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Living With & Understanding Your Gifted Child. Presentation created by Deanna Crackel , M. Ed . based on the book Living With Intensity e dited by Susan Daniels, Ph.D & Michael M. Piechowski. Why is my child so different?.

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living with understanding your gifted child
Living With & Understanding Your Gifted Child

Presentation created by Deanna Crackel, M. Ed. based on the book Living With Intensity edited by Susan Daniels, Ph.D & Michael M. Piechowski

why is my child so different
Why is my child so different?

When most people think of the term “gifted student” , they think of strong test scores, and a mini-adult personality. As parents of gifted children, you know that stereotype is rarely a true reflection of your child. There are times when gifted children demonstrate heightened emotions, obsessions, and sensitivities that may provoke many parents to silently think, “I wish he would be normal.”

It is that very concept of what is normal for a gifted human being, that lies at the heart of the concept that is the foundation of today’s presentation: positive disintegration.

the genesis of an idea
KazimierzDabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist who also held a Masters degree in Education, developed a seminal theory called positive disintegration.

The emotional volatility, quixotic passions, and intense fascinations demonstrated by gifted children were not seen by him as abnormal, rather a heightened form of human development.

The Genesis of an Idea
what is positive disintegration
What is Positive Disintegration?
  • Experiences in life that produce pain, confusion, isolation, anger, and sadness can trigger a process within one’s self that can lead to a period of fragmentation of self.
  • That period of darkness can lead to the process of coping, analysis, learning, reflection, and renewal.
  • The process of inner transformation, like birth, requires struggle, pain and sometimes tears.
the foundation of positive disintegration
The Foundation of Positive Disintegration

The Third Factor

  • The ability to have autonomy over one’s own emotional growth, to be self-determined and self-motivated.

Developmental Potential

  • The inborn potential that can be fulfilled to the degree that life’s variables are favorable, and sustain the inherent talents and abilities of the individual.


  • Emotions, motivations, values, and behaviors can be seen on the surface to be the same, but can originate from base self-serving impulses, or from higher, selfless impetus.
the rocky path towards self actualization
The Rocky Path Towards Self-Actualization

Dabrowski’s theory of multilevelness indicates there are five levels that that one make up the human continuum.

Level I: A state of little inner-reflection, with no development.

Level II: Problems are solved but repetitive, showing little growth. The individual experiences little inner conflict and is initially, largely unaware of the 'higher possibilities of life.'

Level III: A person begins to truly grapple with the frisson between what should be and what is, and inner transformation is begins.

Level IV: Self-actualization takes place when a person follows his or her values consistently.

Level V: When a person is authentic to him or herself while deeply connected to the people around him or herself

  • Central to Dabrowski’s multilevelness concerns the gifted person’s innate ability to experience stronger, more deeper, and more complex reactions to stimuli. Life’s events are perceived with a clarity beyond that of a typical person. The ways in which the gifted person filters life’s experiences falls into one or more form of overexcitability:
    • Emotional: expressed in a range of intense emotional responses
    • Intellectual: a quest for deep understanding
    • Sensual: a vivid ability to perceive the world through the five senses Imaginational: a penchant for the unique, fantastic, and inventive
    • Psychomotor : a zeal for active living, and a drive to move
when helping can hurt
When Helping Can Hurt

Overexcitability is often viewed as overreacting or inappropriate behavior needing to be tempered—”for the good of the child”. This is no less than tampering with the child’s very self. More often than not, aspects of intensity are mistaken for indicators of potential pathology rather than as signs of strong developmental potential.

~Susan Daniels, PhD., and Michael M. Piechowski, PhD.


Unfortunately, the stronger a student’s overexcitabilities are, the more aware other students, and sometimes adults, are of how different the gifted child is from a typical child. Typically the more noticeable the discrepancy is, the more negative attention a gifted student experiences in his or her peer group.

