Dabrowski's Intellectual Overexcitability in Children

Curious little girl pretending to be a scientist

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Kazimierz Dabrowski was a Polish psychologist who devised the Theory of Positive Disintegration, This theory includes what Dabrowski called "overexcitabilities" or "super sensitivities," which appear in five different areas: the intellect, the imagination, the emotions, the five senses, and the neuromuscular system. These five intensities create easily recognized traits in many gifted children.

What Is Intellectual Overexcitability?

The intellectual overexcitability is characterized by an intense and accelerated mental activity. That does not mean, however, that it is concerned with academic achievement. Instead, it is concerned with a love of truth and a quest for understanding. Gifted children with this overexcitability may not be high achievers in school, but they are still deeply curious and interested in learning.

Signs of this overexcitability are a high level of curiosity, deep concentration, the capacity for sustained intellectual effort, and a wide variety of interests. Children with this overexcitability tend to be avid readers in their quest for knowledge. They are also excellent problem solvers and love to strategize.

These children also ask deep and probing questions, questions about God, death, and the meaning of life, for example. They are theoretical and introspective and can be preoccupied with certain problems, often those involving moral issues.

People often believe that intellectual overexcitability is the same as high intelligence, but it's not. Children with intellectual overexcitability tend to be interested in cultural events, social issues, and learning new theories. Children without this overexcitability or with a lesser degree of it, tend not to have such interests and may instead excel in practical intelligence.

  • Focused

  • Problem-solving

  • Independent thinking

  • School may not be challenging enough

  • Can be impatient and critical of others

  • Trouble falling asleep at night

The Upside of the Intellectual Overexcitability

Children with this overexcitability are tenacious learners and problem solvers. They are quite observant, noticing things that others may easily miss. They can sustain the intellectual effort, maintaining focus and concentration — when they deem the effort to be worthy. They tend to be excellent planners. They also tend to be independent thinkers and enjoy theory as well as metathinking (thinking about thinking). These traits can make those with the intellectual overexcitability excellent researchers.

The Downside of the Intellectual Overexcitability

Those with this excitability can be easily turned off by work at school if it does not challenge them sufficiently. After all, they are intensely curious and thrive on learning new information. Their minds are always activated and so they can become impatient with those around them who can't keep up with them. Sometimes that impatience comes out as insensitive criticism. They may also become so engrossed in their thoughts that they miss what others are saying — like the teacher — particularly if it is not particularly interesting to them. They may also interrupt others inappropriately because they can't contain their excitement over an idea. These children often have trouble falling asleep at night because they can't "turn off" their brains.

What You Can Do as a Parent

Understand your child's intense curiosity and do what you can to help them learn what he's interested in. Nurture their passions, but also be sure to introduce them to new topics of learning. Take your child to museums and aquariums, when possible, but be sure to check out local community programs as well, especially if your child is young.

While gifted kids may be curious and want to learn all they can, they may not know how to find the answers to their questions. Help them learn how to do that. That includes finding appropriate sites on the Internet and finding books at the local library. You might also work with your child to write down the information that is needed in order to answer the questions your child has. Helping them learn how to find the information they need will give him what they need to understand concepts and allows them to synthesize the information they gather.

Remind your child that people are different. Not everyone is going to be interested in the same topics and some people might take a little longer to grasp concepts. Talk to your child about how being critical can be hurtful and isn't necessary.

Understand that your child truly may have a difficult time falling asleep at night, not because they are being difficult, but because their mind won't stop working. You may want to alter your night-time routine to help them shut off their brain and fall asleep.

4 Sources
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  2. Schläppy ML. Understanding Mental Health Through the Theory of Positive Disintegration: A Visual Aid. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1291. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01291

  3. Alias A, Rahman S, Majid RA, Yassin SFM. Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities Profile Among Gifted Students. Asian Soc Sci. 2013;9(16):120-125. doi:10.5539/ass.v9n16p120

  4. Harrison GE, Van Haneghan V. The Gifted and the Shadow of the Night: Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities and Their Correlation to Insomnia, Death Anxiety, and Fear of the Unknown. J Educ Gift. 2011;34(4):669-697. doi:10.1177/016235321103400407

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.