The Imaginational Overexcitability and Anxiety

The Imaginational Overexcitability and Anxiety

Let me know if you’ve lived this one (insert your own particulars).

Your gifted daughter is always singing; she sings in the car, in the bathroom, and at the dinner table. Her incessant singing has even gotten her into hot water a time or two. And you’ll never forget the time she broke out into Katy Perry’s “Roar” during silent prayer at church. (This actually happened, folks).

She begged and begged for voice lessons or singing classes or some kind of structured outlet so she could express her need to…


So, of course, you (the loving caring adult that you are) promptly signed her up for some voice coaching with a small group of children who also love to sing. And I imagine you thought to yourself, “Here we go! She’ll be in a small group of other children who love to do what she loves. Maybe she’ll finally find some peers!

You so want your child to have a positive experience of doing what they love in a group setting. And I want that for you too!


What happened when it came time to attend class?

How did your daughter sleep the night before?

Did she get all the way to the front door of the practice room then cling onto your leg for dear life while wailing hysterically at the mention of you leaving?


 This is the kind of story I hear from parents all the time. It’s possibly one of the most puzzling aspects of the gifted personality I’ve ever tried to understand. There could be a lot of reasons why this is happening in your family. More often than not, the children who are having these experiences are coping with the imaginational overexcitability (OE).

For an introduction to the imaginational OE check out my previous post, laugh at my childhood follies, and then try to take me seriously please.

As we’ve discussed on the blog before, a strong imagination can have a dark side. Children learning to harness their imaginational OE may experience their imaginations as reality.

The line between what they think is happening and what is actually happening is perforated.

Your daughter may feel so distraught over her various fears that they may as well have already happened, making it impossible for her to approach her new learning opportunity with joy.

And naturally, each of us gets a little nervous before starting something new. We might even indulge in a little worst-case-scenario thinking ourselves. But ultimately, we get over ourselves, put one foot in front of the other and end up saying “Well that was okay!”

For some gifted children, the worst-case-scenario thinking isn’t fleeting.

They don’t yet have a reservoir of positive experiences or coping skills for their anxiety. Their fearful feelings are reality.

Does your child ever surprise you with their unwillingness to try new things? Do they dig their metaphorical heels in miles deep? Even when it comes to the things you know they’ll love?

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 5 of 5: Sensual Overexcitability

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 5 of 5: Sensual Overexcitability

My students aren’t just into their favorite things…

They are into their favorite things.

Very rarely is something a passing fancy or light interest; my students become obsessed.

And for understandable reasons.  Gifted children often have what is called the sensual overexcitability.

For an introduction to overexcitabilities (OEs) click here. This is the last in my overexcitability series.  (I have to admit… I’m a little sad to see it end! It’s been wonderful to connect with so many people about this endlessly interesting and important facet of giftedness).

The sensual OE is expressed as a heightened experience of sensual pleasure or displeasure emanating from any of the senses.  And our gifted kids’ obsessions flow from the pleasure side of the this OE.

The kids at One Room are obsessed by all sorts of things — Dr. Who, WWII, gymnastics and dance, dubstep (lord help me), and of course… Minecraft.

And then there’s the flip side. Often, because they also experience displeasure of the senses, these children will only wear certain obscure brands of socks, shirts without tags, and I’ve noticed more than a few of them seem to go without underwear. Seriously.

As the the teacher, I have to be careful of what I eat for lunch (no sauerkraut, I love sauerkraut) and what hand lotion I use. Many of my students are “super-sniffers” and have a high sensitivity to aromas.

The presence of these intense passions and super-senses are hallmarks of the sensual overexcitability. And it’s the OE nearest and dearest to my heart.

Often these gifted children will be perceived as overly picky, stubborn or downright ungrateful. In their younger years the children coping with the sensual OE don’t have the experience or vocabulary to explain that Grandma’s gorgeous handknit sweater feels like an iron maiden. It’s easy to see how signals could get crossed.

But if you think about it, these children are our future taste-makers and aesthetes! Often they know way before everyone else what is going to be cool or “in.” Here is a list of people I identify as having successfully harnessed the sensual OE:

Sofia Coppola: American screenwriter, director, producer, and actress
Vincent Van Gogh: Dutch post-Impressionist painter
Jackie Kennedy: First Lady to President John F. Kennedy and fashion icon
Mark Morris: American dancer, choreographer and director

What would the world have done without these great, gifted people? Can you imagine the bullying Mark Morris would go through in today’s traditional school? Vincent Van Gogh never felt acceptance for his tremendous gifts, and we all know how that story ends.

