Strategies to Reduce Emotional Overwhelm
for Gifted/2e Kids
These approaches can help you better understand, reduce, or prevent emotional overwhelm
Is your kid easily overwhelmed by their emotions? Perhaps their feelings seem more intense than their peers’ or seem to last longer. Do they whine, argue, cry, scream, throw things, or hit others when they’re overwhelmed? If so, you’re not alone. A lot of gifted/2e kids experience intense feelings, and many of the parents I work with in my coaching program want to help their kids feel less overwhelmed.
If you’re like these parents, you’ve tried to teach your kids emotional regulation strategies without much success. A lot of gifted/2e kids can learn and describe regulation strategies when they’re calm, but aren’t able to use them in the heat of the moment - because they’re overwhelmed! 😬
The good news is that there are excellent, accessible parent-focused strategies to reduce kids’ emotional overwhelm. These are strategies you can implement on your own, without needing your kid to initiate anything new.
In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of several strategies you can try at home to reduce emotional overwhelm.
All of these strategies have been helpful for real parents of intense or sensitive gifted/2e kids.
Honor your child’s need for autonomy
Most gifted/2e kids crave autonomy and want to do things their own way.
If your kid resists or seems overwhelmed when you make simple requests and demands, they might have a particularly strong drive for autonomy. These kids often perceive requests or instructions as distressing and unsafe because they perceive a loss of autonomy. If your kid craves autonomy, they need plenty of autonomy to stay emotionally regulated and avoid overwhelm.
By offering your child more autonomy during daily tasks, you can support their emotional regulation and avoid triggering distress.
One easy way to offer more autonomy is to be flexible about how tasks are completed.
It often helps to identify your most important goal in the moment (which may not be flexible), then allow flexibility about how the goal is achieved.
If your goal is for your child to brush their teeth, what else could be flexible? Some kids who refuse to brush their teeth at the sink willingly brush while sitting on top of the counter, lying in their bed, watching TV, or cuddling with a parent.
If your goal is for your child to be fed, what else is flexible? Some kids protest if they’re expected to come to dinner at a set time, but happily join the table later if they’re told they can join when they’re ready. Other kids find the dinner table overwhelming but can eat while watching videos or alone in their room.
Recognize what’s tricky and offer support
If your child is regularly emotionally overwhelmed by a certain situation or task, something about that task is too difficult for them.
To reduce your child’s overwhelm, first get curious about what makes the task or situation dysregulating or upsetting for your specific kid.
For example, many gifted/2e kids have executive functioning differences or sensory sensitivities that make daily tasks difficult and potentially dysregulating. Daily demands that seem like they “should be” easy may be difficult, unpleasant, or impossible for these kids to complete independently without becoming overwhelmed.
Many kids get overwhelmed during the morning routine, but each kid may be overwhelmed by a different aspect of the morning. Try to understand what’s hard for your kid - is it difficult to wake up? Too many steps to move through? Do they wake up over-hungry? Do they wish they had more play time before school? Are daily grooming tasks painful?
Once you have a hypothesis about what’s tricky for your kid, offer support.
There are innumerable ways to offer support, so feel free to be creative.
Most parents I work with simply need permission to help their bright child with tasks they think their kid “should” be able to do. Consider this your permission to help with any tasks that usually contribute to emotional overwhelm or dysregulation.
For example, maybe you’ve noticed that your kid gets emotionally overwhelmed when they’re getting ready for school and you have to give them multiple reminders of the different tasks. What would happen if you made a checklist together, helped them with the trickiest task, or brought their breakfast to their room to reduce transitions?
Or maybe you’ve noticed that your kid gets emotionally dysregulated when it’s time to shower because they hate the sensory experience of the shower and say that it hurts. What would happen if you installed a more gentle shower head or encouraged baths instead? Or if you put on their favorite podcast or music while they showered?
Traditional parenting practices often pressure parents to consider what’s “age appropriate.” But many gifted/2e kids need a more supportive approach that aligns with the way their brain works and honors their capacity in the moment.
Perhaps you worry others will say that you’re enabling or disabling your child by supporting them with these tasks - but in fact you’re helping them build emotional regulation skills and self-advocacy skills by recognizing what tasks are too hard and modeling potential supports!
Validate your child’s emotions without teaching
When a child is emotionally overwhelmed, many parents feel pressured to teach “emotional regulation skills.” Unfortunately, emotional regulation is often mis-characterized as an ability to move quickly through emotions or to “get over” or “get past” or “recover from” emotions easily.
When parents feel pressured to help their child feel better quickly, their interventions often backfire. Perhaps you’ve noticed this in your own home. When your child is upset and you try to reassure them, encourage them, offer another way of seeing the situation, or offer coping strategies (e.g., deep breathing, taking a break), does your child get more upset and overwhelmed?
Here’s a different way to think about emotional regulation - someone who can regulate their emotions can experience, tolerate, and accept the full range of their emotions, then eventually return to baseline.
To support your child’s emotional regulation, try to validate and wait.
Instead of reassuring or encouraging your child, just let them know their emotion is valid. Try to sit with their discomfort and your own discomfort with an air of acceptance and calm.
Instead of, “You’re not bad at making friends” try “You feel really lonely” or “It would be nice to have a best friend, huh?”
Instead of, “Washing hands isn’t that bad, it’ll only take two minutes,” try “You’re really not in the mood right now” or “Ugh, it’s no fun to wash hands when you just want to get back to your Legos.”
Resist the urge to teach your child anything helpful in the moment. Just validate their perspective and wait while they feel their feeling. Many parents worry that acknowledging their child’s difficult emotions will make the emotion more intense or overwhelming, but they usually discover that validation calms their child more quickly.
Think about yourself - if you told a friend or partner that you were feeling overwhelmed by the number of dishes in the sink, would it feel supportive to hear, “It’s not that bad - it’ll only take 10 minutes”? What about something like, “Well, you know that’s part of being a responsible grown up”? Or would it be more regulating to hear something validating and connecting, like, “Oh yeah, dishes are no fun.” Or “Ugh, dishes! I feel you.”
By validating your child’s feeling then waiting to “teach,” you offer connection and help them feel less emotionally overwhelmed.
Let’s apply it
If your child is easily overwhelmed and you’d like to support them in new ways, which of these strategies would you like to try first?
If you’d like, you could think about 1-2 times in the coming week when your child will likely have a big emotion or begin to feel overwhelmed.
Then make a plan for which strategy or strategies you’d like to try.
Could you be more flexible or offer your child more autonomy during the tricky situation?
Do you know what makes the situation hard for them? Could you support them in a new way or change the situation to make it easier?
Can you anticipate what they’ll be feeling or what they’ll say? If so, what could you say that would feel validating? What might you be inclined to “teach” that could wait or that might not be necessary?
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 (2e) kid.
If you like these ideas but could really use more hands-on support applying them to your specific situation, check out my group coaching program for parents, Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid. Over 8 weeks, you get my help understanding and personalizing strategies like the ones in this email - so you can help your kid (and yourself) feel less overwhelmed and more confident.