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Effectively Managing Family Interactions when Family Members Have Different Overexcitabilities.

By Debbie Michels, MS ED, MA and Teresa Rowlison, Ph.D.

Full title: Getting Over Overexcitabilities: Effectively Managing Family Interactions when Family Members Have Different Overexcitabilities.

According to Silverman (2008), overexcitabilities (OEs) are an innate tendency to respond to things in an intensified manner. Dabrowski’s concept of OEs was first published in 1937. OEs have been found to be good indicators of giftedness and creativity. Gilman (2008) states, “Dabrowski believed that such intensity and sensitivity enhance the self-actualization process and play a role in developing potential” (p. 258). The OEs are:

· Emotional – experiencing things deeply

· Imaginational – capacity to visualize, invent, and create

· Intellectual – inquisitive and reflective

· Psychomotor – a surplus of energy

· Sensual (Sensory) – intense responsiveness to sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell

Silverman (2008) states, “The various permutations and strengths of OEs at least partially account for the wide range of individual differences within the gifted population” (p. 161). Within families, these individual differences can mean that each family member has different OEs, and these OEs may actually conflict and result in very challenging family dynamics. According to Rivero (2010), “Learning how to use one’s sensual excitability for self-nurture without being self destructive is an important skill for them to master” (p. 60). In this case, “them” refers to all family members!

The authors have experienced such challenging family dynamics and wanted to offer recommendations to other families where OEs are involved. The first author is twice exceptional and so is her daughter. They both exhibit different OEs in all five areas. The second author is twice exceptional and her husband and daughter are both gifted. All three exhibit different OEs in all five areas. The authors have developed ten recommendations and provide research to support each of the recommendations. The recommendations can be used individually or in combination based on their effectiveness within a given family.

Research-Based Recommendations

The authors provide the following research based recommendations for effectively managing family interactions when OEs are involved:

1. Advocacy: Making sure your gifted children are receiving appropriate educational services at school has a strong impact on what happens at home. The more parents understand about giftedness and OEs, the better they can advocate for their children and make sure that their needs are being appropriately met, decreasing their frustration level.

It is important that gifted students receive appropriate educational services, because, if they do not, it will likely increase the distress at home (Mills, Reiss, & Dombeck, 2008). According to Rivero (2010), “you can offer a home environment that encourages work and diligence for the sake of personal satisfaction” (p. 110). Gilman (2008) emphasizes the need for gifted students to receive appropriate services as follows:

To normalize their experience in school…these options are needed to teach them new material daily, make them stretch, present them with hard enough problems that they must develop strategies to solve them (not melt down), teach them organizational skills that they won’t learn if the work is too easy, help them develop a reasonable work ethic, prevent them from being the “smartest kid in the class” who earns A’s but never has to work hard, allow them access to other students whose ideas they respect, and generally maintain their love of learning. (p. 325)

It is important to differentiate between talented and gifted in order to advocate appropriately for gifted children. Talent being something one has while gifted is something one experiences. According to Rivero (2010), talent can be used or be dormant, whereas giftedness “is not used or developed as much as it is experienced” (p. 30). Rivero goes on to say: Being on our children’s side requires great stores of personal resources such as creativity, patience, energy, and trust:

· Creativity to allow us to see our children’s needs as unique and to be flexible in our responses to those needs

· Patience to keep our eye on the long-term, lifelong process of learning to live in the world

· Personal energy to handle the emotional challenges of adolescence without sacrificing our own needs or internalizing our children’s struggles

· Trust not only that our children can learn to handle life’s ups and downs with confidence and even occasional grace, but that we can be there for our children, regardless of how painful or difficult the obstacles (p. 70).

From the authors’ perspectives these personal resources may be very difficult to provide our children but parents should strive to provide them as much as possible.

2. Calmers: Know what calms you down as well as each member of your family. Calmers usually involve sensual OEs and can be related to sight, sounds, smell, taste, or touch. Have these calmers readily available as much as possible.

