Parenting to Intensity

When Kathy and I agreed to contribute a blog post on the challenges of gifted parenting to SENG’s blog tour, the first question we asked each other was ‘where do we start?’  There’s  no shortage of challenges for the parents of gifted children, especially during the summer, when it seems that we’re constantly on the go – arguing minimum-age requirements with summer camps, prying children out of books to go and enjoy the outdoors, and always, always, dealing with intensities.

Intensities are omnipresent in our household this summer, jostling for attention not just among our kids, but within them. As I write this, the kids are involved in attempting to do a shot-for-shot remake of the first Harry Potter movie (shot on iPhones!), and the intensities are all on display. H fears rejection in contacting the local Melting Pot to see if they can film there, her emotional intensity on full alert; what if they say no, Dad? But, at the same time,  her imaginational intensity can’t conceive of how the production could possibly go without footage of the restaurant’s excellent interior. (It’s rumored to be haunted, too, and that turns every dial in her intensities to 10.) E cannot reconcile her intellectual-intensity theater director’s soul, which knows she’s the perfect Draco, with her imaginational-intensity actor’s soul, which badly wants the role of Luna Lovegood. Meanwhile, A is here, there, and everywhere in the production, his psychomotor and imaginational intensities in top gear – despite playing the role of Baby Harry at the outset. No discussion of robes can go unchallenged by competing sensory-intensity positions on how they should feel (let alone look); no scene setting can be finalized until every participant’s imaginational-intensity vision is present in the final version. And when emotional and imaginational and intellectual intensities clash in deciding how to film a shot? We can almost feel the psychic temperature rise in our house.

What else would we write about for this guest blog post, then? Intensity it is. In particular, with SENG’s mission in mind, we want to address the role of accepting intensity – and even parenting to intensity – in raising emotionally healthy children. I’ve dealt with the issue of how intensity is sometimes treated within the gifted community in another post, so I won’t revisit those comments in detail, other than to note that Kathy and I have both experienced the viewpoint that intensity is something to be governed and minimized and managed – and disagree with it. ‘Gifted is wiring,’ we are taught; and if that is true – and we believe it to be – then attempting to stick one’s hand into the wiring closet and pull out a fistful of sparking leads, hoping we’re improving the situation, is folly. All that wiring is in there for a reason; it makes up who your child is. Loving and accepting your gifted child can’t be a cherry-picking exercise, unfortunately; we’re not allowed the privilege of accepting intellectual capacity without the ‘extra’ wiring that goes along with it in the form of intensity.

So, instead of parenting to the intellect and attempting to manage intensity, what if we elevated intensity to become the equal of the intellect? What if we parented to intensity, just as we parent to the intellect? What if we fed both aspects of our gifted children equally in our parenting actions?

The very idea of parenting to intensity runs counter to most of our parenting instincts at least twice; it’s more difficult to do, and it’s less societally accepted to try. It’s more difficult to do because intensity comprises the louder, more boisterous voices in our households. These are the ragged sobs of feelings dealt blows too hard for young and emotionally-intense hearts to endure; they are the frustrated exclamations of momentary defeat for intellectually-intense children who cannot quickly master tasks meant for hands much older than their own. These are the voices that spiral ever upward in volume, one kid’s outburst a decibel louder than the one just before, and about to be cut off by one a decibel louder still. What we want to do is calm these waters, not go rowing out into them; we want the louder voices quieted, and not necessarily embraced. That’s not a criticism of our skills as parents; Kathy and I struggle with this every day. It’s so much easier to praise a gifted kid when he or she is nose-deep in a thick new book, or quietly coding a Mindstorms robot prototype; those acts look and feel ‘good’ to us as parents, because we’ve been taught that they have ‘productive outcomes’ in their later lives. But those acts are not our kids in their totality; intensity is just as much who they are as intellect is. We need to acknowledge that we’re dealing with minds and hearts that traditional parenting wisdom – and reflexes – simply don’t speak to.

Accepting that idea – that our kids are intellects and intensities – isn’t easy for societal reasons, too. Our culture wants the Enlightenment Mind from gifted children – pure cerebral horsepower, devoid of quirks and idiosyncrasies. Intensities are often viewed as encumbering drogue chutes, constantly slowing down the workings of an otherwise-remarkable mind. They’re medicalized, referred out for therapy, given acronymic titles and mouthful-of-jargon terms, most of which end with the word disorder. We’ve been told, over and over again, that was is to be celebrated and honed about our children is their raw intellectual capacity, while what is to be controlled and mitigated and medicated are the intensities they display. Psychomotor, we’re told, can be calmed with ADHD meds; imaginational intensity can be curbed with focusing exercises, while emotional intensity is best consigned to the abrasive world of ‘toughening them up.’

Parenting to intensity is neither the easy path nor, necessarily, the enjoyable one. Intensity is intensity, and a full day of dealing with one child’s solitary intensity can be enough to make a couch and a pair of headphones look very attractive; three children with multiple intensities apiece makes that subjective day even longer. But parenting to intensity, rather than to intellect, accomplishes one vitally important task: it communicates, without ambiguity, that children are loved and accepted for the whole of their being, and not just whatever intellectual contribution they might one day be able to make to society. Parenting to intensity says, clearly, that gifted is wiring, and that who you are as a gifted child is who you are, not what you do or are capable of doing. Our cultural archetype library readily categorizes other forms of monolithic parenting as short-sighted and self-centered; prodigy parents in sports and music are assigned a certain level of craziness for their manic focus on sharpening the skills of their children, but parents of gifted children who focus to exclusion on intellectual development often aren’t. (This is a strange reversal of the cultural norms for the children themselves, by the way; we tend to celebrate the athlete and the musical prodigies themselves while excoriating the parents, whereas for academically gifted children, the opposite is often true.)