As a protective response, many students with overexcitabilities try to hide their unique characteristics. They become wary of letting people get to know their authentic self. Some try to fit in by slacking off on school, trying alcohol, drugs, or other self-destructive behavior.

what are my child s overexcitabilities
What are my child’s Overexcitabilities?
  • There are many evaluation tools to quantify your child’s areas of dominant OE traits. One such tool is the OEQ (Overexcitability Questionnaire) developed in 1997 by Ackerman & Miller.
  • Let’s take a deeper look at the five overexcitabilities. As we look, it is possible you will recognize traits held by your own child.
psychomotor oe

Surplus of energy

rapid speech, marked excitation, intense physical activity (e.g., fast games and sports), pressure for action (e.g., organizing), marked competitiveness

Psychomotor expression of emotional tension

compulsive talking and chattering, impulsive actions, nervous habits (tics, nail biting), workaholism, acting out

(Piechowski, 1999)

how to help kids with psychomotor oe
How to Help Kids With Psychomotor OE
  • Provide frequent opportunities for your child to release physical energy. This can be done through sports, dance, walking, or the ability to work at a standing desk.
  • Many times these children are great talkers; they speak rapidly and need to process their thoughts externally. Provide them with ample time and attention for sharing their thoughts.
  • Help your child unwind at the end of the day by teaching them relaxation techniques such as stretching, deep-breathing, meditation, or set up a relaxing and predictable nighttime routine.
how to help kids with psychomotor oe1
How to Help Kids With Psychomotor OE
  • Avoid activities that require sitting for long periods of time.
  • Provide opportunities for movement before and after periods of stillness.
  • Provide soothing and calming activities that help to relax your child.
  • Let your child hear positive comments about their psychomotor oe:
    • “I wish I had your energy.”
    • “You have wonderful enthusiasm and energy.”
    • “Your intensity can help you do many things.”
emotional oe
Emotional OE

Feelings and emotions intensified

positive feelings, negative feelings, extremes of emotion, complex emotions and feelings, identification with others’ feelings, awareness of a whole range of feelings

Strong somatic expressions

tense stomach, sinking heart, blushing, flushing, pounding heart, sweaty palms

Strong affective expressions

inhibition (timidity, shyness), enthusiasm, ecstasy, euphoria, pride, strong affective memory, shame, feelings of unreality, fears and anxieties, feelings of guilt, concern with death, depressive and suicidal moods

(Piechowski, 1999)

e motional oe continued
Emotional OE Continued

Capacity for strong attachments, deep relationships

strong emotional ties and attachments to persons, living things, places, attachments to animals, difficulty adjusting to new environments, com passion, responsiveness to others, sensitivity in relationships, loneliness

Well-differentiated feelings toward self

inner dialogue and self-judgment

(Piechowski, 1999)

how to help kids with emotional oe
How to Help Kids With Emotional OE
  • Careful and attentive listening is essential to children who feel emotions at a heightened level. They must feel heard and understood. They need help processing the feelings that they all too often keep bottled up. They need a trusted adult to shoulder the emotional weight with them.
  • Guide your child through the myriad of emotions; give them the correct terms and language to express their feelings. Instead of sad, as the only word he knows to describe feeling blue. Teach him forlorn, despondent, melancholy, disappointed, lonely, and in doing so you free him to better process his experience.
  • Instruct your child in productive ways of channeling her feelings, through journaling, dance, singing, art, or physical activity.
how to help kids with emotional oe1
How to Help Kids With Emotional OE
  • Foster empathy building activities, such as volunteer work that provide your child with positive ways to express their need to show caring.
  • Role-play and practice how to respond when angry, sad, or bewildered by a peer’s words or behaviors.
  • Model and share relaxation techniques.
imaginational oe

Free play of the imagination

frequent use of image and metaphor, facility for invention and fantasy, facility for detailed visualization, poetic and dramatic perception, animistic and magical thinking

Capacity for living in a world of fantasy

predilection for magic and fairy tales, creation of private worlds, imaginary companions, dramatization

