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Understanding Emotional Sensitivity in Gifted Children

Strategies to keep a bright child following home and school rules.

Key points

  • Raising a highly sensitive or gifted child has its own challenges.
  • Gifted children may require extra encouragement and practice socializing.
  • Understanding a gifted child's unique strengths and weaknesses can help adults provide the support they need.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Growing up in West Hollywood, I saw my mother struggling to raise my older brother, Alan, who was a genius. For example, he received his Ph.D. in solar physics at the age of 21 from Cal Tech. Besides being a math wiz, he was seriously socially awkward. My twin sister and I worried that he was autistic. (We did not know the clinical meaning of autism as teenagers.) But Alan, nonetheless, as remote as our geeky brother was, managed to marry an MIT-educated solar physicist who was probably smarter than he was. They have had highly successful careers as leading solar research scientists for NASA.

I learned many valuable lessons from my mother's successful encouragement of my brother, who built mini rocket ships with his friends in our backyard. Mom was only marginally effective with her strategies to encourage my brother's social development. My mother's limitations gave me food for thought when raising my own children. I was not a perfect parent, but I put a lot of thought into how to develop the whole gifted child. I hope I have done a "good enough" job raising my gifted son and daughter. In addition, for over 40 years, I have consulted with families struggling with their bright and highly sensitive children.

Along the way, I have developed some new insights and practical strategies about what works best with the emotionality of extremely bright and highly sensitive children. My ideas are based on understanding how gifted children are different from children who are not as quick, sensitive, and attuned to others in their environment. Gifted children march to a very different drummer than their same-age peers.

What follows are the high points of my ideas, strategies, and experiences working with parents of gifted children and, of course, the children themselves.

Raising Gifted Kids Is Challenging

The first idea you must understand and keep in mind is that raising a gifted child is difficult. These high-strung and passionate children need a lot of input to keep them out of their boredom range (propensity to be bored), which always creates some form of defiance. And because of their perfectionistic nature and ability to learn quickly, encouragement is essential.

When gifted children feel bad about themselves, for whatever reason, they may decide not to go to school or not to do their homework. Other parents, relatives, and teachers will most likely not understand what you are going through with your child's adjustment to school and friends. Outsiders may dismiss your complaints as ridiculous. Or people freely give their advice, suggesting in a passive-aggressive way that you are not a good parent.

Reading parenting books and talking to parenting experts is usually what helpful outsiders easily suggest. But raising gifted kids requires special knowledge and understanding that may not be found in generally focused parenting books. I have often thought that gifted children could and should be categorized as having special needs. Make sure that you understand what makes your child different from other children. Watch closely and take notes on what makes your child enthusiastic and what creates emotional struggles, even if you don't write down your notes.

Social Emotional Intensity Is a Force to Be Contended With

Gifted children are as sensitive as they are smart. Their feelings are intense. Social-emotional development will mirror intellectual development. So a gifted child with an IQ in the 98-plus percentile will be very sensitive to other people. Smart or gifted children (don't get hung up on the word "gifted") display a wide range of emotions, which includes curiosity, sensitivity, separation anxiety, defiance, compassion, entitlement, and perfectionism. All of these feelings together are very tricky to handle for even the most sophisticated parents.

Teachers are often baffled by the social-emotional idiosyncrasies of the talented and emotional child with parents whom they see as pushy and unrealistic. Getting attention for your gifted child's special needs is quite difficult, and you may be ignored in a thousand different ways. In addition, our culture, most of the time, refuses to acknowledge giftedness as a real problem with a real need for special help.

All Children Are Not Gifted

The belief that all children are gifted is a harmful, widespread, and trite rumor among educators who light-heartedly share it with parents. So, in other words, parents are led to believe that their son or daughter is just a little "strange" and "overly sensitive" to the world around them. The truth is that not all children are gifted. Children in the 98th percentile of IQ are considered gifted. I have written about the characteristics of gifted kids in this blog and in my books, Challenges of Gifted Children and Raising Gifted Kids.

Know Your Child's Strengths and Struggles

It is so important to encourage your son or daughter's special interest, whatever it may be. You also cannot ignore their challenges or difficulties. Help the gifted child to work through a challenge, especially their problems with their problems.

Because of the quickness of how gifted children learn, "learning to learn" is a mystery to them. They will easily give up on an academic or creative activity that they cannot conquer easily or quickly. For example, your gifted child may read at a level that is three or more years above his actual grade but be unable to tackle first-grade math, learn to draw, or learn how to write.

Gifted children prefer to hang out with other gifted children who understand them. But only relating to very bright kids is not always possible and may not be helpful in the long run. A mixture of children with different social skills will help your child adjust to the real world of individuals who are not in the 98th percentile. In other words, time with others who are very quick is important. Learning that others do not learn as fast as your daughter or son is also a very important lesson.

Social shyness and awkwardness in new situations are very common with gifted children. Parents need to handle their child's difficulty in new situations by setting up interactions that will not be threatening and giving help when help is needed.

Finding Ways to Develop Interests and Friendships

My experiences with gifted children strongly indicate that the parent needs to encourage both the "high" and the "low" or problematic parts of the child's development. Families that I have worked with and my own children were always so much more successful when they were in the right environment that took into account what was fascinating for them and what was extremely difficult.

It seems like there is no in-between for gifted kids. And the inability to just go with the flow makes it much harder on parents. I guess what I am saying is, don't give up trying to find the right friends, academics, and creative activities for your child. If it were so easy, you would not be reading this.


Parents, teachers, and close mentors should respect and attend to a child's talent in any area of life. Here is some advice:

  • Do not blame yourself.
  • To the best of your ability, find the right school for your child's learning highs and lows.
  • Get along with the classroom teacher and others who are with your child during the time away from home.
  • Deal with your perfectionism and your child's perfectionism by discussing difficult situations.
  • Help to find friends, special interests, and mentors who will keep your children stable as they grow and mature.
  • Find other parents with children who have similar issues to your own.
  • Seek out extracurricular gifted classes and camps.
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