Research by Mills, Reiss, and Dombeck (2008) indicates that visualization, music, aroma therapy, comfort foods, and using tactile strategies such as yoga and deep breathing have long been used to calm individuals down when they are in distress. It is important to determine your own calmers as well as what works as calmers for other family members. Parents can help their children visualize a “happy place” to help calm them down. Different kinds of music, aroma therapy, and foods may also calm individuals down. Know what works for you and/or your family members and have it ready to go when needed. Parents can encourage their children to use tactile strategies, and they can model them.

Flow can be another calmer. Rivero (2010) describes the theory of Flow, also known as a state of “optimal experience.” It is when our intensity and our skills are perfectly matched, and we are fully engaged in the challenge before us. This full engagement serves as a calmer in the sense that flow is a satisfying experience.

3. Celebrate Success: Document strategies tried, what works, in what context, and celebrate success by engaging in enjoyable family activities. Create a way to save pieces of evidence that document success (e.g., scrapbooking, special box, portfolio, etc.).

Rivero (2010) emphasizes that, “a word of encouragement for taking a risk is much more effective than a reminder to try harder next time” (p. 83). Rivero goes on to say that, “Some families find that communicating by email is easier for these kinds of discussions, since it gives children time to process questions and provide a certain distance that encourages more objective thought” (p. 121). Email can also be used as positive reinforcement for a job well done and to celebrate success.

4. Document Optimistic Options: Actually write down the different optimistic options available as a response to the current situation. This can be done individually or as a family activity. For children who are not used to engaging in such activities, they may need the process facilitated for them as well as modeled for them. Work with children to establish time frames instead of time limits of required activities (e.g., chores).

While studies have shown that there is a genetic link for depression and suicide attempts, Fox, Ridgewell, and Ashwin (2009) conducted research that suggests there is also a genetic link for optimism. This suggests that individuals may not be equally disposed to being optimistic. To choose to look at something from a certain perspective requires the knowledge that it is possible to see it from that perspective. In other words, individuals have to know what the optimistic options are! Since it has been suggested that there is a genetic link for optimism as well as depression, then it is imperative that we ensure that our family members explore their optimism and specifically document optimistic options in order to increase positive family dynamics.

5. Everyone Gets a Turn: Making sure that each family member has one-on-one time with you is very important. This is time for you to spend alone with each individual member, including your significant other!

Regardless of how many members there are in your family, each member deserves to have time with you one-on-one. This allows relationship building opportunities within all members of the family. This includes your partner. According to Wiley (n.d.), it is important to spend time as a couple in order to effectively live up to your responsibilities as a parent and as a partner.

6. Medication and/or Counseling: If you or any other members of your family would benefit from medication and/or counseling to deal with anxiety, depression, sensitivities, etc., then do it. Of course, any medication and/or counseling should only be pursued under the supervision of a qualified professional. An individual who takes medication and/or is in counseling IS NOT a failure. It would be a failure NOT to address such conditions appropriately and consistently.

According to Webb (2001), “Medication for children — including gifted children –should be used only when really necessary” (¶ 17). Webb goes on to say, “Try to insure that the medication is not being prescribed to treat characteristics of giftedness, such as the child’s intensity, curiosity, divergent thinking, or boredom in an educationally inappropriate placement” (¶ 17). However, if medication is necessary and beneficial for any member of the family, then it should be considered.

Counseling can be of great benefit to assist individuals in better understanding themselves and those around them. Webb (2001) states, “Seeking counseling or therapy is not easy, particularly when you have an exceptional child, but the benefits are worth it” (¶ 18). The authors have both received counseling and it has served to improve their self understanding of their OEs as well as understanding their family members’ OEs.

7. Patterns and Routines: Establish patterns and routines so that all family members know what to expect, where things are typically kept, and who is responsible for what. Once specific patterns and routines have been established they should be respected and not changed without input from all family members. “Parents show love by setting boundaries when necessary” (Rivero, 2010, p. 152). Knowing what to expect allows children more time and freedom to pursue passion areas and find their own calmers and signs.

8. Signs: Know the signs for when you are getting ready to go into distress mode as well as the signs for each member of your family (Mills et al., 2008). Come up with effective ways to communicate to family members when you are at this point. This might be a word or gesture to signal your stress level. It might even be an email or text message.

