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Emotional Giftedness of a 4 Year Old

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D


Q: Our 4 year old son, while not formally tested, is highly gifted. He has had a love of numbers and letters at a very early age and was reading by the time he was 18mths. He has a photographic memory and is now reading and doing maths probably at 10 year old level. He continually amazes us but my question is how can we make him tougher, not so sensitive/affectionate with his peers. His peers like to play tackle while he prefers to hug and kiss everyone.

Don't get me wrong, he loves to play outdoors and run around but his peers seem tougher and i guess in a way more aggressive in their play (at a toddler level of course) and we would like to see our son more like that as our fear is that once he starts school in 2014, he may be alienated or worse, bullied, because he is too sensitive and affectionate (we know, normal for gifted children). He currently attends a Montessori kinder and while he loves attending, he is very sensitive to the other children and often assists the other children with their activities (finishing puzzles / activities for them).

We want to start him in a sport this year, is there anything else we can do or do we just accept that this is how he is?

A: Your description indicates a gifted child with distinct traits in terms of emotional sensitivity quite common amongst the gifted. First and foremost, parents need to understand gifted children with heightened emotional sensitivity. Being aware is very important and it is quite clear that you understand that his gifts may make him a little different from his peers, which is something parents need to accept and help children accept their difference as well.

In terms of emotional sensitivity, gifted children tend to have both passion (depth of feelings) and compassion (sense of caring). Passionate people appear to form deep attachments - they think with their feelings. Compassion is the sense of caring most gifted children show for others (as in the case of your son), which enables them to make commitments from a desire to decrease the pain they see others suffering (e.g., helping other kids complete their work - he may see them as struggling). He may, in time to come feel more compassion that may cause some emotional pain (e.g., relate intensely to the suffering of the world around them). These children would focus on the potential of people rather than on their faults, therefore they can be very forgiving as well. This is emotional giftedness.

Perhaps even now of in time to come, you may find that your child is highly empathic and are able to somewhat experience the pain of others. An incident at school (which may not have anything to do with them) may upset them so much that they would appear moody all day but unable to explain why. Unfortunately, with so many feelings they experience, especially when they are very young, it becomes hard for them to differentiate if the feelings are directly or indirectly connected to them. Therefore, it is crucial that they learn to differentiate their own feelings and experiences from others - they need to learn to feel with the others rather than feel for others.

You will also find that he would continuously help other children to enable him to “ease their suffering” - the ultimate goal would be to make the other person happy. When they feel unsuccessful, they may just withdraw and alienate themselves instead. This is because they feel a sense of great responsibility for the feelings of others. Some cope by avoiding negative situations (situations that may produce negative feelings), which in turn has a negative outcome - isolation and possible disconnection from other children.

Parents may use a few strategies to intervene. Understanding the depth of your child sensitivity is important. Monitor situations when your child gets easily influenced and upset. Help them understand that they are not responsible for every negative outcome and that everyone involved is responsible what happens and for their own feelings as well. You may use soft toys to create a situation to teach your son given his tender age. You can also use mental imagery for example building an invisible wall to show separation of feelings.

Many highly emotional gifted children would give happily - an act that gives them satisfaction that they had made someone else happy. E.g., in cases of natural disasters, these kids need to do something to help them feel that they have made a difference, however small it may be for adult. Parents should allow and encourage this as the act is very emotionally rewarding for them. However, they need to learn that giving or helping indiscriminately may cause the other party to feel a “sense of obligation” to return the favour. Parents need to help children understand this.

Getting him involved in sports is an excellent way of indulging in physical activities. It may not make him any more “aggressive” than he is now, but it helps the mental & emotional balance as the energy is channeled elsewhere. Allow him a variety of sporting activity and see what he enjoys most. Try not to force him into anything, as that would be detrimental. Try not to think too far ahead about his sensitivities - help him understand his intense feelings bit by bit. He will always be a sensitive child - all he needs is to understand himself and distinguish his feelings from others. The fact that you are aware of his emotional intensity, I believe he is in good hands and would be able to manage well in formal school. An interesting read for you:

Gifted children: Emotionally immature or emotionally intense?

All the best in your journey!


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