by Kim Servia, M.A.Ed., DCSD GT Facilitator, and Parent
Too often, gifted children and adolescents hear that they are “too _______.” Fill in the blank with any of the following: intense, sensitive, weird, self-absorbed, hyperactive, bossy, stubborn, or lazy. Many adults and peers are guilty of transforming the traits of giftedness into criticisms by using these negative descriptors. These kids are not trying to be difficult. It’s just how they are wired. “By definition, someone who is gifted is different from the norm, and in many places, being different is not only unusual, it is unacceptable,” as James Webb writes. Even if the child never hears these words, others’ reactions cause them to feel and internalize these labels, causing damage to the child.
Bored, disengaged, edgy, disrespectful – this is how some teachers saw our son. Those he liked and respected, knew it. Those he didn’t, knew that too. At home, we saw a funny, bright, energetic, insatiably curious and creative thinker. He was bored and disenchanted with school, but we believed it was the most rigorous and nurturing choice available at the time. “High school will be better,” we told him. He trusted us. He “hung in there.”
Continual misunderstanding of the traits and needs of gifted children can drive them to negative self-talk and to ponder questions such as: “I thought my teachers were supposed to know more than I do.” “My parents said it would get better.” “What’s wrong with me?” “Does anyone else think the way I do?”
Confusion, frustration, disillusionment, helplessness, loneliness, and anger can result. These feelings can transform into negative behaviors including: decreased motivation and enthusiasm, underachievement, procrastination, and crippling perfection.
Depression can develop. Parents and teachers should be prepared to recognize the signs of depression in children which presents differently than in suffering adults. Boys with depression may act out in anger or aggression. Girls may be withdrawn and irritable. Both can experience changes in their sleep patterns.
We experienced ALL of this but still did not understand what was happening nor what to do about it. Our relationships were strained. I sought help from everyone who would listen. Eventually I found a book called Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope by Dr. James Webb. Surely, he knew my son and wrote this book about him – or so I thought after reading it. With my new understanding and the need for more, I scheduled a comprehensive evaluation with a psychologist who specializes in working with the gifted, we finally began to learn what we needed to know to help our son. Our mindset shifted and is well described in this quote:
Thinking of your child as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your child as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress. ~ Unknown
Parents and teachers simply must understand more if they want to help, not hurt, gifted children navigate the social, emotional, and academic challenges in their journey. The strategies below are recommended.
First, MEET the CHILD where he/she is – intellectually, emotionally, and socially. Accept the child for who he/she is. Explore and emphasize the child’s interests and strengths. Support their challenges. Understand that children’s behaviors are not just random events. Look beneath concerning behaviors for unmet needs and find ways to meet them. Recognize asynchronistic development with age and ability and engage accordingly.
In our house, asynchronistic development looks like this: My son sometimes acts 12 (maturity) and sometimes 28 (intellectually) years old. He almost never acts his chronological age of 18. I’ve learned to engage with him according to the age he is acting at the time. It sounds absurd, but it works! Eventually, he will mature into his chronological age.
Second, teach RESILIENCY which will build confidence and self-esteem. Affirm their independence, actions, problem-solving attempts, successes, and failures. Help them understand that we all face adversity. It’s what we THINK and DO about these challenges that matters. If we choose (and are taught) to, we can learn and grow from them.
Help your child understand, identify, and question the beliefs, both positive and negative, that run through his/her head during these times. Help them ask themselves: “Why did this happen?” “Was it me or not me?” “Is it permanent or temporary?” “What’s the worst thing that can happen? The best?” and “Now what?” Encourage your child to view the situation from a different perspective to gain a sense of his/her reasonableness. “Would others’ see this the way I do?” Encourage the child to take action by asking “Did I learn anything that will help me later?”
Finally, and most importantly, BUILD RELATIONSHIPS – Choose to find a way to cultivate good relationships with the gifted child(ren) in your life. It will have a huge impact on them (and you) and it will be how you are remembered! Using the strategies described above will naturally build relationships. When in doubt, use this formula: listen, learn, listen more, and repeat. Read A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children by Dr. James Webb, founder of SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted). Join a SENG Model Parent Discussion Group and find the comfort of connecting with other parents experiencing the same struggles you have.
In summary, choose to understand. Meet and unconditionally accept them where they are. Teach and model resiliency to prepare them to manage life’s challenges. Understand and encourage them. As the quote below implies, the benefits of understanding are unending.
“Failure to help the gifted child is a societal tragedy, the extent of which is difficult to measure but which is surely great. How can we measure the sonata unwritten, the curative drug undiscovered, the absence of political insight? They are the difference between what we are and what we could be as a society.” James J. Gallagher, 1978
Back to my family… Based on the psychologist’s recommendation, our son left school during 10th grade. In the two years since, he has continued to invest in his future and use his creativity primarily within his passion area of predictive analytics. He worked long-term with a mentor, and has met with many professionals, including investors. Our relationships have been restored and are better than ever. While his age peers are preparing for graduation, he’s still contemplating what’s next. Our concerns have thankfully evolved into excitement with this new understanding. We can’t wait to see the satisfaction he’ll experience and the contributions he’ll make. So, our story is not over. But, with our new understanding, we are confident our story will end well!
This article is based on personal experience and the book A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children
by Dr. James Webb, Founder of Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG)
For more information about SENG, visit: sengifted.org
Kim Servia works with Douglas County Association for Gifted and Talented: http://www.dcagt.com/
Kim’s website link is https://sites.google.com/a/dcsdk12.org/mrs-servia/
Connect with Kim on LinkedIn.