Navigating Family Life When Overexcitabilities Collide


when overexcitabilities collide - tigers fighting

When you’re a child with overexcitabilities, one moment you might be talking at the top of your voice and five minutes later you need absolute silence. Unfortunately – because OEs are hereditary – you probably live with several other intense and sensitive folk whose needs rarely coincide with yours.

If you’re not talking at top volume, you might be leaping around, dancing, whistling, clapping, fidgeting, playing the same piece of music for hours on end, arguing, sucking, chewing, crunching, banging or expressing your intensity in one of a million other ways that make you just a little hard to live with. And that’s even before we take into account the sensitivities of other family members.

So what do we do when our children are screaming at each other (or worse) because their needs are out of sync with their siblings’? And how do we stay sane in the process?

Conventional methods don’t work in non-average families

When one child is bugging everyone else, the conventional approach is to step in and make the ‘offending’ child stop their behaviour. Maybe even punish them for it.

But who is the ‘offending child’? Is it the one who had so much energy that he needed to bang his drum while stamping his feet for ten minutes straight, or is it his sister who eventually bashed him on the head to make him stop?

And in the midst of all that chaos, do we have the wisdom to make that judgment?

An alternative approach

Instead of waiting until OEs collide, let’s teach all our kids to approach life with the resilient attitude psychologists call an internal locus of control – a mindset that will not only create a more peaceful home, but will benefit them throughout their lives.

People who have an internal locus of control (ILOC) believe that what happens to them depends on what they do, rather than on events outside their control.  (In contrast, people with an external locus of control believe that what happens to them is controlled by outside forces.)

People who live mostly in ILOC tend to be happier, more confident and successful, have a strong sense of self-efficacy, and enjoy better physical health.

So how do we help our kids to grow up with this positive attitude?  ILOC begins with that holy grail of parenting children with OEs: self-regulation.

Teaching our children self-regulation

When our kids are triggered, they flip into survival mode: fight or flight are the only options available to them. We want to get them back into their thinking brains, which is where their power lies.

To do this, we need to do something we’ve been doing since they were babies – use our own regulation to help soothe them.

Think about what happens when a baby cries and a calm, loving adult picks her up and cuddles her. The baby hasn’t yet learned to self-regulate, so the adult helps. (Contrast what happens when a dysregulated adult tries to calm a crying baby.)

Our intense and sensitive children are no longer babies but they have bigger ‘engines’ than other kids. It makes sense, then, that it takes them longer  to learn to learn to control those engines.

Of course, staying regulated ourselves  is easier said than done when we’re trying  to cook dinner at the end of a long day and yet another scream emanates from the bedroom.

As parents we can improve our own ability to self-regulate in two ways: by de-activating our past-based triggers, and by taking care of own needs.

Healing ourselves

Most of us were raised in families where intensity had to be suppressed. We learned – or were made – to stuff down our feelings to keep the peace. We grew up to be more or less functional adults, able to manage our emotions when we needed to.

And then we had children, and those intense children pushed buttons we never knew we had, bringing to the surface years of suppressed pain.

I’m not suggesting every parent of kids with OE needs therapy, but if we want to stay calm in the face of their intense behaviours, we need to find some way to deal with our own issues. (Paula Prober’s book, Your Rainforest Mind is an excellent place to start.)

Daily self-care

As well as dealing with the big stuff, we need to take care of our day-to-day needs if we want to stay regulated in the midst of our kids’ OEs. (See my series on how to use our overexcitabilities to nourish our souls for some ideas.)

Helping children increase their window of stress tolerance

We can help children learn self-regulation skills by chatting with them (when they’re calm) about their window of stress tolerance.

Make lists together of things that make their window smaller, and things that make it bigger. (Younger kids might relate more to the idea of a bucket that gets fuller or emptier.)

For ‘Things that make my window smaller’ they might come up with: playing video games for too long, staying up late, eating too much sugar, being hungry or thirsty, for example.

Things that make my window bigger’  might include: going for a walk, playing outside, eating healthily, cuddling the pets, jumping on the trampoline, enjoying a good book, playing with clay.

When we talk with our kids about stress tolerance, we’re teaching them that they have more control over how they react than they may have realised.

But what if a child’s done all she can to take care of herself, and her sibling’s intense behaviour is still driving her nuts?

‘What can I do to make myself feel better?’

Next, our kids need to consider what (peaceful!) steps they can take to stop their sibling’s behaviour affecting them.

For instance, if noise is an issue, can they move to a different room or even outside? Can they use ear defenders or listen to soothing music or white noise?

Teach powerful communication strategies

We can also show our children how to compassionately negotiate with their siblings. I like the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) model, in which we refer to our own needs and use non-blaming language.

NVC can be practised in advance and then be used either in the moment, or later when everyone’s calm.

An example might be: ‘When I hear you making that noise I feel overwhelmed because I need quiet to concentrate on my schoolwork.  Would you be willing to do something quieter for a while?’

But shouldn’t we be teaching our kids to be considerate?

So far I’ve talked about helping our kids self-regulate so that they’re better able to deal with with their siblings’ intense behaviours.