If your gifted child has a proclivity for creative expression or an intense passion, feed it. In fact, you can often use the sensual OE to get your kid excited about other things. If she’s obsessed by horses, ask her to tell you everything about how horses influenced the Civil War. If he loves rap, ask him to write a rap about the Periodic Table.

Acceptance and appreciation are the things your gifted child wants most and receives the least. It is actually good news that they know what they want.

And if your gifted child struggles with overstimulation of the senses, whenever possible, create a calming environment that limits offensive stimuli.

Please don’t worry if your gifted child is only willing to wear sweatpants. There are some gifted designers out there who understand and are creating some classy options… coming soon to a store near you. 😉

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 4 of 5: Psychomotor Overexcitability

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 4 of 5: Psychomotor Overexcitability

In my many years of working with gifted children I have had exactly two students that I know truly had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

That’s it… two.

I’ve had (more than) my fair share of students that rocked, squirmed, shook their knees, talked compulsively, and fidgeted; but only two who had an actual, clear-cut, ADHD diagnosis. The rest of them were coping with their psychomotor overexcitability (OE).

My squirmy sweeties.

Let me start this article by stating, unequivocally, ADHD is a real diagnosis that deserves proper care and attention. It is, however, grossly and overly misdiagnosed, particularly in gifted children.

For an introduction to overexcitabilities click here. This is the fourth in my five-part series about overexcitabilities.

Gifted children coping with the psychomotor OE have what seems like an inexhaustible supply of physical energy. I realize that this could be said of most children. What I’m attempting to describe here is different; this is energy to such excess that it can almost seem manic or destructive. And it’s easy to see why all these well-meaning but often uninformed professionals want to pathologize it.

We place highly gifted children with non-verbal or visual-spatial learning styles coping with the psychomotor OE in traditional, undifferentiated classrooms, and then we wonder why there are problems. In this scenario troubling behaviors are bound to crop up — behaviors that look at lot like ADHD… but aren’t.

Gifted children in these inappropriate scenarios are often described as “bouncing off the walls”. They cannot stay still long enough to finish schoolwork. They have an extremely difficult time controlling the impulse to speak out of turn. It seems they find and exploit every opportunity to derail the learning of others. Isn’t it interesting how they can’t keep track of a homework folder to save their life, but they know exactly when recess begins and ends?

Notice what I wrote above: inappropriate scenario. It’s the situation or the learning environment that is flawed, not the learner. If we try to put a stop to the movement and fidgeting, it will only persist more strongly. It is the job of the caregivers and professional working with these children to create a scenario that will work for the child and the environment. To me, it looks a lot like what we have going at One Room, my micro-school for gifted learners.

In the classrooms I lead, students may

*walk around,
*stand and do their work, and
*listen to music (through a headset).

They may not
*disturb others, or
*ignore their academic progress.

Also, I have a steady supply of gum available to whomever wants it; Orbitz Strawberry is the trendy flavor in my classroom right now.

And if someone’s having a really hard time, we stop everything and do a round of playful burpees.

Yep, burpees.

With each family that enters One Room’s learning environment we discuss the learning style and preferences of the student. We talk about how that matches with the family culture and wishes of the parents. We create an individualized learning plan, balancing the child’s need for movement with healthy classroom boundaries. And we allow the plan to grow and shift over time, as needed. It’s pretty wonderful, and it’s something that I wish was available for all gifted learners.

The gifted child learning to harness the psychomotor OE is drawn to movement-based activities that allow them to express themselves and provide a physical release. These activities may include dance or parkour, or something as simple and delightful as spinning in circles. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that my students tend to not enjoy organized sports or dance that is heavy with dogma, such as ballet.

What physical activity does your gifted child enjoy most? What techniques have you discovered to help your child or student harness their OE’s? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 3 of 5: Intellectual Overexcitability

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 3 of 5: Intellectual Overexcitability

It can be quite difficult to tell the difference between “normal giftedness” (I cracked myself up typing that) and intellectual overexcitability. After all, aren’t some of the hallmarks of giftedness a heightened sense of curiosity and a drive to understand? Well, yes… but the child with this overexcitability takes it to a whole new level.

Intellectual overexcitability is the gifted child’s curiosity on steroids.

I had been teaching for almost a year at a very sweet, non-traditional school for the gifted. It was my first year teaching, and I was having a blast! I remember the director had given me one directive: “Help them learn whatever they want to learn and guide them to understand themselves while they do it.” It was bliss.

A young boy of about eight had been enrolled, and I could tell right away that this child was going to need to talk… a lot. Bless his heart.

