceptional (2e) kiddo Greta Thunberg is a notable example. (Kite kids’ reactions aren’t always as life-altering as hers, but as you’re probably starting to realize, they’re definitely more intense than normal.)
I didn’t include it in the story, but a mom in my 𝗥𝗲𝗺𝗲𝗺𝗯𝗲𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗴 “𝗠𝘆 𝗪𝗵𝘆” article told me her middle school-age son became extremely upset when another student, walking in front of him at school, didn’t hold a door open for him. He was convinced the classmate purposely let the door close on him (rather than being nice and holding it) and he couldn’t “let it go.” Her son talked about the incident for 𝘥𝘢𝘺𝘴; not only to her at home, but also with his teachers.
One of the first times that I noticed the emotional OE with my son was when he was in kindergarten. As we were leaving our neighborhood one morning, we drove past a man walking on the sidewalk, who we’d never seen before. I waved at him (because that’s what I often do) and my son noticed that the man didn’t reciprocate this friendly gesture. My son was pretty offended by this and, after some discussion about it, he concluded that the man must be a prison escapee. (Yes, really.) I tried to explain that this probably wasn’t the case, but he wasn’t buying it! Lol
A less humorous example is when my daughter was eight years old. She was playing outside with a friend and saw a woman walking her dog. Because her dog didn’t have great “leash manners” when another dog walked by, she hit him forcefully several times. (Apparently his name was Leo.) My daughter was so upset by it that she spoke up and told Leo’s owner there are kinder ways to discipline dogs. Apparently, the woman replied that he deserved it; then she hit him again.
During dinner that evening, my daughter recounted the incident. She went from sobbing and a loss of appetite to experiencing nausea and then painful stomach acid that lasted until she finally fell asleep. As I tried to comfort her, I realized it was one more example of how sensitive my kids are when it comes to animals. (She’s been showing signs for at least a year of a vegetarian in the making.)
As I alluded to earlier, the emotional OE can have a lot of social consequences, too. The report I received, after my daughter’s psychoeducational evaluation revealed she’s twice exceptional (2e), talked a lot about the surprising social and emotional impact it was having on her.
Because of her combination of high intellect and an advanced emotional viewpoint, at eight years old, she was interpreting age peers’ behaviors through the lens of an adolescent! Although I had learned 𝘢 𝘭𝘰𝘵 about “giftedness” and overexcitabilities (OEs) by then, because of her big brother, that particular conundrum never occurred to me. The psychologist said my daughter didn’t realize that other girls (7-9, in most cases) were simply acting their age. When you combine that with the fact that she’s more emotionally sensitive than most (if not all) of her age peers, it was creating a recipe for disaster.
“The weather is dreary, but there’s a slight string of happiness in me,” she told the psychologist during a projective activity. “I don’t belong here. I don’t know why. The older I get, the more I feel it.” Needless to say, this level of intensity is one of 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘺 reasons that we need to 𝘀𝗵𝗮𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝗺𝘆𝘁𝗵𝘀 𝗮𝗯𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝗴𝗶𝗳𝘁𝗲𝗱𝗻𝗲𝘀𝘀.
Gifted and twice-exceptional kids with the imaginational OE have a flair for make-believe and drama. My 2e daughter has strong imaginational intensity. Because of this and her anxiety disorder, she doesn’t like to be in the bathroom by herself. Doors freak her out, and she has a jack-and-jill bathroom, so two doors makes showering even more frightening. That’s one of many issues we’re working on with her therapist, but as of the time I’m writing this, my husband or I always stay close by and she often asks to see a few pictures on Instagram of cute animals.
One day, after I showed her a couple hedgehogs and Boston terriers, I told her that was all for now and walked back to my office, just a few feet away. Like so many times each day, Little Miss Walking Musical instantly came up with a song to express her feelings on the matter, but in a light-hearted way. “You have betrayed me. You did not show me all of the cute animal pictures in the universe. You have betrayed me.” (listen to the audio clip)
Here’s a video of another off-the-cuff performance in our kitchen (blurred to protect her identity). For context, as you watch this, it’s important to know that slurping drives me crazy.
Not surprisingly, her opinion on improv versus traditional acting is atypical, as well. She took two different week-long acting camps this past summer. There was a campers-only performance each Friday.
When I picked her up after the improvisational performance, she was all smiles and commented on how fun it was; however, the next Friday, she was in tears. Most people would be terrified of making up a performance as they go, but for her, it’s when she’s most confident. Imagination and creativity are some of her biggest strengths; rote memorization is not. In fact, it often triggers her anxiety.
Some children with the imaginational OE also have imaginary friends. They may even have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, genuinely believing what they say to be true.
Additionally, they can easily become lost in their own thoughts and lack a sense of time.
As you might guess, it can be difficult to parent or teach a child with such vivid and frequent imaginational experiences.
Having the imaginational OE can impact peer relationships, as well. For more about that, read my article Social Considerations of Imaginational Intensity. I wrote it (with the help of a gifted and 2e expert) at the request of a pediatrician who contacted me.
Kite kids with 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗽𝘀𝘆𝗰𝗵𝗼𝗺𝗼𝘁𝗼𝗿 OE have sustained, higher-than-normal levels of energy. The 𝘄𝗮𝘆𝘀 𝗶𝗻 𝘄𝗵𝗶𝗰𝗵 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝘀 𝗰𝗮𝗻 “𝘀𝗵𝗼𝘄 𝘂𝗽” vary from one child to another, but it can take the form of:
- difficulty sitting still
- nonstop talking or noise-making
- compulsive organizing
- nervous habits and tics
- impulsive behavior
The two photos on the right are how my kids often sit at the dinner table. Gotta get that extra energy out somehow, I guess! To my surprise, my son has never fallen off his chair when sitting this way.
Some moms will tell you how they come downstairs in the morning to find full-blown science experiments or new pieces of art that their child worked on during 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗺𝗶𝗱𝗱𝗹𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗻𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁. Reading their stories and seeing photos of their kids’ middle-of-the-night projects on social media, I am 𝘴𝘰 glad that both of my kids are great sleepers! I will add, however, that both of them stopped taking naps very young (about 18 months for my son and two years old for my daughter).
Other moms will tell you how their “gifted” child was 𝗺𝗶𝘀𝗱𝗶𝗮𝗴𝗻𝗼𝘀𝗲𝗱 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗔𝗗𝗛𝗗 or a sleep disorder. Unfortunately, misdiagnosis is common with these kiddos because so many types of intensities are misinterpreted by clinicians with little to no training in giftedness or twice exceptionalities. (Read my Medical Misdiagnosis article to learn more.)
So, what happens when some of these OEs converge with each other, as well as the child’s asynchronous development (the other hallmark trait of giftedness)?
There are many possibilities, but a common one is what many adults would consider a temper tantrum or totally over-the-top reaction, given their age and “the size of the problem.” Read these two examples of when I’ve witnessed this type of implosion with my oldest kite kid. (And that’s the short version of how big those reactions were and how long they lasted.)
These intensities can be positive, too
Parents, educators and clinicians who are familiar with the term “overexcitability” often consider this phenomenon to be negative – partly because of the word “over” in its name. And also due to the undesirable ways in which these mannerisms can reveal themselves.
These intensities can be wonderful too, though – for “kite kids” themselves, and for anyone watching them experience life on such a deep level. As a parent, I find it fascinating.
This bright side of overexcitabilities article on educationaladvacement.org does a wonderful job of explaining this further.
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