If you are the parent of a gifted child, at some point, you have likely been in awe of their intellectual voracity, ability to learn and assimilate information quickly, and/or produce brilliant creative works. Your child may be passionate about the well-being of others, have intense emotions and understand concepts well beyond their years. They may even have periodic existential crises because their view of the world is so much bigger than average.
Being gifted can be a wonderful thing, and a struggle at the same time for a variety of reasons. The reality is, gifted kids and their families are outliers on the bell curve. As a result, schools, and mainstream society are not typically prepared for them and may not even identify them correctly.
Gifted, High Achieving or Both
Did you know there is a difference between “gifted” and “high achieving”? A gifted person can be high achieving, but not all high achievers are gifted. Understanding this distinction is important to meeting the needs of your specific child, as the needs of these groups may be very different.
Often people think of gifted kids as high achievers. They assume if a kid gets good grades, is bright and working ahead, he or she must be gifted, right? This is a common misconception. One is not necessarily an indication of the other. One measure of giftedness is IQ. A person can be in the gifted range of intelligence (IQ over 120) and struggling academically for various reasons. And a person can be of average intelligence (IQ of 80-119), but be highly motivated and working very hard, and excel.
Often high achievers who are not gifted struggle with anxiety because of the effort it takes to maintain their high performance combined with the pressure they put on themselves or is put upon them by others to perform at a higher level. For example, a gifted child may thrive in an accelerated class because they are learning at their own pace, whereas an average but high achieving child may face extra stress because they have to work even harder to be successful.
There are also those who are considered “precocious”. These are kids who learn to read or do other academic tasks earlier than their peers, but average out in early elementary school. They tend to be bright and motivated, but learn in an average way. These young kids are may later become motivated, hardworking, high achievers, but aren’t actually be gifted at all.
Gifted kids, in contrast, tend to learn more quickly than average in one or more areas, have IQs over 120 and a range of other characteristics that identify them as gifted. Like precocious kids, they typically learn academic tasks like reading or math at a younger age, and tend to understand complex ideas, show high aptitudes for solving puzzles or complex problems, and have extraordinary memories naturally. For these kids, their accelerated abilities continue throughout their lives, especially when their emotional and academic needs are nurtured.
In case you are wondering, research also shows, you cannot make your child gifted, but you can support what is already there, regardless of their intellect. No amount of flash cards, baby classes or intense studying will create a gifted child. Brain scans of adults and children show, the gifted brain is structurally different, giving them the ability to learn in a different way, remember more, and have greater emotional and physical sensitiveness.
Nurturing what nature provides will undoubtedly help anyone to become the best version of themselves. A person can become knowledgeable, skilled, and highly successful whether they are gifted or not. The important part of this differentiation is being able to recognize, understand, and meet your child’s unique needs.
Challenges of Being Gifted and Raising a Gifted Child
Parenting a gifted child also comes with its own set of challenges. Sometimes gifted kids can argue like they’ve been to law school, creating constant conflict at home. They often need constant intellectual stimulation and may be so creative it interferes with their interpretation of reality. Many gifted kids may struggle to find a peer group and could need special accommodations at school. On top of all of this, most other parents won’t be able to relate to your challenges, won’t believe you or show empathy if you try to share how your parenting endeavors are affecting you.
Part of the challenge in raising highly intelligent children is understanding and meeting their unique needs. If your child is gifted and has a learning disability or mental health diagnosis, they are considered to be Twice Exceptional or 2E, which means even you have even more needs to address.
Some common challenges gifted kids and their families face are:
- Asynchronous Development: Your child may be brilliant beyond their years, but developmentally are age appropriate, or even a little emotionally or physically immature. Another aspect of asynchronous development is your child may be brilliant in one area and struggle in another. For example, they excel in math and science, but cannot or will not write papers.
- Poor Study Skills: As a result of their ability to learn quickly and assimilate information, they may have lax study skills, skip doing homework but pass tests, “check out” or become disruptive when bored in class. Gifted kids often have different needs in the classroom. Sometimes school can and will accommodate them, sometimes not.
- Poor Executive Functioning Skills: Executive functioning skills help us to plan, organize, stay on task, finish what we start, have impulse control and use good judgment. People who have great intellect sometimes have low executive functioning, especially compared to their intellectual functioning. Intellect uses one part of the brain, which develops first, while executive functioning is controlled by a different part of the brain which develops much later. Your gifted child may need extra help to develop these important skills.
- Non-supportive School Environments: Educators often are not trained to recognize or teach gifted children and may not understand their unique needs. Sometimes these kids are even punished for displaying their aptitudes in class by being denied acceleration, humiliated, graded differently than their peers, expected to teach instead of being taught, given extra work to keep them busy, and asked to prove their intelligence time and time again.
- Perfectionism and Self-Doubt: Because learning comes easily, gifted kids often struggle with perfectionism, self-doubt, and an intense fear of failure. Their learning abilities are typically internalized to be an integral part of their identities. When they don’t understand something, have to work harder than usual or fail, they begin to doubt if they are actually as smart as they think or believe they are stupid or failures. While we all experience failure and strife, the gifted person may experience it at a profoundly deeper level than the average person, which can lead to the unwillingness to try new things or fail.
