There is a great deal written about overexcitabilities and gifted children. Dabrowski’s theories explain why many gifted children freak out, act out, and shout out. Parents of these kids know all too well the stress of dealing with overexcitable kids. However, there is another side to the overexictability angle, a quiet kind of overexcitability; a sensory overexcitability that causes these kids to feel every emotion exponentially. These kids don’t explode, they implode. As a parent of this kind of quietly desperate child, I can tell you that it is just as painful to experience, although perhaps not as publicly embarrassing.
My son is so emotionally sensitive to the feelings and wishes of those around him, that he cannot follow his own compass. He seems to lack judgment, self assurance, and common sense. He comes across as gullible. He has no protective filters for the daily bombardment of other’s emotions. He is like a turtle without a shell. He seems emotionally unconnected and often unresponsive. He didn’t return my daily “I love yous” until he was five. When he finally responded it was written on a tiny note inside nesting envelopes, which I was instructed not to open until he was safely in his room behind closed doors. Emotion is a raw, painful experience for my son.
He often misinterprets others’ intentions. One day at the park he and his sister were playing with a group of kids that they had known since they were very young. They were playing a complicated game of knights and princesses which involved a great deal of imprisonment and battling for freedom. I was visiting with the other Mom’s when I heard shouting and scuffling that didn’t sound like play anymore. I ran over to the kids to find that my son was desperately hanging on to the boy who was playing the villain and the boy was yelling at him to let go. I finally got my son calmed down and got him to let go of his friend. All the kids began talking at once and my son began to cry hysterically. I finally got the story that my son wasn’t playing, he was really tackling and fighting off the boy who was the bad guy because the girls were screaming and running and he thought he had to protect them. His twin sister was angry with him because he had ruined the game and he was devastated that she was angry with him. I sat down with him to comfort him and try to find out why he felt he had to protect the girls. He kept saying that the girls were really scared and I realized that at certain points in the game, when the bad guy snuck up on the girls and grabbed them, they probably were genuinely frightened for a split second. This little taste of real fear enhanced the thrill of the game for the girls; but my son was only seeing that they were really scared and trying to help in his own misdirected way. He is often bewildered by the complicated social interactions a play date involves. Watching him play with other children is like watching some foreigner trying to figure out the local customs and completely messing it up.
My son also withdraws when he has to make choices. He is indecisive and if pushed or pressured he practically goes catatonic. He is so overloaded with the possibilities, the ramifications of each of those possibilities, and the effects on others of each of those possibilities, that a simple decision becomes a minefield. This is especially true when he is being disciplined because he feels the disappointment or anger of the person who is disciplining him. He disobeyed his Dad the other day and his Dad was giving him two choices of how to remedy the situation. His Dad was tired and irritated, but actually being pretty calm and kind in how he talked to our son. However, I could see that our son was feeling the irritation behind the façade and he simply could not respond to his Dad’s request. I think we are good parents, we try to listen to our children and our methods of discipline are fair and respectful. Yet I often feel like I am whipping a puppy when I discipline our son. He rarely intends to disobey and the slightest expression of disappointment will make him curl into the fetal position.
He is also too compliant. He will do what anyone tells him to do. I came into the kitchen one day to see him sitting dejectedly at the kitchen table. When I asked him what he was doing he told me his sister put him on a time out. Even after I told him that his sister did not have the authority to put him on a time out, he was reluctant to disobey her order and leave the table. Another time he came running into the house sobbing that our neighbor boy told him he had to eat a worm, and he didn’t want to eat a worm, so could I please help him so he didn’t have to eat a worm. Is it any wonder I feel overly protective of this child? Yet I also feel compelled to help him learn how to navigate his world, to be successful and empowered to make choices, to be strong enough and aware enough to avoid or at least survive painful experiences. It is hard to walk that razor edge, to push him hard enough that he has to cope with life, yet not so hard that he falls apart.
Parenting this type of child requires that you be hypersensitive and aware. You have to see those silent signs of suffering, to be able to read the desperation in his eyes, and to help him find ways to overcome the stress. This type of child is not going to get the attention of less aware adults. He is not going to fly into a noisy, messy rage that forces the adults to take action. He is not going to demand his needs be met. He will just quietly fade away. You have to teach him how to express his distress in words, to take control of the situation, and empower himself. You have to be a translator, to teach him how to interpret social situations and negotiate problems. You also have to know when enough is enough and give him the option to withdraw.
It has been a slow uphill process, but we are seeing signs of progress. Our son will now tell his sister no if he doesn’t want to do something. He will sometimes tell us what he is feeling. He can be in a crowded public place for a few hours because he knows he can lock himself in his room when we return home. On occasion he hugs us and tells us he loves us. He will engage with other kids on a personal level once in a while. Sometimes he even remembers to say “please” and “excuse me.” I know that he has a long way to go; he will continue to struggle socially, he will never be the life of the party. It is likely that emotions will always be problematic for him, relationships won’t come easy. Yet he is learning that people who love you can provide respite from a harsh world. He knows that home is a safe place. He sees that his parents are willing to accommodate his sometimes eccentric needs, but that we also have expectations that may not be easy. Overall, we feel we are successful in meeting his needs most of the time and he is happy here at home. One day, I think we will be able to say that he is happy out in the world as well.

