People with emotional overexcitability feel things intensely. During the course of a single day (or hour) a child with emotional OE might go from dancing with joy to rolling on the floor in the depths of despair and back again. Many are acutely attuned to other people’s feelings and care deeply about loved ones’ wellbeing, sometimes to a degree that gets in the way of them meeting their own needs.
Children with emotional OE experience deeper, more complex emotions than many adults around them realise is possible for a child their age. These are the children who in generations past were told (and sadly sometimes still are) to ‘toughen up’ or ‘stop being so sensitive’.
Some, like my daughter, find it easy to share their feelings verbally. Others struggle to express the extreme emotions going on inside them – even to themselves. These children can grow increasingly frustrated and end up releasing their feelings in a sudden torrent, much to the bewilderment of those around them.
If you have emotional overexcitability you may well have recognised yourself and your child from what I’ve said already. If not, here are some clues.
15 Things your child with emotional overexcitability might say . . .
“I love you” Yes, most children say this, but a child with emotional OE will say it as he embraces his best friend so hard that she falls over. Or through eyes brimming with tears as she struggles to contain the intensity of her love. Or, just before she goes to sleep on Christmas Day, in a long and poignant text message, accompanied by 27 multi-coloured hearts.
“I hate you” This one will be accompanied by a facial expression that leaves you in no doubt that he really means it! (At least in the moment he’s uttering the words.)
“We need to help her” Said about a stray dog, a homeless person begging, or a toddler crying in the park. These children feel what others feel and are deeply affected by those feelings, often giving rise to a compelling urge to help.
“What should I do?” The heightened empathy these kids feel can mean they tend to put others’ feelings above their own needs. They might have a strong desire to do something but be paralysed by second-guessing what they believe someone else wants. Meanwhile the other person is completely unaware of the problem because the child doesn’t want to upset them by bringing it up!
My daughter had some coaching last year to help her understand more about her OEs. During one session (which she later shared with me) she talked about the clothes she wears on Scout camps. Being a good mummy, I’d always bought the exact (unisex) items written on the kit lists.
Meanwhile, the other female Scouts had started to wear more fashionable clothes, and Cordie wanted to do the same (we’re talking girl-cut combat trousers here, not high heels). But because she’d always seen me buying the exact items from the list, Cordie felt that practicality and economy were of paramount importance to me, and was afraid to tell me what she really wanted.
Of course once I discovered what was going on, I was able to reassure Cordie that her feelings mattered, and now we both enjoy shopping for pretty-coloured fleeces and cute bobble hats. 🙂
“I want things to stay the same” Children with emotional overexcitability can develop deep emotional bonds with family, friends, animals, places and things. As a result, they often want everything to be permanent, and can struggle with changes like moving house or school.
So when you’re planning a trip away you might hear . . .
“I can’t go on holiday without Harvey!” [the dog]
And when you suggest pruning their wardrobe . . .
“But why can’t I wear this T-shirt any more?” (about a garment whose hem is now just above his navel). My mum once cut the arms off a cardigan I insisted on wearing long after it had become threadbare. I retrieved the sleeves from the bin and made her take this photograph of me ‘wearing’ the dismembered cardi for the last time.
“I’ve said something that upset her” People with emotional overexcitability can spend hours worrying about little things they’ve said that might have upset or caused offence to another person. (One strategy that can help assuage a child’s anxiety is to acknowledge the validity of her feelings while gently reassuring her that the other person probably isn’t experiencing what happened in the same way.)
“You’re my best friend” If you have emotional overexcitability you have a strong need for depth and intensity in relationships. A child might move from one short-lived friendship to another, never feeling fulfilled. If they’re lucky enough to find a kindred spirit, they will be passionate and loyal friends.
However, their need for depth in relationships can cause them to overstep other people’s boundaries and scare away the people they’re trying to connect with. So you might hear the heart-breaking words …
“Why won’t they let me play?” When a child with emotional OE does experience a friendship intensely, he expects the friendship to last for life and might mourn for months when a new friend doesn’t want to play any more. He can also become upset when his intense feelings aren’t reciprocated. Even the most confident child with emotional OE can feel lonely and might even be prone to being bullied.
“I just want to die” I remember reeling in shock the first time I heard my son say these words. What on earth could lead an eight-year-old to say such an awful thing? I’ve since found out that it’s not at all uncommon for kids with emotional overexcitability to express sentiments like these.
When a child with emotional OE feels completely overwhelmed by a negative emotion, he doesn’t have the experience to know that the feeling will pass, and he feels like it will last forever. Parents of teenagers with emotional OE have told me that, for similar reasons, as these young people get older they can be prone to bouts of ‘what’s the point of living?’ existential depression.
