Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities in Gifted Children

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Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski identified five areas in which children exhibit intense behaviors, also known as "overexcitabilities" or "supersensitivities." They are psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual, and imaginational. Gifted children tend to have multiple intensities, although one is usually dominant.

Does your child complain about the seams in his socks? Put her hands over her ears when the movie starts in the movie theater? Have trouble sitting still? Get moved almost to tears by a piece of music or work of art? These are signs of overexcitabilities (OE).

Psychomotor Overexcitabilities

The psychomotor OE is common in gifted children. It is characterized primarily by high levels of energy. Children with this OE seem to constantly be on the move. Even as infants, they need less sleep than other children. As adults, they are able to work long hours without tiring.

Children with this OE also may be misdiagnosed as having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But while they can be active, they are quite capable of focused concentration unless they are insufficiently mentally stimulated. The lack of mental stimulation can be a problem for these children in school.

The primary sign of this intensity is a surplus of energy. Characteristics of children with a dominant psychomotor OE may include:

  • Competitiveness
  • Compulsive organizing
  • Compulsive talking
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Physical expression of emotions
  • Preference for fast action and sports
  • Nervous habits and tics
  • Rapid speech
  • Sleeplessness

Sensual Overexcitabilities

The primary sign of this intensity is a heightened awareness of all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Children with a dominant sensual OE can get sick from the smell of certain foods or, as toddlers, will hate to walk on grass in their bare feet. The pleasure they get from the tastes and textures of some foods may cause them to overeat.

If your child has sensual OE, you may notice several of these traits:

  • Appreciation of beauty, whether in writing, music, art or nature, including the love of objects like jewelry
  • Craving for pleasure
  • Need or desire for comfort
  • Sensitivity to pollution
  • Sensitive to smells, tastes, or textures of foods
  • Tactile sensitivity (bothered by the feel of some materials on the skin or clothing tags)

Intellectual Overexcitabilities

This intensity is the one most recognized in gifted children. It is characterized by activities of the mind. Children who lead with this intensity seem to be thinking all the time and want answers to deep questions. Sometimes their need for answers will get them in trouble in school when their questioning of the teacher can look like disrespectful challenging. They may exhibit several of these traits:

  • Analytical thinking
  • Asking probing questions
  • Avid reading
  • Concentration, ability to maintain intellectual effort
  • Deep curiosity
  • Independent thinking
  • Love of knowledge and learning
  • Love of problem-solving
  • Theoretical thinking

Imaginational Overexcitabilities

The primary sign of this intensity is the free play of the imagination. Their vivid imaginations can cause them to visualize the worst possibility in any situation. It can keep them from taking chances or getting involved in new situations. You may notice that your child exhibits:

  • Daydreaming
  • Detailed visualization
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Good sense of humor
  • Imaginary friends
  • Love of fantasy
  • Love of poetry, music, and drama
  • Magical thinking
  • Vivid dreams

Emotional Overexcitabilities

The primary sign of this intensity is exceptional emotional sensitivity. Children with strong emotional OE are sometimes mistakenly believed to have bipolar disorder or other emotional problems and disorders. They are often the children about whom people will say, "He's too sensitive for his own good." Your child may show these traits:

  • Anxiety
  • Concern for others
  • Depression
  • Extremes of emotion
  • Feelings of guilt and sense of responsibility
  • Feelings of inadequacy and inferiority
  • A heightened sense of right and wrong or injustice and hypocrisy
  • Loneliness
  • Need for security
  • Physical response to emotions (stomach aches caused by anxiety, for example)
  • Problems adjusting to change
  • Strong memory of feelings
  • Timidity and shyness

How to Support Your Child

You can get a better understanding of your gifted child if you recognize their intensities which can help you to become a more effective and supportive parent. For example, if your child is emotionally intense, you know that she will have a tough time "just ignoring" teasing or bullying. She may need extra help in managing her reactions to hurtful behavior in others.

These sensitivities are part of a larger theory, the theory of positive disintegration.

1 Source
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  1. Alias A, Rahman S, Majid RA, Yassin SFM. Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities Profile among Gifted Students. Asian Social Science. 2013;9(16). doi:10.5539/ass.v9n16p120

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.