Spontaneous imagery as an expression of emotional tension

animistic imagery, mixing truth and fiction, elaborate dreams, illusions

(Piechowski, 1999)

how to help kids with imaginational oe
How to Help Kids With Imaginational OE
  • If your child has an imaginary friend, relax and let your child play. It is a hallmark of the highly creative and imaginational OE child.
  • Instruct your child in how to keep a journal, or a scrapbook so that all those wonderful thoughts and ideas can be saved.
  • Encourage your child to write stories, invent, create, and build.
  • Engage in lots of “What if…” discussions where logic twists with the absurd or fantastical.
  • Point out and cherish other’s creative endeavors and products.
how to help kids with imaginational oe1
How to Help Kids With Imaginational OE
  • When needed, clarify the difference between the imaginary and real world, but tread lightly.
  • Let your child hear statements like these:
    • “I love your creative stories!”
    • “How unique and wonderful your imagination is.”
    • “You see the world in a way that many people don’t, and that is terrific.”
    • “Yes, I would love to hear a story / see your drawing / watch you perform.”
intellectual oe

Intensified activity of the mind

curiosity, concentration, capacity for sustained intellectual effort, avid reading, keen observation, detailed visual recall, detailed planning

Penchant for probing questions and problem solving

search for truth and understanding, forming new concepts, tenacity in problem solving

Reflective thought

thinking about thinking, love of theory and analysis, preoccupation with logic, moral thinking, introspection (but with out self-judgment), conceptual and intuitive integration, independence of thought (some times very critical)

(Piechowski, 1999)

how to help kids with intellectual oe
How to Help Kids With Intellectual OE
  • Make sure to stress the learning process over grades.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to interact with intellectual equals.
  • Honor your child’s passionate inquiries. Allow him or her to delve deeply into areas of interest.
  • Don’t expect adult behavior, no matter how bright, your child is a child.
  • Provide inquiry experiences, and allow for disequilibrium in learning.
how to help kids with intellectual oe1
How to Help Kids With Intellectual OE
  • Assist in goal setting, and help your child reflect upon steps towards goal achievement.
  • Allow for independent problem solving; try not to rush to lead them straight to the answer.
  • Let them hear you say:
    • “You really stick to projects that interest you.”
    • “Your curiosity fuels your intelligence.”
    • “You have great potential to learn new things and to make changes.”
sensual oe

Enhanced sensory and aesthetic pleasure

seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, delight in beautiful objects, sounds of words, music, form, color, balance

Sensual expression of emotional tension

overeating, sexual over indulgence, buying sprees, wanting to be in the lime light

(Piechowski, 1999)

how to help kids with sensual oe
How to Help Kids With Sensual OE
  • Provide an environment rich in stimulating sensory stimuli (what that is varies from child to child) and reduce, as much as possible, that which the child finds offensive.
  • Allow your child to spend time delighting in scents, smells, sensations, tastes, and sights without rushing him or her.
  • Cede control (within reasonable limits) of your child’s clothing, and room to your child.
  • Listen to and respect your child’s input regarding food, clothing, smells, and sensory experiences that may not match your own.
how to help kids with sensual oe1
How to Help Kids With Sensual OE
  • Realize that children with sensual OE may have strong and lasting attachments to stuffed animals, blankets, and certain pieces of clothing.
  • Let your child hear these statements:
    • “You know what you like and what feels good to you.”
    • “I love your delight in ____________.”
    • “Sometimes it is good to try new things. Would you like to try ___?”
family dynamics overexcitabilities
Family Dynamics & Overexcitabilities
  • Parenting a high-potential child has a great deal of rewards, but at times can be daunting as well as exhausting. Parents need to find ways to refuel their energies, have time to develop their own interests, and sustain relationships outside of the family.
  • Know that is common among parents with gifted children to feel a sense of grief or loss for the “normal” child and “average” childhood experiences that didn’t occur.
  • It is important to remain emotionally neutral in the face of strong emotional outpourings. This emotional flooding can be sudden and overwhelming to many parents; be patient and remember it is overwhelming to your child even more so. It is your responsibility to help your child through these intense times.
family dynamics overexcitabilities1
Family Dynamics & Overexcitabilities
  • Many gifted children will need you to advocate for them at school; pursue appropriate instructional differentiation and accommodations.
  • With several children in the home it is tempting to treat them all the same, but would you treat a child who couldn’t walk the same as the children who can? Your child has special needs, and those needs may require a more flexible parenting plan.
perfectionism a double edge sword
Perfectionism: A Double-Edge Sword
  • Perfectionism can be a healthy trait that helps your child to strive towards excellence or a crippling shackle binding your son or daughter to an unrealistic and unobtainable goal. How can you tell the two apart?
  • Healthy Perfectionism: This child strives for excellence but accepts mistakes as a natural part of the learning process. They give a strong effort to their areas of interests, and enjoy the process as well as the end product. They are motivated by an intrinsic desire rather than external measures. They can reduce their standards when necessary.
  • Unhealthy Perfectionism: This child is unable to relax his or her standards, and is motivated to please others. This child is often unsatisfied, and frustrated by the process of learning. At times, tasks are avoided for fear of producing inferior work. This child’s self-esteem is tied up in what he or she can produce rather than who he or she is.
perfectionism how parents can help
Perfectionism: How Parents Can Help
  • Don’t expect perfection! Make sure your child knows that mistakes are a part of life, and a necessary part of any learning task.
  • Celebrate the pain and mess that comes from challenges. That pain can be overcome through persistence, and tenacity. Help your child focus on solving problems, rather than avoiding them.
  • Show your child that you make mistakes too. Healthy perfectionism can be helpful in learning from your mistakes so that next time, the outcome will be different.
  • Appreciate their perfectionism. High standards and ideals are good to have. Let them know that you are proud of their conscientious efforts.
how else can parents help
How Else Can Parents Help?

