What Makes Your Gifted or 2e Kid Intense?
What contributes to gifted/2e intensity? And is the word "intense" helpful or hurtful?
What does gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) intensity look like?
If you would describe your gifted or twice-exceptional kid as intense, you're in good company!
Not all gifted kids feel "intense" but many do. I've worked with many parents who describe what it's like living with an intense gifted kid. If any of the dynamics below resonate, you might have the sense you're raising an intense kid.
Your kid wakes up full of energy - they're ready to jump into a creative project, tell you their ideas, or play with you right away.
Your kid seems more passionate than their peers - they’re the one who throws a tantrum at soccer, storms out of the room when corrected, or bursts into tears at school when something doesn’t go their way.
Your kid loves to learn, but they hate the feeling of not knowing something. If learning feels too hard or they make a mistake, they may cry, rip up their work, or refuse to participate.
Your kid is hard on themselves - really hard. Even though they’re bright and talented, they call themselves stupid, say they’re the worst in the world, say they hate themselves, or wonder why they’re so different from their peers.
Once your kid is having a big feeling, it’s hard to get them out of it. You’ve tried reassuring them, reasoning with them, talking them through it, being understanding - nothing seems to help.
You’re worried your child’s perfectionism will erode their love of learning and that their big feelings will drive away friends.
Gifted and 2e characteristics that contribute to parenting challenges
You may find yourself wondering, what makes my kid so intense?
In my work with gifted/2e kids and their families, I've seen a number of gifted/2e characteristics that regularly contribute to emotional or behavioral intensity. These characteristics are strengths in many contexts, yet they can lead to challenging parenting situations during day-to-day interactions at home.
Below, I describe five major characteristics of intense gifted/2e kids that lead to parenting challenges. This is not an exhaustive list - we go more in depth on this topic in my parent coaching program. But these are five of the most common characteristics I hear about from the parents I work with, and these characteristics can account for a lot of the intensity that parents see at home.
Gifted/2e kids have strong verbal and/or reasoning abilities
By definition, gifted and twice-exceptional kids have notable cognitive strengths.
Kids who have strong verbal abilities tend to have large vocabularies and can express themselves well. Advanced verbal abilities can be a delight - verbally advanced kids are often talkative, expressive, funny, creative, and fun to talk with. They may have a great sense of humor and enjoy word play.
Kids with strong reasoning abilities are able to notice patterns, figure out new situations, and solve problems. They often notice connections between disparate ideas, and they can spot inconsistencies in a system or pattern. These abilities can also be delightful - kids with strong reasoning abilities often like to ask questions, figure things out, solve puzzles or problems, and discover new ideas.
These gifted strengths can also lead to intense parenting interactions. Many gifted/2e kids debate, negotiate, and argue when they want something to go a certain way. They are more likely to spot inconsistencies in rules and may be more upset by situations that seem unfair to them, but that would not catch the attention of many non-gifted kids. Their strong verbal abilities often make them excellent debaters, so it's easy to find yourself engaged in a long argument about something that feels trivial to you, the parent.
For example, your kid might craft a compelling argument about why you should change a rule or let them have five more minutes of screen time. Or, they may argue with a parenting decision and try to explain who you're being unfair. Perhaps during play time, your kid counters suggestions with their own ideas - then insists their way is better. As a parent, you may feel trapped in endless negotiations.
For many families, these gifted/2e cognitive strengths lead to intense arguments and meltdowns when negotiations and debates can't be resolved or lead to frustration and hurt feelings - on both sides.
Intense gifted/2e kids are sensitive and perceptive
These kids take in much more information about the world than their neurotypical peers. They notice details that others miss. They notice injustices and inconsistencies that others don't notice or don't care about. Twice-exceptional kids who are autistic can be even more attuned to little details in their environment. Their brains often can't filter out sensory information.
Because these kids are perceptive and pick up on so much information, they are more easily overwhelmed. Their sensitive, perceptive take on the world can be a great strength and an important part of their personal identity...and it can also lead them to feel big, overwhelming emotions or develop strong perspectives that others see as intense or rigid.
For intense gifted/2e kids with sensory sensitivities, their sensitivity is even more magnified. They may perceive sounds, textures, smells, and other sensory experiences as stressful or painful. These sensory experiences can contribute to irritation, anxiety, or meltdowns.
Gifted/2e kids crave autonomy
All people need autonomy to thrive, but intense gifted and 2e kids often need autonomy more than other kids. These kids can be hyper-sensitive to anything that limits or threatens their autonomy and integrity.
I think some of the drive for autonomy stems from a gifted/2e child's intelligence. They understand situations quickly, perceive multiple perspectives, and can often figure out their own way to approach a task. Once they've "solved" a situation for themselves, they prefer to do the task their own way and may find it threatening or distressing to be told what to do. The task could be simple, like washing hands - yet the interaction can easily lead to a meltdown or argument if things don't go the way they envisioned.
For other gifted/2e kids, limitations on their autonomy are perceived as threats and set off a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. For these kids, the need for autonomy and self-determination is more immediate and physiological.
These dynamics can cause a lot of intensity in parenting because seemingly simple requests like "please brush your teeth" can cause your child to hit, yell, run away, or have a meltdown due to their perception that you are threatening their autonomy.
Gifted/2e kids are interest-driven
Gifted/2e kids tend to have intense interests, and their brains are interest-focused. This means that it is very easy for them to focus on things that interest them. It also means that it is very difficult to focus on things that do not interest them.
