by Vicky Moyle

Gifted individuals are about as diverse a group as any you could hope to meet. And, while few can agree on a black-and-white definition for giftedness, one characteristic of the population that has some global acceptance is emotional sensitivity. It is a feature of personality that often plays havoc with the ability to live easily in the world. That ‘world’ for our children has two main environments: the home and school. And, while I wouldn’t begin to pretend that emotional sensitivity is not without its trials and tribulations at home, it is in the school environment where children seem to have the most difficulty.

When you think about it, perhaps that is to be expected. Historically, one of the main roles of the public school is for the enculturation of young citizens. It isn’t likely that a standardized system of education will value a particular ability if the prevailing culture does not. And, traditionally, emotions are left out of most adult public discourse. So, too, emotions are often left outside the front door of the school — or they are hidden, disregarded, or outright denied within it.

Emotions, to common ways of thinking, are ‘messy.’ But, all emotions are not equal, and can be seen as having different levels. There are instinctual emotions such as anger, lust, revenge, fear, and rage that are often destructive and reactive. But the pre-frontal cortex of the brain can also temper our emotions, and those have very different motivations and functions. Emotions can be mediated by our intelligence and fuel our higher value system to generate qualities of compassion, empathy, justice, generosity, and humility. Gifted children have been known to exhibit high levels of moral development, fueled by deep and complex emotions, but they are often misunderstood. The opportunity to express those profound feelings that result in exemplary human activity is not often encouraged in school settings.

Make no mistake: teaching students how to operate successfully in their culture is an important skill — but not at the expense of driving feelings underground or forcing our children to give up an essential part of their character.

Learning that there is a time and a place for everything is one thing, but receiving the message that there is something wrong with them because they feel passionately is something else. Judgments from others follow closely on the heels of witnessing an emotional display — even if it is not dramatic. Labels of effeminate or histrionic tendencies are hard to dispel, and what gets labeled often gets marginalized.

Gifted individuals appear to have very intense needs for integrating their experiences and all aspects of their being. One reason that inappropriate academic placements can result in depressive states or acting out is because of this need to connect the cognitive and the emotional in a very deep way. A thwarted ability to integrate can make the child can feel empty and denied, and sometimes angry.

Most children (and many adults) have difficulty separating their inner feelings from outward displays of them, and have little awareness of the difference. A gifted child often learns very quickly the effect that his emotions have on others, and can mask them accordingly. Sometimes the masking is motivated by self-protection, to save one from ridicule. But sometimes a gifted child may mask his emotions to protect others. This compassion for others can be even more problematic because it results in the child denying his own self, and thus exacerbates a feeling of devastating separateness.

How to help your gifted child maintain a successful interface with the school culture, while at the same time helping him to maintain a healthy relationship with himself can be tricky. Even if you as a parent are discouraged or angry about the wisdom of events at school, try to express your feelings and opinions constructively. Try not to speak disparagingly or sarcastically about individuals. Try to empower your child by helping him to look for some way to act respectfully, but not to abandon his deep feelings. If an injustice is severe enough, and he feels as though he has to make a stand, support his decision — but don’t try to rescue him from the consequences of his actions. Help to model fierce stewardship — by instilling a feeling of responsibility for one’s own gifts and value system. We can’t coddle our children if we truly want them to rise to their potential, but our children’s sensitivity is crucial for their capacity to act ethically and passionately — and to fully realize their gifts. Sensitivity must have protection, a place for expression, and reciprocity. Our gifted children have to learn how to confront the challenges to ethical behavior that exist everywhere. They must have practice being effective in the face of the immense obstacles.

Help your children to find outlets for their sensitivity outside of school. Try to make time for exposure to Nature, animals, true kindred spirits, and contemplation. Provide some freedom to exercise their imaginations. Make sure they have safe, unstructured time. Talking about feelings is not the same as having unconditional acceptance and freedom to feel them. It is only then that they can learn how to appropriately choose to express them. There is deep validation to be had in experiencing feelings of exquisite connection and numinosity, and such experiences increase resiliency and purpose — two qualities that your children will need in their lives ahead of them.

For more on sensitivity and giftedness, check out:
Tips for parents of intense children

Developing a feeling vocabulary

Identity development in gifted children: Moral sensitivity

Sensitivity: A double-edged sword for the pre-adolescent and adolescent child

Vicky Moyle practices counseling and psychotherapy part-time and also teaches mathematics and statistics. She is serving her first year on the SENG Board of Directors as its Secretary/Treasurer.

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