Be Patient & Realize That Your Child isn’t Being Too _____(fill in the blank)

“You are being too sensitive!” “Stop being so obsessed with___.”

“Why don’t you play sports like your brother?” “Stop being so silly.”

“Our whole family loves to go to the beach. Why wouldn’t you want to go?”

Statements like these continually remind your child that you find their unique personality to be lacking in some way; that they are not acceptable, not understood, and not “normal”.

positive disintegration adolescence
Positive Disintegration & Adolescence
  • As your child experiences puberty and becomes and adolescent everything begins to change. Emotions become more intense as they shed their life as a child and begin to transform into a young man or woman. The world is awash with possibilities and promises.
  • For a gifted child, this time of great change can intensify the divide between their inner life and the pressures of expectations and situations thrust upon them from outer influences. Many begin grappling with weighty choices that will define their path through life.
asynchronous development
Asynchronous Development
  • While many gifted children often are advanced in talents, emotions, and cognitive abilities, they have bodies that develop at a normal pace. Some children display teenage mood swings, and grapple with issues of identity earlier than when the average child experiences these teen behaviors.
  • During puberty the feelings of being confused by one’s changing body, and surging hormones can be augmented through the gifted prism of multilevelness. Adolescent emotions, always mercurial, are further heightened in that of a gifted teenager.
helping your teen
Helping Your Teen
  • In order to navigate this time of great change, your child will need help in being able to analyze his or her own behavior and that of others in a non-judgmental way. This will require an open and reciprocal line of communication between yourself and your teenager.
  • Despite the appropriate need to distance oneself from one’s parents, a teenager has a deep need to connect. Finding meaningful connection with one’s peers can be even more difficult for a gifted teenager due to the lack of common interests, abilities, and emotional language. Parents must be there as a sounding board, and sage guide to help the gifted teen through these turbulent years.
stress your teen
Stress & Your Teen
  • The lack of meaningful give and take of ideas, added to the lack of considerate feedback, and lack of opportunities to best pursue the innate interests of the high-potential teen can lead to stress.
  • Feeling parental and societal pressures to produce consistent academic, or artistic products of excellence place stress upon the youth in that their gift is being cherished independent of the child it belongs to.
  • Awareness of complex societal ills, as in war, famine, pollution, corruption, and crime deeply trouble most gifted teens. Existential crises may occur as they try to understand humanity’s flaws and failures.
helping teens cope with stress
Helping Teens Cope With Stress
  • Be empathetic to the feelings your child is experiencing. Avoid sarcasm and belittling their emotions.
  • Respect their individuality and avoid comparing them with other teens.
  • Give them your time and your attention; let them have a shoulder to lean on.
  • Provide unstructured family time to decompress from the pressures of the world.
developmental trends seen in gifted teenagers
Developmental Trends Seen in Gifted Teenagers
  • Precocious Development
    • Many gifted individuals reach developmental markers at uncharacteristically young ages.
    • Developmental markers include spirituality, cognitive, creative, kinesthetic, morality, world-view, and sexuality to name a few.
    • A child displaying these asynchronistic developmental markers are often seen as precocious, or quirky, as they stand apart from the norm.
developmental trends seen in gifted teenagers1
Developmental Trends Seen in Gifted Teenagers
  • Arrested Development
    • Developmental aspects of a teen can remain fixed at a stage of development due to a painful external event or non-sustaining environment.
    • The extreme sensitivity of gifted teens makes them more vulnerable to damage from factors, words, and situations, that may seem harmless or inconsequential to the majority of people. However, to the child it can be a psychic wound that can be difficult to heal.
