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New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education's Blog

What's the Story? 

Making the world a better place for gifted kids, one yarn at a time.


Emotional Intensity

A challenging and often misunderstood aspect of giftedness



Knarled and wrinkled,

Stooping with the weight of years gone by;

Reaching out, a sorrowful heart torn,

Falling to the ground with a heavy sigh,

Leaving the ground awash in green tears,

It’s last breath given to the Earth

Our beautiful Plum tree.


Our plum tree “broke”. As did my heart, just a little. Can you tell? We believe it was planted some 80+ years ago; one of only four trees of that age still standing here. As the branches have been sawn and cleared away, I have mourned, my heart sinking a little more with the crack of each one taken. No tears, but a sense of loss nonetheless.

Doesn’t it sound ridiculous? It’s a tree! Thank goodness cutting the grass doesn’t elicit this kind of response! Imagine the guilt! But in actuality for some of our gifted (of all ages), this is a reality. They feel so deeply, so intensely that it can be unbearable. This expression can be misunderstood and considered excessive, unwarranted, and in some contexts, a sign of immaturity (the latter a reason sometimes cited by teachers as to why a child is not being moved up a class even though academically they are well and truly ready). This lack of understanding can lead to experiences of isolation, not to mention confusion if he or she recognises that their feelings and logical thinking are incongruent in some way.

When it comes to gifted learners, imbalances in the rate of growth across various abilities and qualities is common. Emotional growth and regulation can be much slower at developing than other areas, however, what we see is not always what it seems! It tends to be the case that we see what we expect to see. Without the opportunity to reframe and consider intense emotional expression in a new light, we may remain at a loss as to what is truly going on. So here is a chance to do just that.

Strong emotionality often comes part and parcel with giftedness. It is certainly not uncommon to see. Depending on the context and our perceptions, we may deem emotional expression to be immature, expected for the age/circumstances (tired, hungry, transitioning to school etc.), or mature, like an “old soul.”  From there we place value judgments on what we deem to be acceptable, worthy of positive attention and so on. Effectively, it is our responses that shape how a child views themselves: “over-emotional,” “difficult,” “annoying,” “a diva,” or “sensitive,” “worthy,” and “valued.”  It is up to us to understand, to teach them that the way they feel is okay, and support them to recognise the wondrous things that can come through such an intense way of being.


Let’s take a look at some examples. The following videos have been around online for a while now so you might recognise them, but they are personal favourites of mine for reflecting upon when considering emotional giftedness and emotions in the gifted.




What is your instinctual response to watching this? Mary Lynne, the baby in this video, has a clear propensity to feel deeply. “Awww, cute!” has been a common response on social media since it was posted online several years ago. However, when I watch this I don’t think “cute” (although she is of course - what baby isn’t?!). Instead I think, “I really feel for you ... and your parents ... because if you continue to feel strongly like that over your lifetime, you are going to have some tough times ahead!” I can only begin to imagine what other experiences might elicit similarly strong affective responses. Furthermore, given that affective memories are encoded into memory more readily, in general and even more so, it would appear, for the gifted, what might the future ramifications be?


Okay, so let’s look at another example. This is another video that has made its way around the globe over the years. In this we see emotions and cognition working hand in hand.



What is your initial response to this? How do you think you might have responded to this child? Now imagine, if instead of honouring her child by engaging in dialogue to understand his thoughts and feelings, empathising and empowering him to make a choice that felt right, the Mum instead told him he was being “silly” and to just “eat up.” What might we have seen? Well my money is on escalation ... which would have potentially been deemed a tantrum, misbehaviour that required “sorting out.” We wouldn’t have ever had the privilege of witnessing the child’s incredible depth of consideration. We would have likely assumed he was just being a “difficult toddler.” We would have completely missed being witness to the potential of giftedness and he would likely begin to start seeing himself as “naughty.” We have windows of opportunity for being understanding and responsive to our kids. (Yes, it can certainly take patience - trust me, I know!!!), but it is critical we understand what we are seeing so that we can facilitate positive development.

In the eyes of scientists, emotions are the equivalent of brain reactivity to stimuli, little more than electrical circuits and chemistry. These are what drive our physical responses: smiling, frowning, sweating, jitters, flight/fight responses, etc. Feelings are considered to be what comes from the conscious awareness of these physical responses. So, when we are dealing with feelings, we are dealing with the functioning of the brain. “You’re fine,” “settle down,” “get over it,” “go to your room” or “sit at your desk” are not going to be helpful comments. We need a more nuanced approach. I’m not going to get into the details of neuropsychological approaches (although I find them fascinating), however there are some great practical tips on this SENG page. Ultimately, my take-aways from this are the following:

  • Don’t put blame on a child for the way they are feeling. It is okay for them to feel the way they feel and they need to know this. (Of course, how they express this requires guidance and structure at times.) Feelings are ultimately a brain-based response and it can be helpful for kids to understand this, too.
  • It is our job as adults not to join into a child’s chaos but, rather, draw them into our calm. We have to overcome any propensity to be reactive to a child’s emotion and instead find calm within ourselves for a child to be able to calm him or herself (and to remain trustful of us). I appreciate this can be hard - but I assure you that it does get easier with practice.
  • Strong emotions don’t necessarily equate with immaturity. Look deeper to see if it is a potential indicator of giftedness. What other characteristics do you see?
  • Explicit teaching about emotions (and the brain) is really important. Be sure to highlight the positive possibilities that can come with strong affective responses. Perhaps think “musicians” for a starting point.
  • For our gifted kids, understanding themselves as gifted individuals is really important too. It helps to make sense of experiences. This is something I can proudly say happens in MindPlus classes. :)
  • Don’t assume that a strongly emotive child will not cope in a higher year level at school. It may be just what they need.


I leave you with one of my favourite songs which I feel is particularly apt when thinking about the relationships we have with our “intense” gifted kids. You might like to check out the lyrics.



'What's the Story?' is a new blog section which is being written for the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education, with posts being added regularly. The purpose of this space is to share musings and anecdotes relating to giftedness and gifted education to provide a form of information and support for those living with and/or teaching gifted learners. Please do share them along.


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Please note that the views expressed in these blogs are those of the author and not necessarily representative of the views of the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

Image credit: 20120429_100636-eos450-anvo_1 by Baumrasen is licensed under CC BY-2.0. The image has been modified. 









Emotionally Intense

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