‘How do you talk to children about overexcitabilities?’ asked a friend recently. ‘What and how much do you share, and when in terms of maturity?’
Let’s start by asking whether we need to talk with kids about OEs at all.
Why talk to children about overexcitabilities?
Children with OEs know they’re different from other kids. Even if they aren’t aware of it within the family, as soon as they start mixing with other children and adults, they begin to notice.
What children don’t realise is that they’re not experiencing the world the same way as other people. So they think it’s their reactions that are wrong, which soon generalises to, ‘There’s something wrong with me’.
They wonder, ‘Why can’t I keep still at story time, when all my friends can?’
They get frustrated when their friends don’t follow the rules of the elaborate game they invented.
They’re driven crazy by the flickering light everyone else can ignore.
A story about a lost dog upsets them all day while their friends move on.
They feel rejected when no one wants to listen to them talk about their rock collection (again).
We need to let kids know what’s going on for two reasons:
1. So they know there’s nothing wrong with them
Children with OEs are different, but not broken or less than anyone else. In fact most have an even greater capacity to enjoy life than their peers.
2. To help them manage their behaviour
Talking with our children about their OEs is an important step in teaching them how to manage their extremes, especially in social situations.
Kids who don’t know about OEs are likely to internalise that there’s something wrong with them. They’ll respond by either trying to suppress their intensity completely or giving up and ‘acting out’ rebelliously.
When to talk to children about overexcitabilities
Kids with OEs are even more individual than other kids, and they usually develop asynchronously. You’re the expert on your child. You know what she can understand on an intellectual level and what she can handle emotionally. They way I explained OEs to my with my 9-year-old son was very different from how I talked with his 10-year-old sister.
Choosing the right time to talk
Always pick a moment when both you and your child are calm and your window of stress tolerance is high. Avoid using the language of OEs to address behavioural problems in the moment, even if the behaviour was obviously triggered by overexcitable traits.
Should we use the word ‘overexcitability’?
I don’t much like the word ‘overexcitability’ (originally a translation from Polish).
I use it here because I want people to be able to find this blog, but I prefer terms like intensity, super-stimulability or just excitability.
Even ‘OE’ sounds too much like a psychological disorder or learning disability.
I’ve always used the word ‘overexcitability’ with my own children because sharing about it is one of my passions, but I see no reason to use the word when talking with younger children. As they get older it may be worth giving them the word in case they want to do their own research or find kindred spirits.
With young children I would focus on addressing specific OE behaviours. Here are some examples, using the framework of the five overexcitabilities. (Note that each OE can look quite different from child to child – see the Children With Overexcitabilities flyer under the resources section below for a comprehensive guide.)
Emotional OE – ‘You care about animals and you feel sad when you think they’re unhappy or hurt. Your friend Saffy cares too, but you feel things extra deeply. That’s okay.’
Imaginational OE – ‘You have a really big imagination. When you play with your toys, it’s like they’re real. Not everyone can do that. When you share your ideas with your friends, they might not be able to imagine things as clearly as you do.’
Intellectual OE – ‘You wonder about everything! That’s why you ask so many questions. It’s great to be so curious. Not everyone wonders about things as much as you do. Sometimes they need some quiet time. Maybe you could write or draw your questions, so you can remember them for later.’
Sensual OE – ‘You hate the feel of scratchy clothes, and the sound of the busy train station. And you love stroking your soft bunny and listening to sea. Some people don’t notice those feelings and sounds.’
Psychomotor OE – ‘You have so much energy! You love to jump, and dance, and talk. Not many people have as much energy as you. Sometimes it’s hard for them to keep up.’
As children get older we might want to talk about overexcitability in more general terms, showing them how their OE behaviours relate to one another.
Examples of the kinds of things you might say
‘You’re a bit more sensitive than most other people. You notice things they don’t, and sometimes people are surprised by how strongly you react. That’s because they don’t experience the world in the same way you do.’
‘You might be bothered by things other people don’t notice. But your sensitivity also means you can enjoy things more than other people. I know you really love the taste of chocolate ice cream, for instance! And cuddling Milly (the dog) makes you feel really good, doesn’t it?’
Older children might relate to more complex metaphors.
My son has most of the OEs, including psychomotor. We talk about how his engine runs faster than most people’s.
‘It’s like you’re driving a Ferrari and they’re driving a Ford. Because you have such a powerful motor, it’s going to take you a little longer to learn to handle your energy. Sometimes other people can’t keep up with you, so you might want to slow down for them sometimes. You could even do a few laps on your own first.’
OE brings advantages and challenges
We can talk with older children about how OE is a difference which has its upside and its difficulties:
‘You love learning all about the things you’re curious about, which brings you lots of enjoyment. But you sometimes get frustrated when other people aren’t as interested as you are. They might not have time to answer all your questions.’
‘You feel what other people feel, which makes you a kind and thoughtful friend. But sometimes you give yourself a headache worrying about other people.’
Talking with children about these challenges is the first step to helping them learn how to manage them. (For instance, by finding positive ways to deal with anxiety.)
As they get older, young people may be interested in finding out more about the personality theory OEs are a part of.
According to Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, individuals who have certain traits (including OEs) are capable of coming through life’s crises not only stronger but as more of their best, most authentic selves.
Adolescence can be a pretty intense time, so knowing about TPD might help young people reframe the challenges they’re facing, or at least give them hope that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
This article is a very accessible place to start:
‘Positive disintegration is what happens when a person lets go of the way he or she previously made sense of the world and rebuilds it in line with what s/he determines to be his/her own authentic values.’
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Have you ever spoken with your kids about overexcitabilities?
Do you have any tips to share?
I’d love to hear from you!
Children With Overexcitabilities – click on ‘Download the latest OE info flyer by PowerWood’ for this great resource. Email me or Simone de Hoogh at PowerWood if you’d like a free colour copy of the flyer.
Living With Intensity by Daniels & Piechowski – book with chapters about children and adolescents with overexcitabilities
Children’s books about overexcitabilities
The School For Gifted Potentials by Allis Wade. My daughter and I loved this 2 book fiction series.
Laugh Love Learn articles about each of the overexcitabilities
Theory of Positive Disintegration
Introducing Dabrowski’s theory (CounterNarration website)
Perspective for the highly able: Dabrowski (PowerWood website)
Finding Treasure in Ruins (Aurora Remember website)
Are you bringing up children with overexcitabilities? Don’t forget to leave your email address in the Follow By Email box below to receive my regular posts about how to enjoy life in a sensitive and intense family direct to your inbox. You can also like Laugh, Love, Learn on FaceBook.
Finally, I’d love you to share this post with your friends on social media. Let’s help spread the word about OEs. 🙂
Image by Sponchia