Research indicates that knowing your stress level is essential in order to communicate when you are getting ready to go into distress mode. There are two types of stress: eustress and distress (Mills et al., 2008). Eustress, or positive stress, has the following characteristics: motivates and focuses energy, is short-term, is perceived as within our coping abilities, feels exciting, and improves performance. Distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics: causes anxiety or concern, can be short- or long-term, is perceived as outside of our coping abilities, feels unpleasant, decreases performance, and can lead to mental and physical problems. The ability to communicate to family members when getting ready to go into distress mode is important in order to reduce the overall amount of distress and the characteristics that go with it.

Family members may experience distress as a response to other family members’ overexcitabilities. The result of this distress mode is described by Daniels (2009) as “emotional flooding” or when an individual’s emotional reaction to a given situation is overwhelming and prevents a positive response. According to Rivero (2010), “When your family is experiencing emotional flooding as a result of emotional excitability, remember that you are affected as well” (p. 64).

9. Tag Team: Whenever possible use a tag team approach when dealing with gifted children who are in distress. For example, when one parent or adult is trying to work with the child on homework and the situation begins to escalate, have another parent or adult step in to take over for the first parent who may be participating or instigating the escalating behavior. This can be of great benefit to help prevent further escalation and distress.

Parenting a gifted child is an extremely difficult job! If you can share that responsibility with another person, it can really help. In order to effectively share parenting responsibilities, communication is key, according to Wiley (n.d.). It is important to share your parenting expectations with your partner or the person you are sharing parenting responsibilities with and find common ground so that you can support each other. This allows for the opportunity for one to step in for the other if things are escalating and getting out of control when dealing with a gifted child with overexcitabilities.

10. Take Care of Yourself: A person who is tired, worn out, etc. does not have the energy or stamina to appropriately deal with other family members when they enter distress mode. It really does make a difference in a person’s ability to deal with family members when the person eats right, exercises, gets an appropriate amount of sleep, and takes time to take care of self.

As our children grow, their needs change. The focus is no longer on meeting basic needs but assisting in personal development. However, we need to remember that our needs change over time, too (Rivero, 2010). Ongoing self-assessment of what our needs are and making sure we are taking care of them are essential if we are going to be able to effectively meet the needs of our children.

Final Comments

“You teach best what you most need to learn” (Bach, 1977, p. 60). In our efforts to write an article for families who have OEs and provide them recommendations on how to improve their family dynamics by understanding the OEs that exist in themselves and their other family members, we found that we needed to learn more about our own OEs. The process of writing this article has provided us the opportunity to contemplate and discuss our own OEs and family dynamics, which has led to what we hope are recommendations that will truly be of benefit to other families with OEs. While family dynamics are rarely ideal, we can strive to make them more positive for ourselves and others.


Bach, R. (1977). Illusions: The adventures of a reluctant messiah. New York: Dell Publishing.

Chapman, W. (2001). Are you an indigo adult? Metagifted Education Resource Organization. Retrieved January 7, 2010 from Click Here for Reference.

Daniels, S. (2009). Overexcitability, giftedness, and family dynamics. In S. Daniels & M. M. Piechowski (Eds.), Living with intensity: Understanding the sensitivity, excitability, and emotional development of gifted children, adolescents, and adults (pp. 127-144). Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Fox, E., Ridgewell, A. & Ashwin, C. (2009). Looking on the bright side: Biased attention and the human serotonin transporter gene. Retrieved May 3, 2010 from Click Here for Reference

Gilman, B. J. (2008). Academic advocacy for gifted children: A parent’s complete guide. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Mills, H., Reiss, N., & Dombeck, M. (2008). Types of stressors (Eustress vs. distress). Retrieved on January 17, 2010 from: Click Here for Reference

Rivero, L. (2010). A parent’s guide to gifted teens: Living with intense and creative adolescents. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.

Silverman, L. K. (2008) in S. Mendaglio. Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.

Webb, J. T. (2001). Tips for selecting the right counselor or therapist for your gifted child. Retrieved on June 25, 2010 from: Click Here for Reference

Wiley, K. (n.d.). Sharing parenting responsibilities. Retrieved on June 25, 2010 from: Click Here for Reference

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