February 7, 2010

Raising "Intense" Children (Part One)

As early as 1970, a Polish psychologist named Kazimierz Dabrowski coined the term “overexcitability.” Overexcitability basically means supersensitivity, a higher than average capacity for experiencing both internal and external stimuli, based on a higher than average responsiveness of the nervous system. Reactions tend to be over and above average in intensity, duration and frequency. What’s important to note is that this tendency isn’t a result of something we’ve done as parents. It’s in a child's wiring! I think parents often feel judged or blamed by people who look at them as the source of our kids’ intensity. They may even be well-meaning friends and family members who assume that if only parents didn’t tolerate this type of sensitivity or overexcitability, their kids would just stop it. Perhaps parents believe this as well. Remember, this type of intensity can be in children’s wiring and part of their temperament.

There are several forms of overexcitability, and each one needs parenting strategies that aren’t always in the typical childrearing books. Five particular styles have been identified. I will be discussing each separately in the blog entries this month. Your kids probably fit the description for more than one. I’m summarizing here from the work of Sharon Lind from the organization called SENG – Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. These overexcitabilities can apply to gifted kids, but I believe that they characterize other children as well.

The first overexcitability (OE) is called psychomotor. Psychomotor is related to activity level, energy level, and the need for movement. Sometimes these kids may be impulsive or have nervous habits. They may move or even talk in an intense way. If they are feeling tense, they may talk a lot or talk very quickly. It’s like being verbally hyperactive. These kids may enjoy being so active – physically or verbally –but others may find them overwhelming. They may also fit the characteristics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Here are some strategies for parenting kids like these: Make sure you provide time for non-structured activities. These are kids whose time should not be completely programmed. I actually think that down-time is important for all our kids. Build physical activities and movement into their lives. Help them channel their verbal and physical activities into ones that aren’t distracting to others. For example, singing in the middle of class isn’t usually a good idea unless the class is music. Some teachers might understand the need for a bathroom break is more about the need to move around than a real need to use the bathroom. Hopefully, they can be flexible. Traditional school can be particularly hard for kids when there’s no break involved, no recess. For kids like these, it is really important to protect any down-time that may exist during the day. As with many of the OEs, kids with psychomotor OE may benefit from learning relaxation techniques like deep breathing or yoga.

It’s also really important to help them learn about how their behavior may affect others. Again, this is true of some of the other OEs as well. What do I mean by “help them learn about how their behavior may affect others.” I’ll give you an example for the psychomotor kids. They may get so excited about something or have a strong immediate need to do something and may then interrupt impulsively, without really noticing what is going on around them. It’s important to go beyond telling them not to interrupt. We need to let them know that first of all, we recognize that they didn’t necessarily mean to be rude. They probably weren’t aware of the fact that their interruption can give the person speaking the impression that the child has no interest in what the other person is saying. It may be just the opposite – they may be so excited about something they want to say in response that they can’t wait. Kids like these need help from us to slowly learn how they may be perceived, because it is often very different from how they perceive themselves or from what their intentions may be.

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