Coping with Extreme Empathy of the Very Young Gifted
By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D
Q: I have a 3-year-old daughter who is
gifted. She has been advanced in most
of her development, knows sight words, and does extremely creative play.
So I know what a gifted kid looks like.
I also have a 16-month-old. She speaks in full sentences, uses manipulative
toys almost as well as her older sister, and understands things in both
English and Greek. She loves music and games that use math, and she knows
the alphabet. Based on how she plays "math" games with her toys, I
believe she understands the underlying principles of addition and subtraction.
I believe my younger daughter is extremely gifted. Unfortunately, she is
also extremely empathetic. It cripples her. For example, today I was on
the phone and found out something upsetting. Even though I didn't yell,
my daughter could tell I was angry and started shrieking inconsolably. It
took me almost 20 minutes to calm her down. This is a common event, although
today was more extreme than usual.
Do you have any advice for coping with such extreme empathy in a child
so young? I want to stress that this was not a behaviour of screaming
because I was on the phone. She has done that before, too, and there is a
difference. This was more like a panic attack than a temper tantrum.
I would appreciate any advice you could provide. Thank you.
Heightened sensitivity and intense emotions are among the distinct
characteristics of a gifted child and is demonstrated as early as in
infancy. Your child appears to display these characteristics, which is
why she is quick is pick on emotions in her environment and react to it.
Especially being so young, I can understand your concern on how to help
Dabrowski, a renowned psychologist has suggested that the stimuli
response of gifted individuals is more pronounced than normal in five
main areas - psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and
emotional. He called these overexcitabilities, (OE's,) as they involve
psychological and central nervous system sensitivity. These
overexcitabilities, especially the latter three, is often seen to cause
a person to experience daily life more intensely and to feel the
extremes of the joys and sorrows of life profoundly. Emotional OE is a
broad range of emotional intensity, happier, sadder, more depressed,
extreme empathy, and compassion. As gifted individuals vary in terms of
their intensities combinations of OE's, Dabrowski believed emotional OE
to be central to them all. Sometimes, in children these OEs can be
mistaken for lack of control and immaturity.
What your child is going true is quite rare for her age. Another child
may be unable to extrapolate from a situation in which they witness a
suffering and feel deeply for it. At her age, she is beginning to
develop a sense of verbal self as things can now be labelled, discussed
and categorised. She has recognised herself as being a separate
individual from the mirror as in her image. Therefore, she is also
starting to recognise that distressed feelings can belong to another
person and that people have feelings and thoughts. Due to this, they
would recognise distress of other as she did with you and may try to
comfort. But, due to her very young age (and at this stage, they have no
theory in mind as yet), she is not able to comfort and can only feel -
hence the crying as intense emotion. This is the beginning stage of
empathy as a direct response to the feelings of others, in this case,
the mother, the significant other in her life. This happens around two
years of age for most gifted children but is very possible to gifted
children who have heightened sensitivity and intense emotions as in your
Because your child is very young, it may be harder to help as there is
minimal understanding at this stage. Some strategies can be tried
though. Whenever she experiences such emotional outbursts, instead of
telling her that it is fine, help her with the necessary tools to
independently figure things out. You need to reach to her and teach her
specific strategies that you know works to comfort her (try not to use
junk food as a reward here). She needs to learn how to redirect the
feelings into more productive behaviours. For example, when she reacts
intensely next time, do something that calms her down by distracting her
focus. Maybe a hugging favourite teddy or toy or modelling behaviour
yourself and showing that you are fine. This would be a trial and error
method and perhaps needs to be used to few times before any positive
results are seen. When she is older, it would be a little easier to cope
as she would understand verbal rationalisation but at this stage it may
be a little hard - but not impossible.
Other techniques are relaxation methods or an outlet to let out emotions
- again, this may work better for an older child but is always worth a
try. If the situation is getting worse, please consult a child
psychologist for more focussed behavioural intervention. Intense and
sensitive children are prone to over arousal and empathetic feeling.
They need reassurance at the moment but that alone is not sufficient.
They also need to know how to make a positive response - for e.g., what
to do or say when such a situation is faced. This would require
assistance and guidance from the parents/caregiver.
Hope that helps a little. Good luck!