Emotional Intensity

 Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D.
Gifted Development Center
Denver, Colorado

Creatively gifted children and adults are emotionally intense and have rich inner lives (Piechowski, 1991). An enhanced capacity for feeling is essential to the production of great art, moving music, high drama, memorable prose and poetry, exquisite performances. We love to watch the ecstatic absorption of a conductor, the passionate portrayal of Othello, and the dedicated delicacy of a ballerina. To be passionately in love with one’s work provides a sense of meaning to one’s existence; it is truly one of Life’s great blessings.

Why, then, do we become so disturbed when we see the precursors to this passionate involvement in young children? Emotional intensity is one of the personality concomitants of giftedness. It is natural for the gifted to feel deeply and to experience a broad range of emotions. Dabrowski and Piechowski (1977) called this heightened capacity for feeling "emotional overexcitability," and found that it is strongly correlated with high intelligence. Piechowski (1991) defines emotional overexcitability as "the great depth and intensity of emotional life expressed through a wide range of feelings, attachments, compassion, heightened sense of responsibility, and scrupulous self-examination" (p. 287). Dabrowski saw the sensitivity and emotional extremes of the creative individual as positive potential for higher level development.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that does not view heightened emotionality in a very positive way. The first message an infant often hears is, "Hush, now, don’t cry." And this message is reiterated throughout childhood – particularly to boys. The main lesson students learn in school is how to control, repress, deny their emotions, as part of the socialization process. But repressing one’s emotions also represses one’s vitality, which may be one of the reasons students have difficulty staying motivated to learn. Motivation is emotional, not intellectual.

Guidance in dealing with intensity and emotional sensitivity in gifted children is provided by Piechowski (1991): The intensity of emotional reactions…in [gifted] children may sometimes be difficult to understand, especially when the child is strongly upset over "nothing." It requires considerable patience and knowledge of the child to see that this "overreaction" comes from the child’s sensitivity and the need for his or her own emotions, departure from something routinely expected, for example, the way a story is told, may be extremely upsetting simply because the need for support is all the greater. The strongest support, without doubt, is the parent’s loving patience and acceptance. (pp. 287,289) Our responsibility as parents and teachers of the gifted is not to teach them to curb their emotions, nor is it to tolerate their feelings. Our task is to be emotionally alive ourselves, as good role models, and to honor these children’s sensitivity as a positive trait. Otherwise, we risk contributing to societal corrosion of healthy emotional development. We are in greater danger of emotional mediocrity than of intellectual mediocrity – and this rampant lack of sensitivity is life-threatening to our planet. Emotional intensity in children should be supported, not squelched.


Dabrowski, K., & Piechowski, M.M. (1977). Theory of levels of emotional development (2 vols.). Oceanside, NY: Dabor Science.

Piechowski, M.M. (1991). Emotional development and emotional giftedness. In N. Colangelo & G.A. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of gifted education (pp. 285-306). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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