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Overwhelmed and Melting Down

Third in a series of educational parenting articles on ‘Raising Bright Sparks’. How to recognise, support and extend our brightest kids

“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to!” may be the refrain from a ’60s pop song, but the equivalent message is frequently heard as a plaintive wail emanating from a child’s birthday party.  With a child emotionally overwhelmed and melting down, parents are left wondering whatever happened to the ‘happy’ birthday.

Occasional upsets can occur in any gathering of young children.  Why is it that gifted children often get so distressed in the midst of a celebration, whether attending a birthday party or large family event? A common, but incorrect, belief is that gifted children are socially and emotionally immature.  The child who is intellectually advanced has a discrepancy between chronological and mental ages.  Research shows that social and emotional development is usually placed half to two-thirds between the child’s two ‘ages’. Social and emotional maturity is aligned with mental age, the way a child thinks.

The ability to think in complex ways leads to emotional depths, so gifted children are often sensitive and intense.  Environmental sensitivity may extend to difficulties with sound, touch, taste and visual stimuli. Linda Silverman’s research indicates increased levels of food intolerances and allergies within this population.

Characteristics prevalent among the gifted will be more apparent in situations where children become emotionally aroused.  A child may be advanced in several areas but with limited life experience, has not had sufficient time to develop the skills to manage overwhelming stimuli, thoughts and emotions. Parents, who want their child to experience social activities but not become overwhelmed and distressed, can prepare with these characteristics in mind.

Is your child an introvert or extrovert? Temperament is related to how individuals re-energise – internally, from time alone or externally, from time with others.  Temperament determines whether a child eagerly anticipates or dreads a party. If preparing for your child’s party, plan the number of children invited, location and activities with the child’s temperament in mind.  Consider alternating lively games with quieter activities to allow for children with differing temperaments.  Identify a quiet zone for withdrawal from overwhelming stimuli, to provide calm and reduce emotional meltdowns. If your introvert child has been invited to an event, prepare the child by discussing the need to withdraw from activities occasionally. Prior discussion with the parent hosting the party might prompt opportunities for your child to be asked to help in the kitchen, set out activities or hand around food, allowing them to mingle without a lot of interaction, which can be stressful.

Understand your child’s sensitivities; whether emotional and/or environmental; consider how these might be accommodated at a party. Avoid dressing the child in new, ‘scratchy’ clothing for the party and discuss the use of discrete ear plugs or identify places to withdraw from loud noises.  If your child has food intolerances, dietary requirements or allergies, discuss these with the host.  Depending upon the child’s age and host’s response, you may decide it is better to provide food for your child.

It takes time for a child to learn to manage emotional regulation.  You probably anticipate the types of social situations where your child is likely to have an emotional ‘meltdown’. Try to prepare the child: ways to calm themselves; how to express emotions appropriately and assertively; practise a few phrases that can be used for self-talk or to say to others, especially in situations where a child might think the situation is unfair. If your child is prone to emotional outbursts, offer to help so that you can step in (not too quickly) or remove the child if you see a problem escalating.  A child needs opportunities to try strategies that have been discussed.

I once carefully prepared a children’s party with gluten and lactose free food to accommodate the needs of an invited child; sited it outdoors for the noise sensitive; planned a range of activities to allow for different temperaments; encouraged parents to stay.  I thought I had all possibilities covered.  The child with food intolerances refused to eat anything; an introvert retreated to a bedroom with a book and a child had a severe allergic reaction when bitten by a green ant.

You can try to anticipate and plan; however neither you nor your child can control everything. Children might still feel overwhelmed; meltdowns may have to be dealt with; events that are beyond your control will happen. Remember to model appropriate behaviour during and after events; view problems that occur with perspective and introduce some gentle humour when things go awry – even if this can only be done after the event.

Michele Juratowitch is Director of Clearing Skies, provides counselling for gifted children and parents; professional development for teachers; programs for students and workshops for parents. Michele was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and will be conducting a STEAM Residential for gifted primary school girls 6th – 9th July. Michele is co-author of Make a Twist, a resource for gifted students, parent and teachers.  See Families website for more details.

E:  michele@clearingskies.com.au

W: www.clearingskies.com.au

P:  3378 0888

This article was published in Issue 4 of our print magazine, June/July 2014.

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