Neither a student nor a teacher could utter a word without this child asking a question. Keep in mind I am not a teacher who talks a lot; I do not believe in standing up and orating at my students. And I could not get more than three sentences out of my mouth without this kid nearly exploding with questions. Add to that the fact that this child had no concept of what an “inside voice” sounds like, and we had a problem.

When he wasn’t asking questions, he was reading. He had books stashed everywhere! He had them in his book bags of course, but also crammed inside pockets of winter coats and his lunchbox.  He would sometimes bring an extra bags of books… you know, just in case.

I once watched this child attempt to play soccer and read at the same time. No joke.

It sounds funny but really this was extremely difficult, not just for the people around him, but also for him. Relationships were very difficult; people who tried to relate to him never felt a sense of mutuality. They felt like sounding boards. And he spent a lot of time feeling misunderstood and undervalued. Poor pumpkin.

Does your child seem to have an insatiable curiosity, bombarding you with question after question?  Does she philosophize on a range of topics from Star Wars to climate change to gender dynamics in the classroom? Do these musings sometimes take the form of rants and pontifications? Does she choose inopportune moments to make these thoughts known?

That’s the intellectual OE driving many people crazy, sometimes earning your child a reputation as a pathological know-it-all.

Honestly, the thing I’ve found to be most helpful when coping with the intellectual OE in my students is the cultivation of mindfulness, a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment, calmly noticing one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.

For example, when the above mentioned student entered into my world, I introduced the “mindful minute” exercise. Here’s how it works:

I have them sit silently for one minute, instructing him or her to focus on their breath or heartbeat. I encourage them to empty their mind, and after a minute has passed I have them silently ask themselves, “What is my most important thought or question?”

The child then expresses their most important thought or asks their most important question, and we have a brief discussion about it. If he or she still has more to share, they submit their ideas in writing until the time comes for another mindful minute. (Later, I have them choose their top 3 to 5 written thoughts and questions for further research on Wikipedia Kids or another safe database).

I try to space out the mindful minutes by at least an hour, but when I see my student about to explode with questions all over again, I ask them to go through this process again.  I take the time to explain to them why it is important to do so.

I tell them, “You have so much good stuff to share, and most people can only take in a little bit of that good stuff at once. They are only human, and humans have limits. I know you want people to listen to you, and I want that too! This is the practice that is going to get you heard more.”

Asking your gifted child to slow down and consciously choose what they are going to say not only gives the people around them a break, it helps your child develop the self-awareness and control that’s going to help them make the best most self-connected choices possible.

Has this or a different approach helped your child to cope with their imaginational OE? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 2 of 5: Imaginational Overexcitability

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 2 of 5: Imaginational Overexcitability

One of my earliest memories of gripping fear came as a result of my imaginational overexcitability. All the fear in my tiny little body was focused on one figure.

And you’ll never guess who.

It was…

the Cookie Monster.

It’s so embarrassing to admit! I was quite young, preschool age, and while I basically enjoyed watching Sesame Street (really, I was more of a 3-2-1 Contact girl), there was something about him that didn’t sit well with me. He would just eat and eat and was never satisfied!

That’s the image that would come to me at night, in my bed — a giant, menacing cookie monster that would eat and eat and was never satisfied. It’s a funny story to tell as an adult, but please believe me when I say that the terror I was feeling was real. It still gives me the wiggins!

For an introduction to overexcitabilities click here. This is the second in my five-part series about overexcitabilities. If you’d like to follow along please take a moment to click the “follow” button on the right of this page and these articles will be sent directly to your inbox.

As a society we interpret the imagination as a tool for play — a light place of fun and escape — and a lot of the time it is just that. However, for many gifted children there’s a flip-side, the imagination can be a dark, wild, and uncontrollable place.

The imaginational overexcitability (OE) may be the most frustrating OE for gifted parents and professionals to identify and cope with. My mother told me over and over again that the Cookie Monster wasn’t real, that he lived in the TV and could never “get me.” It did not matter; my imagination had a life of its own.

At night, alone in my bedroom, my imagination was the boss.

The imaginational OE is an inborn characteristic of many gifted children that expresses itself as an unusually heightened imagination. Gifted children coping with this OE often have a hard time distinguishing between their fantasy and reality. They might have imaginary friends or create whole imaginary worlds. They sometimes have extra-vivid dreams, even night terrors.

Does your gifted child get wrapped up in their own inner world?  Do they get themselves into trouble for lying or exaggerating?  When confronted, do they defend themselves with such conviction that you find yourself “believing” them, despite having actual proof and knowing better? That’s the imaginational OE getting your sweet babies into hot water.

Here’s the kicker: your gifted child experiences her experiences and exaggerations (or lies) as truth. For them, it feels true. For them, it’s an injustice for anyone to perceive it as anything different. It’s our job to acknowledge this dichotomy with empathy and gently teach strategies for harnessing their imagination.

