But This Is Supposed to Be Fun!
Activities that are "supposed" to be fun are often challenging for intense or sensitive gifted/2e kids
As you look ahead to the next holiday season or special event, you might be looking forward to some special plans or reflecting on the ups and downs of last year's special events.
Alas, activities that are "supposed to be fun" sometimes feel stressful when you're raising an intense or sensitive gifted/2e kid.
Activities that can be tricky for these kids include special camps or classes, new locations, big social events, sleepovers, playdates, theme parks, dining out, family visits, vacations, road trips…
How many times has your intense gifted/2e kid cried about, complained about, or refused to participate in one of these activities or something similar?
How many times has your child enjoyed these activities but seemed more cranky, irritable, or argumentative before or after each activity?
As you look ahead to an upcoming holiday or special event, it may be helpful to remember that new experiences are hard, even if they’re fun.
When we experience something new, our bodies and brains work harder to make sense of new information and manage new demands. Instead of going through our familiar routines with some amount of auto-pilot, we have to pay attention more closely. We also encounter new sights, sounds, tactile sensations, and more.
Change is particularly tough on intense and sensitive kids. Why?
These kids tend to thrive on predictability, so new activities can feel unsettling or provoke anxiety.
These kids are often hyper-attuned to their environment, so new experiences can feel overstimulating or overwhelming.
Many of these kids have sensory sensitivities or social differences that add additional stress to new experiences.
Let's take spring break as an example of a time that is "supposed" to be fun. What are some potential stressors during supposed-to-be-fun spring break activities?
Here are some details that many sensitive or intense gifted/2e kids find stressful:
Swimming - the sensation of applying sunscreen, wearing a wet suit, or being splashed unexpectedly; loud or rowdy behavior by other kids; self-consciousness about wearing swim clothes in public; discomfort changing clothes in a new location or on a wet floor
Family visits - complex social dynamics; requests for physical contact (hugs, kisses); multiple people talking at once; (potentially) emotional or social tension
Vacations - unfamiliar food; less downtime than usual; missing the comforts of home; multiple new locations each day; car sickness; loud and crowded airports and airplanes
Sometimes there are clear signals your child is feeling overwhelmed by changes and new experiences, and sometimes the signs are more subtle.
Your child may…
Have more frequent or more intense emotional or sensory meltdowns
Have angry outbursts or say hurtful things
Refuse to participate in activities, or say they don’t like activities they liked in the past
Argue more than usual
Complain of pain, headaches, stomachaches, discomfort
Take longer during transitions like leaving the house
Wake up earlier or have disrupted sleep
Seem more cranky or irritable than usual
Seem tense, nervous, or anxious, especially during transitions
There’s nothing wrong with your child for noticing the stressful aspects of new experiences. In fact, your child’s sensitivity, attention to detail, and desire to be in the know probably contribute to their intelligence, insight, empathy, and other strengths.
Here are some tips to reduce your child’s stress - and yours - during new experiences.
You can use these strategies to help with new experiences at any time of year:
As much as you can, try to minimize how many demands and new environments your child has to manage each day. If you’ve been invited to three activities on a certain Saturday, you might select one or two. If you’re going to a busy environment like a family event or play area, you can plan to be there for a manageable amount of time. Or set aside quiet time before and after the event to decompress.
Accommodate your child.
Offer your child accommodations that will help them access and enjoy spring break events. If your child is sensitive to loud noises, offer earplugs or noise-canceling headphones in busy places like malls, airports, or family gatherings. You could consider letting friends or family members know in advance if your child prefers not to be touched, uses a screen while eating, or needs breaks away from the group. Let your child wear what’s comfortable to them. Your child may prefer to sleep with you in hotels or vacation homes, or they may need more screen time than usual to regulate.
Use interests, choice, and familiar items to make changes more manageable.
School breaks always involve a change of routine, and many neurodivergent kids find change disorienting or stressful. For new activities, try to incorporate something your child enjoys or let them choose how to engage. You could invite one of their friends to accompany you, or pique their interest about a new activity or location by connecting it to one of their interests (numbers, birds, D&D, etc.) You might let your child choose a favorite activity one day during break, or offer to play with them for a longer time than usual.
Bring familiar, safe foods for long trips or new places. If your child has a favorite comfort item like a stuffed animal, blanket, or fidget, you can bring those along too - even if your kid is a teen. Even if you're not traveling far from home, your child might find it regulating to have a comfort item in the car on the way to a new event.
Don’t force the fun.
It can feel maddening when you’ve worked hard to orchestrate an event or an outing and your child gets overwhelmed or upset. It’s normal to find yourself thinking, “but this is supposed to be fun!” Your disappointment or anger are absolutely valid.
Once you’ve validated your own frustration, try to understand your child’s perspective. If you can, validate their feelings and let them know it’s okay if they dislike something or aren’t enjoying themselves. It may be counterintuitive, but validating intense feelings can actually help your child calm down instead of ramp up.
Try to use the other strategies above to ease your child's discomfort or help them engage with the new experience. If you can, resist the urge to try to convince your child the situation is fun - forced fun isn’t fun!
Sometimes validating your child’s feelings will help them relax and enjoy an experience more. But even if they don’t enjoy it, that’s okay. New situations are sometimes stressful and sometimes unpleasant. If you can talk about this openly with your kid, you can form a compassionate story about what makes change hard. Together, you can keep trying new strategies until you find something that works for your kid and your family.
If you want more ideas like this directly to your inbox, sign up for Gifted Lab Notes, my weekly email with tips and information for parents of intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) kids.
If you want more help managing new situations with your intense gifted/2e kid, check out my 8-week coaching program for parents. You'll learn how to support your kid with schedule changes and new events. You'll also feel more confident anticipating what's difficult and making adjustments as needed, to avoid some overwhelming situations in the first place. I'll help you understand what's most stressful to your particular child, and what kind of supports will help them thrive.