- Existential Anxiety and Depression: Due to having a greater awareness of the world around them, and the ability to anticipate future outcomes, many gifted people become overwhelmed by existential thoughts and feel powerless over them, leading to anxiety and depression.
- Peer Relationships: While many gifted kids are socially adept, some may need help learning social skills, or suffer from being bullied at school. Both will may struggle to find an intellectual peer group, or people who share their interests, especially if those interests are unusual. They may be more likely to be introverted making social connection more complicated, and leaving them feeling lonely and isolated.
- Emotional Sensitivity: Often gifted children are high sensitive emotionally, and may have more difficulty regulating emotions, and be more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Treating them with empathy and teaching them ways to manage and communicate their emotions is extremely important. Giving them the opportunity to share their feelings and taking them seriously can help. Emotional sensitivity can extent to having deep empathy for others as well.
- Psychomotor and Sensory issues: It is not uncommon for gifted kids to be more active and need to move while they think. Additionally, they may have sensory processing issues making them sensitive to food tastes and textures, sounds, the feel of their clothes and bright lights. Providing them with a sensory diet (different activities engaging their 5 senses for soothing and emotional regulation) can be beneficial, along with regular exercise. Working with a knowledgeable occupational therapist can also be helpful.
What You Can Do to Help
If you can relate to this article, I can help. Recognizing your child has unique needs is the first step to meeting those needs. Here are some ideas to help support your child’s emotional and academic needs, and reduce the stress they experience.
- Help your child connect with what delights them. Encourage them to be in the moment of the experience and allow them to talk about it afterward. Permit yourself to get lost in the fun as well. It will be good for both of you. This one act, repeated on a regular basis can offset a considerable amount of stress at any age.
- Show and teach empathy. Giving your child emotional validation and words for their feelings is an important part of helping them to feel emotionally balanced and be able to have healthy relationships with other people. Also teach them what to do with those feelings once they have been named. For example, if your child is dealing with frustration, acknowledge the frustration, and suggest they take a break to take a few deep breaths before returning to the difficult task.
- Feed their minds and creativity. Hungry minds, like hungry bodies, need nourishment. Engage in and help your child to learn more about what they are interested in. Local libraries and the internet offer resources for finding information, activities and ways to feed your child’s curiosity and creativity. Actively following their lead, and feeding their minds will allow them to grow, avoid frustration and boredom. It can also reduce the burden of having the school meet all of your child’s intellectual needs, which may not even be possible.
- Gently encourage your child to try new things, make mistakes and even fail. This is extremely important, and can be a great challenge for bright people. You can make it easier for them by doing the new activity with them, doing it as play, and avoiding all judgments you might be tempted to make. Remind them, mistakes give us the opportunity to learn and grow and help them to talk about how they are learning and growing from new experiences.
- Work with your child’s school to have their academic needs met, or seek alternative education. Sometimes schools are open to doing things differently and will allow you to gently educate them about your child’s needs. If they will work with you as a team, and your child’s needs are met, that’s great. If not, they may be eligible for a 504 plan or IEP (Individualized Education Plan) to provide necessary accommodations. It is possible to supplement learning at home, or access alternative education through charter and private schools, online schools, community college or homeschooling.
- Be reasonable with your expectations of your child and yourself. When you see all that your child is capable of, it can be easy to lose sight of their age, and what is developmentally appropriate. Just because they can do it, doesn’t mean they should.
- Avoid scheduling every moment of your child’s day and allow for down time. Rest, relaxation, and play are vital for healthy development, and good mental health.
- Teach them their gifts are not the only important attributes of who they are. In our home we recognize the strengths of others and ourselves regardless of a person’s perceived intelligence, and accept we all have shortcomings. It is important to stress the significance of kindness, responsibility, hard work, empathy and enjoyment.
- Don’t get caught up in competing with other parents. If you are in a community of other parents with gifted children it can be easy to feel the pressure of competition. Remember, this is not about your children, it is about you. If you are feeling inadequate as a parent, check in with yourself to make sure you aren’t passing your anxiety on to your kids. On this note, be confident in your efforts. If you are doing your research, supporting your kids and otherwise doing your very best, it will pay off. The other parents aren’t raising your kid, you are!
Gifted children become gifted adults, and when their needs are met, as children, they are more likely to blossom into well adjusted, happy and successful adults. Finding happiness, managing stress and connecting with other people is part of reaching one’s full potential. Achieving academic, monetary and professional success are not the only bench markers for living a full, and meaningful life.
If you or your child is struggling in these areas, seek the support of groups like SENG Gifted, Hoagies Gifted, and the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) for more information, as well as local parent groups. Accessing the help of a professional therapist who understands the needs of gifted people can also be highly beneficial. Everyone does better with the support and connection of an understanding community.
About the Author
Christy A. George, LMFT, SEP, is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in San Diego that focuses on serving the needs of gifted individuals, parents, and children. You can learn more about her practice and find additional resources on giftedness at christygeorgelmft.com.