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Coping with Extreme Empathy of the Very Young Gifted

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: I have a 3-year-old daughter who is gifted. She has been advanced in most of her development, knows sight words, and does extremely creative play. So I know what a gifted kid looks like.

I also have a 16-month-old. She speaks in full sentences, uses manipulative toys almost as well as her older sister, and understands things in both English and Greek. She loves music and games that use math, and she knows the alphabet. Based on how she plays "math" games with her toys, I believe she understands the underlying principles of addition and subtraction.

I believe my younger daughter is extremely gifted. Unfortunately, she is also extremely empathetic. It cripples her. For example, today I was on the phone and found out something upsetting. Even though I didn't yell, my daughter could tell I was angry and started shrieking inconsolably. It took me almost 20 minutes to calm her down. This is a common event, although today was more extreme than usual.

Do you have any advice for coping with such extreme empathy in a child so young? I want to stress that this was not a behaviour of screaming because I was on the phone. She has done that before, too, and there is a difference. This was more like a panic attack than a temper tantrum.

I would appreciate any advice you could provide. Thank you.

A: Heightened sensitivity and intense emotions are among the distinct characteristics of a gifted child and is demonstrated as early as in infancy. Your child appears to display these characteristics, which is why she is quick is pick on emotions in her environment and react to it. Especially being so young, I can understand your concern on how to help her cope.

Dabrowski, a renowned psychologist has suggested that the stimuli response of gifted individuals is more pronounced than normal in five main areas - psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional. He called these overexcitabilities, (OE's,) as they involve psychological and central nervous system sensitivity. These overexcitabilities, especially the latter three, is often seen to cause a person to experience daily life more intensely and to feel the extremes of the joys and sorrows of life profoundly. Emotional OE is a broad range of emotional intensity, happier, sadder, more depressed, extreme empathy, and compassion. As gifted individuals vary in terms of their intensities combinations of OE's, Dabrowski believed emotional OE to be central to them all. Sometimes, in children these OEs can be mistaken for lack of control and immaturity.

What your child is going true is quite rare for her age. Another child may be unable to extrapolate from a situation in which they witness a suffering and feel deeply for it. At her age, she is beginning to develop a sense of verbal self as things can now be labelled, discussed and categorised. She has recognised herself as being a separate individual from the mirror as in her image. Therefore, she is also starting to recognise that distressed feelings can belong to another person and that people have feelings and thoughts. Due to this, they would recognise distress of other as she did with you and may try to comfort. But, due to her very young age (and at this stage, they have no theory in mind as yet), she is not able to comfort and can only feel - hence the crying as intense emotion. This is the beginning stage of empathy as a direct response to the feelings of others, in this case, the mother, the significant other in her life. This happens around two years of age for most gifted children but is very possible to gifted children who have heightened sensitivity and intense emotions as in your case.

Because your child is very young, it may be harder to help as there is minimal understanding at this stage. Some strategies can be tried though. Whenever she experiences such emotional outbursts, instead of telling her that it is fine, help her with the necessary tools to independently figure things out. You need to reach to her and teach her specific strategies that you know works to comfort her (try not to use junk food as a reward here). She needs to learn how to redirect the feelings into more productive behaviours. For example, when she reacts intensely next time, do something that calms her down by distracting her focus. Maybe a hugging favourite teddy or toy or modelling behaviour yourself and showing that you are fine. This would be a trial and error method and perhaps needs to be used to few times before any positive results are seen. When she is older, it would be a little easier to cope as she would understand verbal rationalisation but at this stage it may be a little hard - but not impossible.

Other techniques are relaxation methods or an outlet to let out emotions - again, this may work better for an older child but is always worth a try. If the situation is getting worse, please consult a child psychologist for more focussed behavioural intervention. Intense and sensitive children are prone to over arousal and empathetic feeling. They need reassurance at the moment but that alone is not sufficient. They also need to know how to make a positive response - for e.g., what to do or say when such a situation is faced. This would require assistance and guidance from the parents/caregiver.

Hope that helps a little. Good luck!


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