When a child tells me their imagined experience of a scary dream or vision, I first express empathy that I know how real the story feels for them.  Then I teach them how to use their incredible imagination to combat the fear-inducing entity. For example, they can imagine a device that wards off the monster.  (For me, I told myself that nothing could attack me if I was under my magical blanket).

And when I suspect that one of my students is telling a story with a “flourish” or exaggeration, I listen to the story and reflect back what I think is important to them.  I then ask questions such as “Is this what I would’ve seen or heard if I’d been there?” or “What would I have seen or heard if I was there?” A fun one that helps diffuse tension is “What would your dog or cat have seen if they had been there?”

A lot of the time my students won’t answer, but I know they are thinking about it. This line of questioning helps put them on a path to realizing that there is a space called reality and it exists outside their imagination.  Once they perceive this distinction, they are more fully able to use their imagination as an expression of creativity, rather than as a source of disconnection, pain, or fear.

Has this or a different approach helped your child to cope with their imaginational OE? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 1 of 5:  Emotional Overexcitability

How to Identify and Cope with Overexcitabilities, Part 1 of 5: Emotional Overexcitability

Right now, as I write this, I’m harnessing my intellectual overexcitability and coping with my emotional one. My curiosity and drive to understand giftedness inspires me to research and write. And I write while my feelings of negative self-judgment threaten to derail the whole process.  Sheesh.

This is how it is, every month with every article. The process is wonderful and exhausting, and it’s a snapshot of what it’s like to be me and gifted.

The most commonly held misconception about overexcitabilities (OE’s) is that they are something to “cure” or overcome. But that would be a terrible waste of some of the gifted individual’s best and most intrinsic qualities.

OEs are a set of inborn characteristics that come hand-in-hand for most people with advanced cognitive abilities. They are the intensities and sensitivities many of you beautiful people are coping with in your families, workplaces and social situations.

OEs are something to accept, appreciate, and master.  I know mine will never go away; they will rear their intense heads at the most inopportune times, even after lying dormant for long periods. It’s my job to love them and make them work for me.

The concept of OEs first came about through the research of Polish psychologist and psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980). Simply stated, OEs are a person’s heightened ability to perceive and respond to stimuli – anything from an algebra problem to the seams in your socks to a glorious sunset.

This excellent SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) article lists and defines OEs as follows:

  • Emotional – experiencing things deeply

  • Imaginational – capacity to visualize, invent, and create

  • Intellectual – inquisitive and reflective

  • Psychomotor – a surplus of energy

  • Sensual (Sensory) – intense responsiveness to sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell

Over my next five blog articles, I will examine each OE and provide tips for identifying and coping with them. (For those of you wishing to follow along at home, take a moment to subscribe to my blog.)

Let’s begin with the emotional overexcitability.

Have you ever interpreted your child as overreacting to a perceived injustice that you know your neighbor’s kid would take in stride? Does your child have surprisingly deep, personal relationships with others, animals, or even toys?  Do they alternate between extreme joy and extreme sadness with relative frequency?

These are some of the ways the emotional OE expresses itself.

Many gifted children, particularly teenagers, who struggle with the emotional OE are misdiagnosed with mood disorders. They are told that something is wrong with them, that they are too sensitive and need to “toughen up.” They are pathologized by well-meaning people who truly want to help but just aren’t educated on gifted theory.

This is a big part of the reason why gifted advocacy is so important.

There are many reasons to appreciate the emotional OE. First and foremost, the emotional OE is the source of your gifted child’s amazing empathy. Have you ever been taken aback by your child’s demonstration of care for another child who is hurting? In my opinion, this is the most wonderful way the emotional OE expresses itself.

While the emotional OE can be intense for everyone involved, there are ways to lessen the impact.  You may remember in a previous article, titled “Living With (Not Indulging) Intensity,” I gave the advice to “anticipate and empathize”.

When possible (and sometimes this can be extremely difficult, so be easy on yourself), anticipate the situations that are going to trigger this OE in your child.  Situations may include sad or emotionally-intense movies and books, harsh or insensitive people, or sometimes a change in a plan to which the child was deeply attached.

Then, when your child’s emotional OE is triggered, take a moment and slow down to connect with them. Check in, ask them their feelings, and never minimize. They may be too overcome to communicate their feelings in that moment; make sure your child knows that you are there for them when they are ready.

You’ll be so touched by what they share when they feel comfortable to let their emotional OE unfold at their own pace. And the intensity of the impact will be minimized over time.

Has this or a different approach helped your child to cope with their emotional OE? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.