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Sometimes Deep Minds Work Slowly: Emotionality and Processing Time

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Last week, a parent told me about some of the difficulties she faces with her emotional gifted child.  She was frustrated that her daughter seems unable or unwilling to identify and express her feelings when asked.  Up to this point, family therapy wasn’t getting anywhere, and she was starting to doubt herself and asking a common question for all parents: Am I a good parent?

I hope to offer some thoughts and perspectives to help see things in a new way.

Yes, identification of feelings can be helpful… and it’s only just the beginning. I know how frustrating it can be to not understand someone’s inner experience. You care so much, and you want to help them feel better so badly. I have been both the caring adult trying to understand a confused child, and I have been the confused child that did not understand myself.

My simple advice is this: assess for safety, and if there is no crisis, wait. While you wait, enter their world, and imagine how it is to be them. They may not directly tell you, but you can look around and guess.  I often have children use a list of words to identify their feelings. However, even my preferred {aff} Grok Feelings and Needs cards, can be just as overwhelming as an open-ended question if a person just needs time.

When a kid replies “I don’t know” in response to you, it isn’t just about a lack of naming an internal experience; often there is also a fair share of “Leave me alone.”  I get why a parent would be curious, and it makes total sense why they would want that information.  Still, it may make parenting slightly easier to let their child have their experience for a period of time, without prodding and interrogation.  Can you trust their timing enough to delay the restorative process or teachable moment?  If you don’t, there is the risk that they will choose a random word off the list of feelings that doesn’t apply just so you will leave them alone until they have processed their own experience.

Sometimes deep minds work slowly.

Let’s give ourselves a break to look for lessons that we can learn about how to support gifted children.  I suspect perfectionism may play a role in this challenge: a child may feel tongue-tied because they struggle to accurately describe what is messy and clouded. As an adult, I have noticed myself saying, “I am having feelings.” This is my first step, sorting out what they are comes second. I’ve been trying to identify and sit with feelings for decades. Can we have a little patience as kids struggle with this? Also, can we understand each other by asking a broader question, such as “Are you having feelings?” A child who might not name a specific feeling, or even refuses to select a feelings card or point to a word on a list, may only truthfully be able to acknowledge that something is happening in their inner world.

And that’s a perfectly good start.

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Amber April 18, 2013, 4:46 pm

    I can really identify with your post, and I have a daughter who struggles with this as well. It would be great to have a follow-up post addressing the process that comes after identifying that one is experiencing feelings.

    • byamtich April 21, 2013, 8:48 pm

      Hi Amber,

      I hope to write more on this topic. For starters, I really recommend Nonviolent Communication training. (There are also plenty of books on the subject). I have seen gifted families really get to the heart of what they cared about with this social skills process. I have so thoroughly integrated this into my practice supporting families that I sometimes forget to share the basics. One of my favorite impacts is training families in how to use the feelings and needs cards that are linked in the post. The benefit is not only momentary shared understanding and compassion, but extended and sustainable self-connection, empathy and self-expression skills.


  • IamBullyproofMusic April 19, 2013, 12:44 am

    I really like what you wrote about perfectionism. I’d bet that explanation holds true for a lot of gifted kids. My oldest son, quite gifted, is now a young man of few words. “I talk when I have something to say.” He was a gifted child with a reserved and sensitive personality growing up. I never EVER asked him how he felt. I always asked him instead “What do you think?” and that seemed to help him get to how he felt without much hooplah. It just took changing up the wording. Also, I explained to him early on that logic and emotion are polar opposites. When a person is feeling emotional, they are usually not logical so don’t expect emotions to make sense. I raised both my boys on that mantra and now everyone tells me “Your boys are so deep! They never sweat the small stuff!” When I witness helicopter-type parents around their kids I can’t help but think “Don’t you realize you’re teaching them to worry?” You’re so spot on.

  • Debbie S. April 20, 2013, 8:29 pm

    I had to go check my calendar again, because I really did not remember talking to you last week. Yet I must have, because I know you wrote the first paragraph about me and my daughter! I’ll have to try asking her if she’s “having feelings.” Thanks!

    • byamtich February 11, 2015, 8:31 pm

      I have to check my calendar! I’m sorry I delayed almost two years. Personally, I often benefit from breaking things down into smaller steps.

  • Bette April 21, 2013, 4:01 am

    I have two gifted boys, who are polar opposites. One is extremely emotional, and wears it on his sleeve. The youngest is the complete opposite. Though he is emotional, the “feelings” are very frustrating for him, especially when he can’t put words to them (he has a bit of a processing delay). He’s 8 years now, and has learned that when he is feeling emotionally overwhelmed, that taking a little time out for himself helps immensely. He will tell you that he needs time by himself, and after he’s had that time, he returns very calm. Not always able to talk about it, but in his mind, he’s worked it through.

    • byamtich February 12, 2015, 10:13 am

      That’s so great that he knows how to ask for the processing time he needs. “Calm” is certainly an important indicator. “Calm” is probably the most frequently used feeling card a kid chooses when using the F + N cards, although nothing compares to “Fun & Play” in the needs deck.

  • Jade Rivera April 22, 2013, 10:46 am

    Shared this!

  • V.Wiggin November 10, 2013, 6:38 pm

    This post very much describes me. Drove my mother crazy when I was growing up – “you shouldn’t still be bothered by that.” She would pressure me up front, when the emotions were most confusing to explain, causing the whole process to take longer. Made it hard to get support when my emotional cycle didn’t follow the time frame adults expected. I wish I’d had the language to explain then.

    • byamtich November 10, 2013, 7:08 pm

      I’m so glad you found this meaningful! Lots of people are becoming more accepting of emotions; the next step is to accept the emotional cycle and time frame, as you describe. When acceptance joins with patience, the impact can be powerful. Thanks for your comment.

  • Nicole Linn February 11, 2015, 8:13 pm

    I am so glad Sara reshared this today. This is one of my favorite posts of yours, Bob, and a topic dear to my heart. Adults are so quick to pepper children with questions, and slow to wait for a reply. Thank you for your insightful words. Bookmarked for when I need a reminder. 🙂

    • byamtich February 11, 2015, 8:33 pm

      Thanks Nicole! I don’t want to be peppered with anything! Makes sense that a kid wouldn’t either.

  • Celi Trepanier February 12, 2015, 7:31 am

    Bob, thank you for this important message. As a parent, I’m guilty of this. When our child is hurting, parents are hurting so much too that we just want to fix it for our kids which may mean getting to the heart of the matter–quickly–to relieve the hurting. Now, I will reflect on your message here, stop with the questions and be patient. Sometimes a hug and a smile can be just as productive. Beautiful message!

    • byamtich February 12, 2015, 10:10 am

      Thanks Celi! I agree that a hug and a smile delivers the message that you are there for them. Sometimes, there is no perfect sentence, no question, no piece of information that will transform a situation.

      A friend once described somebody she was working with as “on a self-correcting path.” It’s always hard to know what to interrupt and when to intervene. What in life auto-corrects? Does patience help?

  • Rebecca February 19, 2015, 3:20 am

    My 8yo daughter writes down what she can not say to me. I asked her one day if it was easier to write things down than say them out loud. She exclaimed “Of course! How could I possibly explain everything that is in my head! But I can write a small bit of it down for you”.
    I am grateful that she gives me a small glimpse of what she’s feeling – and allows me in to try to help ease her anxiety.

    • byamtich February 19, 2015, 7:32 am

      Starting with a “small bit” seems like a really successful strategy.

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