developmental trends seen in gifted teenagers2
Developmental Trends Seen in Gifted Teenagers
  • Repressed Functionality
    • When a child with high developmental potential does not consciously or unconsciously apply or use that potential, then dysfunction follows.
    • Vitality is diminished, and the child’s spirit is drained of energy from the process of suppressing that inherent potential. Anxiety, depression, and lack of optimal growth of self can follow.
negative environmental factors
Negative Environmental Factors
  • Lack of intergenerational contact between teens and adults:
    • The asynchronous nature of gifted teens offers little chance for meaningful and deep connections with their chronological peers.
  • Societal pressures to conform:
    • High-potential teens often squelch their authentic selves in order to conform to the cultural norm.
  • Lack of understanding of aspects of gifted persons
    • Too many physicians, counselors, and educators are untrained in the overexcitabilities, and disintegrative states common to gifted youths and tend to label behavior as negative or pathological.
negative environmental factors1
Negative Environmental Factors
  • Emphasis on External Manifestations
    • The important inner life of the gifted child isn’t honored. Instead teens are often judged based on external accomplishments and observable behaviors.
  • Achievement Inflation
    • Society and parents can overemphasize the talents of a high-potential teen, ignoring the other aspects of the youth’s personality and traits. This hyper-focus can lead to a teen who is self-important, crippled by perfectionism, or one who feels inadequate to meet the high expectations of others.
negative environmental factors2
Negative Environmental Factors
  • Vicarious Parenting
    • Living through their children, and being overly involved in their lives many helicopter parents rob their gifted teens of opportunities to engage with others, and the world. This can lead to the teen having difficulty developing an authentic sense of self separate from that of his or her own parents.
  • Limited Access to Enriching Environments
    • Gifted teens often have few or no places where they can go and feel completely connected, free to express themselves, and to follow their passions.
negative environmental factors3
Negative Environmental Factors
  • Artificial and Modulated Circumstances
    • In an attempt to provide one’s child with the optimal advantages, many parents have removed or softened perceived impediments or barriers to what they believe will bring their child success. By doing so the needed grist, struggle, and challenges that develop true flexibility of mind and self-reliance are removed.
how else can parents help1
How Else Can Parents Help?
  • Foster community building with true peers and inter-generational exposure.
  • Respect the unique qualities of your child without overly focusing on external markers of success.
  • Be wise and ethical in your lifestyle; your child is watching you. Include your child in on discussions that revolve around moral reasoning.
  • Shift some responsibilities to your child in a slow and well-thought out transfer of power from that of the parent to that of the capable teen.
the journey towards self actualization
The Journey Towards Self-Actualization

Like Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, your child is on an amazing journey. It is a journey that most likely will be full of tribulations and triumphs. There will be “witches” – people who seek to belittle or exclude your gifted child because he or she is different than the average child. There will be traveling companions – educated professionals, people of similar gifts, and you to share the burden of traveling through this world. The goal is to help your child to get home. Not to the house raised him or her in, rather to the optimal version of him or herself. The road will be daunting and dangerous, but you will be right beside your son or daughter the entire way. Dorothy had the magic within herself to go home, as does your child have the immense potential to become an amazingly spectacular human being. Dabrowski’s theory of Positive Disintegration is just one tool that can help your child get “home”.