If you followed my series on the five types of overexcitability and discovered that your child has OEs, you’re probably asking, “Now what?”
When I first learned about overexcitabilities, my first reaction was a feeling of enormous relief to finally have an explanation for my son’s intense, sensitive behaviour. Next, I wanted to know how I could use this information to help my son be happier and find his place in the world.
Overexcitabilities are one part of a much broader theory of personality development. When we understand their place in this context, we can begin to appreciate the benefits OEs bring. Only then can we can start to deal appropriately with the accompanying challenges.
Finding out about OEs is not like getting a diagnosis: OE s aren’t a disorder, although they’re often mistaken for one.
OEs and Misdiagnosis
When you’ve spent years desperately trying to figure out what’s going on with your intense/sensitive/explosive child, you’ve probably spent a lot of time blaming yourself for his behaviour, and feeling judged by others too.
You’ve tried every parenting technique out there but nothing’s worked: you’re obviously doing something wrong (you think). So you begin trailing round the professionals.
And because OEs can look a lot like psychological disorders, the chances are that before long some well-meaning professional ticks enough boxes to diagnose your child with one. When this happens, among the complex and mixed emotions you feel at this point is relief: it’s not your fault.
I know I felt this way when my son was diagnosed, aged seven, with Sensory Processing Disorder. Finally I was finally able to tell sports coaches, frowning museum curators and friends that Jasper wasn’t deliberately being rude or naughty – his behaviour stemmed from the unreliable way his senses processed information.
In retrospect, I suspect that Jasper’s SPD ‘symptoms’ were actually caused by his psychomotor and sensual OEs, which may explain why the year of therapy he received made no difference to his behaviour. (A fact the occupational therapists explained away by suggesting that my son had ADHD as well!)
I’m not saying that children can’t have OEs as well as a psychological disorder, and if your child’s been diagnosed with one and the treatment is helpful, that’s great. (Whatever works!) But often there is no effective therapy, and the relief a parent feels on receiving a diagnosis quickly turns into helplessness and frustration. Of course, effective treatment is even less likely if the child doesn’t have the disorder to begin with.
Overexcitabilities as a starting point
But when we realise that overexcitabilities are at the root of a child’s behaviour we find ourselves, not trapped inside a labelled box, but at the start of a journey.
Overexcitabilities are a part of the personality theory which was the life’s work of the brilliantly creative and humane psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980).
According to Dabrowski, three factors must be present for advanced personal development:
(1) Innate ability (intelligence, talents, etc)
(2) Overexcitabilities, which provide the drive or energy to move forward
(3) The capacity for self-directed emotional growth.
In other words, OEs are a gift. Yes, our kids’ OEs can bring challenging behaviours that make us wonder, in us our darker moments, how the heck they’re going to cope with adult life. But we need to remember that it is the OEs themselves that will provide our children with the drive and energy to develop into fulfilled, self-actualised adults.
For me, reframing OEs in this way is a powerful place to start when it comes to supporting our children.
Nurturing our children’s capacity for emotional growth
Dabrowski himself believed that all three of the above factors were innate – you’re either born with them or you’re not. But other psychologists believe a person’s capacity for personal growth can be affected by their environment.
My own feeling is that this is very much the case. Someone whose basic needs (for health, shelter, or love for example) aren’t being met won’t have any spare energy to move forward, no matter what their innate potential might have been.
As parents of children with OEs, we can show our kids how to direct their energy towards their self-chosen goals. If we do it well, we’ll send our children into the world equipped to find a way through the frustration, conflict and struggle they’ll experience during their lives and able to use those feelings as opportunities for inner growth and to contribute to the world around them.
How can we support our intense and sensitive children?
Firstly, I believe we need to teach our children that their OEs are an innate and valuable strength, not something to be repressed.
Second, we must show them how to channel the powerful energy that OEs bring (“there is a delicate balance between honouring a feeling and managing its expression” – Daniels & Piechowski, Living With Intensity).
Often as parents of intense, sensitive, hyper-reactive children, all our energy gets spent fire-fighting – dealing with the day-to-day challenges that life with these children throws at us (usually at the same time as managing our own OEs).
We find ourselves desperately reaching out – “How can I stop my child doing …?”, “Help! My child keeps…”, “How do you deal with …?” etc. Of course we need this kind of support, and I intend to share tools and resources to help here on this blog.
But much of our stress as parents comes from worrying that there’s something wrong with our children and feeling anxious about their future. If we can keep focused on the positive role OEs can play in helping our kids be their best possible selves, growing towards a great future, we can save ourselves a huge amount of worry – leaving us with more energy to support and nurture these extraordinary young people.
What do you think?
- What do you think it’s important for kids with OEs to know?
- Was your child with OEs misdiagnosed?
- What else would you like to know about OEs?
There’s a lot more to Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration than I’ve had space to talk about here. I’ll explore other aspects of his theory in a future post. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more, here are a few places to start:
PowerWood: Perspective for the High-Able: Dabrowski
Support for families dealing with overexcitabilities: PowerWood
Living with Intensity by Daniels & Piechowski
Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults by James T Webb