Sunday, March 18, 2012

Raising Funny Kids 11: The Drachma of the Gifted Child

Gifted children can feel like a handful or a drachma (drássomai, "to grasp"). The drachma, a fistful of six oboloí (metal sticks) used as a form of currency as early as 1100 BC Ancient Greece, can be used to represent Kasimierz Dabrowski's concept of "overexcitabilities" + one for the gifted child: intellectual, imaginational, emotional, sensory, psychomotor + existential.  

1. Intellectual overexcitability: "Curiouser and curiouser," probes the gifted child. Concentration, problem solving, theoretical thinking - all manifestations of intellectual overexcitability. 

A gifted child has a very active mind that constantly seeks knowledge (not necessarily book knowledge), searches for understanding and truth, and endeavors to solve problems. Whether they are devouring books or cruising through video games at lightening speed, the exhilaration of sped-up thinking is visible on their faces. 

These children (and adults) are independent thinkers and keen observers who may be prone to frustration and impatience when others do not share their excitement for an idea.  

2. Imaginational overexcitability: Gifted kids are drawn to complex imaginative schemes, strategies, and maneuvers of all kinds of objects or concepts. A quick, from-here-to-there type of thinking, the imaginational child mixes fact with fantasy, even in simple tasks. Take this reading of Three Little Pigs, without the Shakespearean element, most gifted kids wouldn't even notice this story. However, a gifted child, exposed to Shakespearean speak, would delight in it. 

Simple concepts such as "Pass the salt," unveil a labyrinth of fantastical play opportunity, imaginary opposition to salt migration, and a rich, dramatic pepper that "spice-istically" tries to persuade other condiments that salt is an overvalued currency condiment. 

The battle to forge forward a simple salt shaker appeals to these bright, creative children. When you witness their minds wandering, you are witnessing dramatical imaginational overexcitability, creative, divergent thought in action. 

The look might be "spaced out" but that's exactly where they've traveled, into a dimensional space of possibilities. This helps a gifted mind scan the environment or scenario in which they find themselves and imagine quickly a realm of all possibilities. 

Naturally, the youthful exuberance of a child turns this scanning into fantasy play, animistic thinking, daydreaming, and dramatic perception, but the skills involved are nothing short of the stuff involved in winning a Pulitzer Prize for the intellectual cartooning of a situation. 

3. Emotional overexcitability: The importance of equipping children with the emotional skills necessary to master their emotions is critical. Serving as a high functioning emotional coach increases your child's self-confidence, boosts their physical health, betters their performance in learning, and sets the stage for healthier social relationships. 

Gifted children form strong emotional attachments to people, places, and things and are often accused of overreacting. The intensity of their feelings comes out in their compassion, empathy, and sensitivity to energetic or chemical fluctuations around them. 

Given that this child is prone to extreme emotions, risks of sadness, cynicism, or anger arise when they discover that their idealism and sensitivity are not shared by others. This perceived "injustice" can be painful and difficult to navigate. 

Gifted children often times have an underdeveloped "vagal tone" - the vagus nerve, originating in the brain and supplying impulses for functions throughout the upper body such as heart rate, respiration, and digestion, is responsible for many functions of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. 

While the sympathetic branch accelerates functions such as heart rate and breathing when a person is under stress, the parasympathetic branch acts as a regulator, putting the brakes on these involuntary functions, keeping the body from speeding its systems out of control. 

The term "vagal tone" describes a person's ability to regulate the involuntary physiological processes of the autonomic nervous system. Just as kids with good muscle tone excel at sports, kids with high vagal tone excel in responding to and recovering from emotional stress. 

Children with high vagal tone would have no problem during a fire drill, for instance. They'd be able to drop everything and get out of the school in an orderly, efficient manner. Once the fire drill was over, these kids would be able to settle down and focus on their math lessons, needing little recovery time. 

You always know what your child needs help with based on their reactions. This is an excellent barometer to adjust rather than react to the emotional needs of your child. Being aware of and recognizing a child's emotional expression is an opportunity for intimacy and teaching. 

Listening empathetically and validating your child's feelings, labeling emotions rather than the child, and helping them come up with appropriate ways to solve problems or deal with an upsetting issue or situation is the best gift you can give them. Interjecting humor into all appropriate situations is a tactic that turns into a positive coping skill for the gifted child as they mature into adulthood. 

4. Sensory overexcitability. The sensorily overexcitable child reacts strongly to what they see, smell, taste, touch, hear, and "sense" in their everyday environment. Their heightened senses allow them to integrate external stimuli as if it were their own, part of their genetic make-up. 

These children derive great pleasure from their heightened sensitivity to music, language, food, lights, colors, numbers, words, etc. These children can focus so intently on their sensory experience with an object or idea that the world around them ceases to exist for awhile. 

Pet peeves: Tags in the back of shirts, rough socks, bright lights, intrusive sounds, flickers and buzzing noises, finger tapping, ceaseless whistling. 

These sensory experiences are overwhelming and overstimulating and distract the gifted child from integrating and expressing the positive modalities of giftedness. 

5. Psychomotor overexcitabilty: "They go until they drop" - the definition of the gifted's pace throughout life. 

Even when seated perfectly still engaged in a book or transfixed by an idea "spacing out", the gifted child is going a mile a minute due to a surplus of energie that manifests in rapid speech, fervent enthusiasm, intense physical activity, and a need for action (or active thought). 

When feeling emotionally excited, these children may talk compulsively, act impulsively, display nervous habits, show intense drive, compulsively organize, become quite competitive, or in other cases, misbehave and act out for reactionary stimulation when no other stimulation of merit is presented. 

Gifted parents do not tire as easily from this pace and are more able to "keep up" for extended periods of time with their gifted children. However, non-gifted parents and adults can mistakingly misdiagnose these children as having ADHD given that the speed of their thinking and behavior exhausts ordinary individuals. 

Managing this energie is critical to avoid overloading and shutting down a gifted child's energetic response system. Vigorous exercise and well-rounded activities (sports, reading, games, exploring, arts & crafts) to avoid overfocus in one area or another is key to positively harnessing this overexcitability. 

6. Existential overexcitability: Because of their complex thought processes, gifted children are often hyperfocused on matters of or relating to existence. 

Rarely will one theory persist - the gifted child naturally, and quickly, scans through a myriad of concepts related to inner and outer existence. 

Resonating from intense energetic impulses that may look like compulsions to the untrained eye, the gifted child's need for answers is a neverending story to be told, retold, blown-up by aliens, pieced back together by the Galactic Federation of Doodling Masters, analyzed, smashed up into a ball, entered into a hackysack contest - where it wins! - only to be unfolded, reread, translated, critiqued, categorized, and reconsidered. 

The key to balancing this riveting journey of human existence is to provide your child with an overview of age-appropriate philosophically hopeful thinking. Despite their giftedness, they are still children with underdeveloped emotions who lack experience and therefore attachments to the physical experience of living. 

Deflating a gifted child's "hope" for "more than just this" can damage the other energetic overexcitabilities, in particular the emotional one, resulting in dispair and disenchantment with life. 

If this happens, attention toward over-the-top possibilities, imaginary play, and physical activity can rebalance the energetic system and allow for more positive input, resulting in an emotionally-balanced, drama-depleted, content-in-their-imaginings gifted child. 

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