What’s I haven’t talked much about is the intense behaviours that some might say are causing the problems in the first place.  Does this mean I think we shouldn’t encourage our children to be respectful of other people’s needs? Of course not. I’m just trying to rectify the balance. The refrain of ‘Be quiet!’ and ‘Keep still!’ follows too many of these kids wherever they go.

But intensity is a part of who our children are. It’s no easier to turn off than their sensitivity.

Home is a place where we should all be allowed to express ourselves as the vibrant, quirky individuals that we are.

And if we can teach our kids to cope with each other, they’ll be able to cope with anything. 😉

* * *

How do you manage when overexcitabilities collide in your family?

I’d love to hear from you. 🙂

* * *

How to stay sane when your kids fight

You might also like this post, about how we turned an intense, crockery-smashing argument into an opportunity to become closer and wiser.

To receive my regular posts about living positively with intensity and sensitivity, don’t forget to leave your email address in the box at the bottom of the page.  You can also like Laugh, Love, Learn on Facebook.

To read more families’ experiences of navigating gifted traits, visit these great GHF bloggers.

navigating family life when overexcitabilities collide - goats locking horns

Main photo credit: Castleguard

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16 thoughts on “Navigating Family Life When Overexcitabilities Collide

  1. I love, love love the “window of stress tolerance” explanation for kids! I also love the quote, “Conventional methods don’t work in non-average families.” Wonderful points and reminders, and I am looking forward to trying your advice. Thank you!

  2. Such good points! Raising gifted kids isn’t about squashing them, it’s about teaching them to cope and self-regulate. Once my focus shifted to “they can’t help it” it made my intensities so much easier to deal with. Thank you for giving us gifted families such great tips to help manage this crazy life. (and I love that image – it sums my family up perfectly!)

    1. Thanks, Mary. 🙂 Easier said than done sometimes in the chaos of a typical day in our families, I know, but it does help to remember they can’t help it, doesn’t it?

  3. The window of stress tolerance! I first learned of that idea from “The Explosive Child” and it has been so helpful. I also love that you cite NVC. It is such a powerful way of communicating with children who are out of sync. But I think my favorite point that you make is that if we teach our children to cope with each other then they’ll be able to cope with anything! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Julie, I most recently came across the window of stress tolerance in Heather T Forbes’ ‘Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control’. She writes mostly about children with trauma history but the model seemed perfect for kids with OEs. (Whatever helps, right?!) Thank you for reading, and for your encouragement – it’s much appreciated. 🙂

        1. Definitely, Heather! When I came across her work (via the EdNextGen online conference) I felt like I’d been handed a missing piece of the puzzle. Even though I’d previously come across the concepts she talks about, she combines neuroscience with anecdotes about real families in a way that made a huge contribution to me. Not least because it gave me the language to explain to other people what I intuitively know my son needs.

  4. LOVE the perspective of teaching strategies to cope with a family member’s intensity. You’re totally right, that often we fall into the trap of trying to get the intense person to regulate, but they also need a soft place to simply let it all hang out. Thank you for this – it will definitely help me alter some approaches I use to navigate our youngest, non-stop, intensely psycho-motor kiddo!

    1. Thank you so much for reading and your kind words, Heather. I’ve learned so much from reading all these posts. Plus it’s always good to remember that we’re not the only family like this!

  5. Hi Lucinda,
    I’m so sorry I haven’t been around recently in blog land. Schooling all five of my lovelies is making for a crazy, crazy busy life at the moment. Thank you for not giving up on me, and popping by my blog to say hello 🙂
    As always I find this very interesting. At least one of my children has over excitabilities, and has such an enormous amount of energy which she struggles to contain at times. We have noticed that just before a crash in mood and energy levels comes a huge spike in both. I am teaching her to recognise this for herself and attempting to teach her that she can control certain aspects. For example, when she has a spike in energy this tends to be the time she will annoy her siblings (quite without meaning to) and it will also be the time she will feel annoyed by them herself. So she is learning that during these times she needs to take herself away from everyone and have some time alone, walking if at all possible.
    I think communication is always the key, in both helping her understand herself and her needs as well as considering others, but also just as important is talking lots with her siblings so that they understand what is going on more and can then know what to expect.
    She is so very alive, far more than anyone else I know and it is a privilege to be her mummy 🙂

    1. Hi Claire, I would keep visiting your blog even if you never had time to read mine – what you write is always so interesting and inspiring! But of course it’s always lovely to see you here and to chat with you about our children who, as you beautifully put it, are ‘so very alive’. 🙂

      I love the way you love and support each of your children for the unique individuals they are. The daughter you mention here is very lucky to have a family who appreciate her true nature. Of course we all need to learn to get along with others, but if we have to suppress our intensity all the time we can never learn to channel it towards making the world a better place for ourselves and everyone else.

      Walking alone (or with furry friends) is one of my favourite ways to find peace, too. 🙂

  6. Loved what you shared her. Resonated with me so well. It’s also a struggle for me to find balance in teaching my kids to self-regulate and to show consideration for those around them. Plus, I find it challenging to deal with their over excitabilities while dealing with my own as they trigger my OEs.

  7. Super helpful in thinking about all 3 of my OE kids (and my own challenges in dealing with them.) Thank you for sharing!

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