But choosing this path can often lead to confusing convergences of action that are unrelated to motivation. H and E are both partially homeschooled, both attending online courses relevant to their ability levels, and on the surface, that would appear to be a monolithic decision applying the same logic to both. In reality, we’re addressing intensities in both cases. E’s intellectual intensity is such that she wants to run as far as she wants, as fast as she wants; she’s a classic Stephanie Tolan cheetah, and restricting her intellectual environment is a sure route to apathy and boredom. What E needs from homeschooling is space and time. H, on the other hand, has emotional intensity at a level that causes her to take on water simply sitting in a classroom surrounded by 26 other baskets of intensities. The emotional level of the room is just too ‘loud’ for her to get any real learning done, so she benefits from a calm learning setting; what she needs from homeschooling is quiet and focus. A, by contrast, is something of an extrovert, and school is a great track for him right now. Homeschooling him would deprive him of something he needs – so we’re very careful not to ‘group him into’ a decision-making process that doesn’t address his individual intensities.

Intensities are usually the first ‘filters’ gifted children perceive their worlds through – the exposed nerve endings that first touch the world. To deny intensities their role in how our children understand the world around them is to blind and deafen them, to force them to find their way through their lives with unfamiliar secondary senses, echoes and reflections of their environs. Parenting to intensities is exhausting, and the urge to limit, to confine, and to quiet them is, at times, undeniably alluring. But the way out, as with so many things involved in gifted parenting, is the way through; acknowledging intensity, embracing it in our children, and allowing them to use them to define and understand the world around them is the surest route to loving the whole child – and, in the long run, to allowing children the means to harness and control their intensities, rather than live at the mercy of them.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. I like your phrase “parenting to intensity”. Of course, that’s awfully hard to do at 10:30 at night when one kid is screaming at you that he just has three more chapters left, the other kid can’t fall asleep quickly because she is spontaneously singing “lullabies” and making up the lyrics as she goes along, and I want to head downstairs and work on my blog…


    • Jenny, it’s not hard to do at 10:30 at night. It’s hard to do ALL THE TIME. 🙂 I feel for you – and your kids sound a LOT like ours. But they sound like just the kind of creative, loved children that know you’re there for all of them, and not just the intellectual moments.


  2. Posted by Christopher on August 15, 2012 at 8:21 am

    New to your blog, but so far I love it. We’re new to the GT world, although we’ve always known. We struggle with the intensity with our 7yr old. We knew a couple of years ago traditional parenting wasn’t working, but hoped that with age and maturity these problems would work themselves out. We kept telling oursleves “he’s so smart, it will eventual click. We just have to persevere”. Now we’ve resigned ourselves to taking a different approach, but figuring that out is not so easy. Only recently have we found hoagies, SENG, and chasing hollyfield. Intensity is a huge part of J. Sometimes I swear you look at him and can see him vibrating. I’m not sure a fully understand “parenting to intensity” other than the point of not supressing it, but embracing it. That idea seems reasonable and worth a shot, however I’m not sure how to go about it or what it exactly means. In our case (and I’m sure we’re not alone), if we don’t attempt to maintain certain boundaries, our child would steamroll us and the household would be a free for all… junk food, movies, video games, late bedtime, getting his way all the time, etc…. Right now he tries to use his intensity to bully his way to what he wants and challenging that behaviour sets off the time bomb. Trying to embrace his intensity but still maintain boundaries – respect and courtesy to others – is proving difficult. Parenting to intensity sounds good, but can you elaborate?


    • Hi, Christopher. Sounds like you’re very much on the same journey many of us are, and trying to contend with a lot of new and unfamiliar ground. Don’t worry – it’s new and unfamiliar to all of us as we go along, and largely we’re just sharing our thoughts as we go.

      I suppose you could think of ‘Parenting to Intensity’ as the process of embracing the whole kid. I think, too often, we’re told – as parents of gifted kids – that the intellect is to be embraced and the intensity is to be managed. It’s harder, but in the end more accepting of the child, to parent to all of him/her – to say, “being gifted is all of this to you – what you feel and what you do, not just what you think. And all of you is OK.”

      That doesn’t mean everything behavioral is OK; we have a lot of moments when we have to step in and teach that intensity is fine so long as it hurts no one else (physically or emotionally) and places no one in danger of being hurt thus. Do they always manage this? No, they don’t. But we have found that embracing their intensity when it doesn’t impact anyone else’s life has cut down on the amount of discipline we need to levy.

      Does that help?


      • Posted by Christopher on August 15, 2012 at 3:55 pm

        I think so. I think we’ve been trying to embrace the intensity side until it (like you said) hurts someone else (or bedtime arrives, we tend to have less patience when we’re tired too. I just think we’re frustrated that he’s so smart, yet doesn’t seem to understand when his words or actions injure others. Was hoping you had a silver bullet for this or some magic piece of advice we hadn’t tried. Keep worrying that by the time I almost have this figured out I’ll have already damaged him irreparably!
        We tell him the emotions are real and okay, but its how he expresses them and acts on them that can be a problem. Sometimes we have take off our parent’s hat and put on our coach’s hat. Sometimes forget that you’re talking to a 7 year old.

  3. […] News About Parenting: Trends In Parenting Parenting briefs Parenting to Intensity […]


  4. I stopped by to comment on another post I read earlier, and discovered this gem, too!
    I love the idea of embracing the whole of who our children are.
    As an emotionally intense child I was subject to the “toughening them up” world. And of course, each of my children has a different intensity again!


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