“This is the best day ever!” Other times – when he’s won a game, is eating a delicious meal or is about to play with his favourite cousin – your emotionally OE child can light up the house with his radiant gladness. Maybe even on the same day as he’s told you he doesn’t want to go on living.
Which isn’t to say that this young person’s emotions are superficially felt. On the contrary, these children are genuinely capable of experiencing a breathtakingly wide range of intense and complex emotions in a short space of time.
“Turn it off!” While children with sensual OE are sensitive to input coming through their senses, kids with emotional OE react strongly to the content of what they experience. These children might be so moved by a story, TV programme or the words of a song that they become quite distressed.
When my daughter was six she loved the movie High School Musical. We were listening to the soundtrack in the car one day when Cordie suddenly stopped singing and shouted “Turn it off!”
I turned round in surprise to see tears streaming down her cheeks. It wasn’t until later that I figured out that her upset had been triggered by the lyrics of a song in which the lead characters break up. (“I’ve got to move on and be who I am. I just don’t belong here, I hope you understand. We might find our place in this world someday. But at least for now, I gotta go my own way…”)
Now she’s 12, my daughter’s learned to be more discerning about what she watches and listens to and is better able to communicate what’s going on inside, but when she was little I had to be very vigilant to help her manage the strong feelings that could be aroused by the most unlikely triggers, like Barbie movies or kids’ picture books.
These children can also be very upset by by real world news events, and may need special care and attention at home if tragic stories have been discussed in school.
“My tummy hurts” People with emotional overexcitability often respond physically to their emotions, with anxiety-induced headaches or stomach aches. This can be a useful clue about what’s going on inside a child who has trouble finding the words to describe what they’re feeling.
“Arghh!” When their intense feelings become too much for the child to hold in, they might suddenly overreact to a minor setback with disproportionate meltdowns. Kids who have difficulty expressing what they’re feeling are especially prone to this.
“Adults can help these children distinguish between their feelings and behaviours. … There is a delicate balance in honoring a feeling and managing its expression.”
(Living With Intensity)
And then there are the many things children with emotional overexcitability don’t say . . .
You can be sure that for every feeling he verbalises, a child with emotional OE experiences many more emotions that aren’t expressed.
Some children learn to hide their sensitivity to protect themselves, even becoming quite withdrawn. Other children’s intense feelings simmer inside them, causing an increasing amount of inner distress until they suddenly pour out like lava from a volcano.
Even children who never seem to stop talking (like those with psychomotor OE) are likely to feel myriad complex emotions for every one they give voice to.
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The positive side of emotional overexcitability
Of all the OEs, emotional overexcitability is the one I most wish I’d known about when I was growing up. Over time I’ve found strategies for managing my intense emotions – journalling, for instance – but I always thought there was something wrong with me for being so sensitive. It wasn’t until I learned about emotional OE at a PowerWood workshop last year that I finally began to value this part of myself (yep, there were tears).
As the mother of two children with emotional OE, I’m helping my kids learn how to manage their emotions, but – even more importantly – I want them to know what an asset emotional overexcitability can be. While not every emotionally OE child will grow up to be Gandhi or Mother Theresa, everyone who has this innate personality trait has the drive to improve themselves and make a difference in the world. They were made this way for a reason and the world needs them, just the way they are.
Over to you
- Do you or your child have emotional overexcitability?
- How do you help your emotionally OE child with friendships?
- What are your tips for helping your child to express his emotions?
I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or on the Laugh, Love, Learn Facebook page.
If you have any questions about any of the overexcitabilities please feel free to drop me an email. Psychologist and OE expert Simone de Hoogh is now working with me here at Laugh, Love, Learn. We’d love to know what’s on your mind so we can provide answers to any concerns you might have.
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This is the final part in my series on the five types of overexcitability. See also:
Part 1: 7 Signs Your Child Has Psychomotor Overexcitability
Part 2: What Is Sensual Overexcitability?
Part 3: The Ups and Downs of Imaginational Overexcitability
Part 4: 6 Things You Need If Your Child Has Intellectual Overexcitability
Next week I’ll be talking about the positive role of overexcitabililties in personal development and how we can teach our children to appreciate their OEs. Fill in the Follow by Email box below to get it straight to your inbox.
Emotional Overexcitability – Resources
PowerWood – Emotional overexcitability
Jade Ann Rivera – How to identify and cope with overexcitabilities, part 1 of 5: Emotional overexcitability
SENG – The gift of emotional overexcitabilities
Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents and Adults (Daniels and Piechowski)
Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults (James T Webb)
To find out if you or someone in your family has overexcitabilities, take the free online OE questionnaire at the PowerWood website. (Results come back by return email.)