From Polar Shifts to Nuclear War; Why Gifted Children Worry

Volume 3

Why Gifted Children Worry

Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski identified five areas of increased sensitivities more prevalent in those with higher intellectual capacity. These overexcitabilities (OE’s) include Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Emotional and Imaginational. Children with combinations of OE’s are capable of feeling very deeply about intellectually-advanced subjects, including perceived global threats. Unfortunately, by the very nature of these children being gifted and having asynchronous development, they don’t have the maturity to process these perceived threats emotionally. And since no gifted child has had decades of ‘real life’ experience on the planet to help them qualify threats as highly-unlikely, they worry. New research suggests that people with “hyper” brains (i.e. high IQ’s) also have “hyper” bodies with hyper-reactive nervous systems.

In our house, anxiety didn’t really present itself until the middle school years when adolescence began and the limbic “fight or flight” system started to become more active. Our eldest son had always worried a little bit about his parents dying and he would get hysterical if he couldn’t find one of us in the house. But in 6th grade after reading a (fake) news story about “the impending polar shift and how it was going to destroy the earth,” he become consumed with worry. He talked incessantly about the poles collapsing on whatever date the article had predicted they would shift, and no amount of reassurance from us would assuage him of his fears. When that day on the calendar came and went without incident, he calmed down for a few days and then transferred his worry to something else. His amygdala had been activated and it has not really calmed down since. Today he worries about North Korea nuking the United States despite repeated assurance from high-ranking US intelligence officer friends that such a scenario is extraordinarily unlikely.  My son’s self-defeating beliefs often sabotage his ability to enjoy the here and now.

Anxiety can be a tough dragon to slay but here are some of the tools we and other parents have used to help their gifted children manage their worries. Note: If the worrying interferes with your child’s ability to maintain their regular routine, it’s best to engage a good cognitive behavior therapist in your area who understands the needs of gifted children. Any threats of self-harm or symptoms of depression should be taken seriously and treated as medical emergencies.

  1. If the worry is pervasive but not overwhelming, encourage your child to get in the habit of taking three slow, deep breaths at various intervals throughout the day. Three calming breaths have been shown to completely reset brain chemistry and the increased blood flow to the extremities helps to calm jumpy nerves.
  2. If your child worries about world events, limit or eliminate their access to news. In the age of instant access to information, this is a lot harder than it sounds. But being able to recognize triggers is an important step towards helping your child manage his or her own anxiety in the years to come. And let’s face it, news today is all about producing anxiety in the viewer!
  3. Exercise is critically important to calm down the anxious brain. Encourage your child to move more and sit less during times of anxiety. Even a brisk 20-minute walk can help take the edge off.
  4. For some children, journaling helps them process their fears. Ask the child to write about their worries, including worst case scenarios. Have them also think about the statistical odds of these events happening. Some psychologists advocate having the child make a tape recording of them saying their worst fears. They advise that the kids play the tape repeatedly so the brain becomes desensitized to the message. Then when the fear crops up in their head, the brain considers it ‘old news’ and doesn’t react with a flood of adrenaline in a panicked response.
  5. Each time a perceived threat does not happen as feared, highlight that to your child as an example that sometimes we worry about things unnecessarily and that the more you live on the planet, the more you realize most fears are unfounded. Focus on concerns over which your child has direct control such as eating a healthy diet, getting ample sleep and developing hobbies.
  6. Practice mindfulness with your child where you teach them to focus on the here and now. When a child is feeling anxious, ask him or her to name five objects they see, sounds they hear and textures they feel in their environment at that exact moment. This exercise forces them to focus on the immediate rather than worry about the future.

Anxiety is part and parcel with being gifted for many children. Most our kids will develop healthy coping mechanisms by the time they become adults. Parents can help by expressing empathy and patience when a child worries. Try some of these techniques with your child and let me know what works best.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]