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14 thoughts on “The Invisible Overexcitability

  1. My son is very similar. So emotionally oversensitive to everyone and everything. Just recently we are starting to worry about depression. How incredibly sad that I am worried about my 8 year old being ‘depressed’. We are doing the best job we can as parents, but I wonder if it is enough?? Thank you for sharing – it may seem strange – but it is nice to know that we are not the only family who struggles with this.

    1. You are not alone. There are lots of us out here trying to do the best we can for our kids. Give yourself lots of credit and pats on the back, it is really hard to raise a profoundly gifted kid. If you want to talk off line, please feel free to email me at consult4kids@yahoo.com.

    1. No, we had him tested and the specialsist said he wasn’t. With profoundly gifted kids, it is not unusual for some of their behaviors to look like something else. I highly recommend Dr. James Webb’s book “Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults.”

    2. No, we had him tested at Stanford and they said he had some behaviors (hand flapping, social issues) that looked autistic, but that he was not.

  2. If I can just say, this was a lovely and informative blog post.
    It is so touching to hear these stories and your efforts to understand your son. Growing up, I was(still am) emotionally oversensitive and relate in many ways to your son’s behaviour. Coming through many difficult childhood circumstances and being incredibly sensitive was very difficult for both myself and for those who raised me! Perhaps progress may seem slow (as you say), but it will make a world of difference in the long run. 🙂 All the best, Ann

    1. Thanks Ann, I appreciate your kind words. It is my greatest hope that my efforts will be good ones that help my children have happy, fulfilling lives.

  3. Wow! I cannot write a coherent response as I feel too much for your son; I just relived all his experiences as you have portrayed them. It’s the story of my childhood, under different circumstances.

    I will come back and write some more if this post is active. All I can say is that I was about six years old and I remember sitting by the window for hours, imagining how I could keep my grandparents from dying, as my grandfather was suffering from a heart attach. What I could invent. What possibilities the world would bring for my fears not to come. All alone, by the window, watching the rain come down. I’m now 28.

    1. Hi Gerti,
      How is life at 28? Most of us parents wonder how it will all turn out! Please feel free to tell us your story.
      Melanie

  4. Thanks for your Post, it’s beautifully describing my emotional extremes ,
    My solution is like your son’s , having my house as a safe space in which I can recharge and reload my fluid self!
    When I walk I’m street I can feel my ‘self’ , when I see a leaf falling from a tree , I do the same, colours, words, food, love, beauty, death, are so full of meaning,
    I after 29 years have recently realised that it’s ok for me to feel extremely sad for a simple thing, I think your son is good to create something like a game, painting, or do sports that requires commitment and concentration, I do rock climbing it helped a lot,

    Good luck

  5. Thank you for this. I’m writing because my son was very similar. He entered public school for the first time when he was in first grade. He returned home and I could tell something had happened. He finally burst into tears and begged me not to make him go back to school. After a great deal of coaxing, he told me that “a boy pushed a girl off of the slide and made her cry. Why would he do that mommy? Why did he hurt her?” He struggled with socializing until his freshman year of high school. I’m not sure what happened, but he suddenly found the pattern for communication in large settings. Now, he has his peers rolling with his wit. He still sometimes locks himself in his room alone, but he has come to prefer the social scene. I wish I had understood him better when he was a child. I think your children are blessed to have such knowledgeable parents.

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