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  • Emma Murray

Why My “Gifted” Child is Throwing Tantrums in the Parking Lot

The Interaction Between Intellectual Ability and Emotional Maturity

(Based off the book, Why Smart Kids Worry: And What Parents Can Do to Help by Allison Edwards)


Back to school time is here, and that means parents are thinking about how their children can have the “best year yet”. Two important things to consider when thinking about the success of your child are his or her intellectual ability and their emotional maturity. For the parents who have been told their child is a “genius”, “above grade level”, or “outperforming his peers”, the fact that your child has a high intellectual ability may come as no surprise. What may be surprising is how this intellectual ability interacts with his or her physical development and emotional maturity. The “genius” child’s intellectual ability may be higher than their actual age (physical development), as well as their emotional maturity.


For example, if your child is 7 years old but is reading chapter books meant for 3rd or 4th graders or can explain to his younger siblings that earthquakes happen due to shifts in the plates of the earth causing seismic waves, then his or her intellectual ability might be more similar to a child in 4th grade than the other children in his 1st grade class. While this advanced knowledge is often praised and even encouraged through special programs, this 7-year-old of yours might not have the emotional maturity to handle the advanced thoughts that come into his brain. A 7-year-old with a 9-year-old's intellectual ability may know that bad things happen in the world, such as car accidents or fatal illnesses, and be more aware of this than his peers, but may not be able to process emotionally that these things won’t automatically happen to the people he loves. This is because his emotional maturity is still 7 years old, an age when children sometimes can’t differentiate why bad things happen. This gap between emotional maturity and intellectual ability is called asynchronous development and within this gap often lies worry, fear, and anxiety.


The combination of intellectual ability and emotional maturity becomes more of a concern when the intellectual ability is above and the emotional maturity is below their physical development age. This child may look like a 7-year-old, think like a 9-year-old, but behave like a 5-year-old. This four year gap between emotional maturity and intellectual ability is something that can impact the child’s functioning and behavior. This child struggles to understand why things are happening and then responds in a way that is not congruent developmentally or contextually, such as throwing a tantrum or physically hurting their classmates or siblings.


If we teach the child according to their emotional maturity age and not their intellectual ability age, we can appease their feelings of worry or anxiety. Often children who have a higher intellectual ability are seen by grown ups as more “mature” and therefore are spoken to and treated as the “older” child when actually, they benefit most from age-appropriate emotional guidance.


All children want to know that they are safe and cared for, but their advanced thinking might convince them otherwise.

So how do we bridge the gap, decrease anxiety, and help our children understand their thoughts and deal with their feelings? Allison Edwards suggests a few helpful steps in her book, Why Smart Kids Worry: And What Parents Can Do to Help. The first is to educate your child about feelings; how they work, what they are, and when we might experience them. The goal is for the child to be able to connect with you, to share his or her feelings, and for you to be able to discuss the things they may be worried about.


Another necessary skill is called "Holding Objectivity". Because children have this gap between intellect and emotion, they are not able to objectively think about their worries as adults can. They cannot rationalize that just because daddy drives a truck doesn’t mean he is going to crash it like the one they passed on the highway yesterday. Parents can help their children rationalize their thoughts so that they can respond better emotionally. This holding of objectivity begins with tracking and noticing when your child shows signs of worry and anxiety, and how intense their anxiety may be. This will allow you to anticipate your child's needs and educate in the moment about their feelings.


To teach about feelings, you as the parent must first connect to your own feelings. If you tend to ignore your own emotions or do not “check in” with yourself throughout the day about how you are feeling, you might have trouble doing this for your child. Start by noticing your emotions, especially your own worries, and learn to be in touch with those. Next, talk openly about your child's feelings. Expression and validation of their emotions help the child learn to talk about how they feel and what events might be causing these feelings. This also involves modeling the appropriate emotions for a certain situation to help a child learn how to handle an emotional experience. The child may need a “multiple choice” option for identifying feelings. You can say to them, “I saw the neighbor take away your ball. You might be feeling angry, sad, disappointed, or confused that this happened. I’m wondering which of these you are feeling right now?”


Finally, separate emotions from behaviors. Validate their feelings while correcting their behavior. Because anxiety is often accompanied by irritability, helping your child to manage their impulsive behaviors will be the key to allowing them to make positive behavior changes.

Teach children that while feeling angry or upset is okay, hitting someone or breaking their brother’s LEGO tower is not okay.

In-the-moment corrective experiences help children learn to control impulses and make the right decisions with their behaviors.


By helping your child close the gap between emotional maturity and intellectual ability, he or she can be less afraid of the worries that are often created in this gap. Help your child “bridge” the gap and cross over to a more calm, confident, and courageous school year.

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