In practice, this means that gifted/2e kids can spend hours doing something they love, be it video games, costume design, pencil drawings, or math. But these same kids struggle to focus on chores, daily routines, and hygiene tasks, because these activities are not inherently interesting. Homework can also be a struggle unless your child's school assigns homework they enjoy.
Your kid's interest-driven brain is often a strength, but it can lead to intensity in parenting when you find yourself furious about repeating "it's time to brush your teeth" 5 or 10 times each night. You may also have intense moments when your child gets distressed about stopping an activity they love - it can feel physically painful or almost impossible for them to pull their attention away from something so compelling.
Intense gifted/2e kids often have differences in executive functioning, emotional regulation, and/or sensory processing
For many intense gifted/2e kids, their intensity also stems from differences in their neurotype, or how their brain works. Common differences include weaknesses in executive functioning, difficulty regulating emotions, and differences in sensory processing.
All of these differences are natural parts of human diversity and are neither strengths nor weaknesses in and of themselves. These differences can contribute to intensity in parenting, however, because they make daily tasks difficult.
Kids with weaker executive functioning have a difficult time transitioning from one task to another, initiating new tasks, organizing their behavior, and controlling their emotions. Seemingly simple tasks like "the morning routine" involve tons of demands on executive functioning!
Kids who struggle to regulate their emotions can find their own emotional experiences overwhelming and all-consuming. Once an emotion is triggered, it can take them a longer time to process the emotion and return to baseline. They may have trouble moving their mind off of a strong, salient emotion, so they can feel "stuck" in a big feeling. They may be more likely to argue with you when upset, insist that their feeling is justified, and resist efforts to comfort or distract them.
Kids with sensory processing differences may also struggle with daily tasks because the sensory aspects of the task are unpleasant. For example, many kids find it painful to have water on their head, to comb their hair, or to brush their teeth. Many kids find eating stressful or effortful because they find certain textures or smells distressing.
Is the word "intense" helpful or hurtful?
I think it depends. I use the word "intense" in the name of my group coaching program for parents - Parenting Your Intense Gifted Kid - because it's a shorthand for the types of families I love to support. Many parents instinctually feel that their kid is "intense" - or they may have noticed that parenting their kid feels very intense!
I think the word "intense" can be validating or invalidating, depending on how it's used and understood.
When "intensity" is used affectionately or with admiration or adoration, I think it can feel warm or empowering. Many gifted adults self-identify as "intense" - they like the way this word evokes their strong emotional experiences, intellectual drive, creative passions, or the complexity of their thoughts.
"Intensity" is sometimes used as a code for "too much," "too needy," "too emotional," "unreasonable," or similar. It's hurtful when a child's feelings or perceptions are dismissed as invalid or as stemming from an "intense personality." If a child consistently receives the message that they are "too intense" they may develop shame about who they are and how they experience the world.
I think it's critical for parents to develop a clear understanding of their child's intensity and a compassionate story about where this intensity originates.
It's one thing for a child to think they have strong emotions because they're a dramatic or selfish person. It's much more helpful and affirming for a child to understand that they have strong emotions because they're attuned to their environment and bothered by injustices more than other kids. Or to understand that they have intense emotions when their sensory needs aren't being met.
Growing up gifted, I was probably described as “intense” at times. I was prone to tears, corrected others' grammar, tried to earn 100% on every assignment, spent hours perfecting my drawing and karate skills, and talked loudly when I was excited. Sometimes it feels validating for others to recognize my intense enthusiasm or my intense work on a passion project.
I've never viewed myself as particularly intense, though. A lot of the time, my emotions, curiosity, engagement, drive, energy, and enthusiasm feel appropriate and accurate to me. When that's the case, I might bristle at someone calling my feelings or behaviors "intense."
How would I describe myself, if not intense? Often curious, passionate, intellectual, striving, precise, and thoughtful.
If "intensity" starts to have a negative connotation, try reframing your child's intensity by thinking about their particular qualities and characteristics.
Based on what resonates with you from the information above, you could describe your child as:
Sensitive or perceptive
Expressive, astute, analytical, or insightful
Curious, driven, passionate, interested, or creative
Autonomous, independent, or someone with strong integrity
See below for some other ideas:
People who are emotionally intense are often passionate, idealistic, empathic, sensitive, enthusiastic, or caring.
People who are intellectually intense are often curious, inventive, creative, absorbed, thorough, insightful, persistent, or insatiable learners.
People who are verbally intense are often articulate, thoughtful, passionate, charming, precise, or gregarious.
People who are physically intense are often energetic, joyful, active, graceful, buoyant, playful, exploratory, or highly attuned.
What words best describe your kid? Do you like the word “intense,” or do you prefer something else?
If you know or suspect your child has differences in executive functioning, emotional regulation, or sensory processing, you can also talk with them about these characteristics so they have a realistic understanding of themselves. This understanding will be the foundation for self-advocacy in the future, and it can help inform your parenting choices, too.
You may have noticed that it feels hard to switch from one thing to another - your mind gets so focused that it takes a lot of effort and energy to make it switch to another task.
Washing your hair in the shower is really uncomfortable, so no wonder you don't want to shower. I wonder if we can find another way for you to clean your hair that's less uncomfortable.
For more ideas about how to describe your child's characteristics in a compassionate, realistic way, check out this article for some ideas to get you started.
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 supporting your intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional kid.
In my 8-week group coaching program Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid, you'll get help understanding which characteristics contribute to your child's intensity. This understanding will help you adjust your parenting as needed to avoid overwhelming your child. In the program, you'll learn to work with their strengths and support the things they find difficult. Your new understanding will also help your support your child's positive identity as you validate their experiences and feel more confident connecting with them, even during intense moments. You can learn more or register here.