“Your child is gifted.” Those words validate, inform, confirm, enlighten, challenge, frighten, and confuse. They engender pride, excitement, relief, fear, and guilt. The testing typically used to verify gifted abilities not only identifies a child’s intellectual strengths; it also sets in motion a chain of reactions from parents.
If the label of “gifted” is merely a descriptor, a measure of high aptitude at least two standard deviations above a statistical norm, why should it create so much emotional upheaval for parents when their child is identified? At first glance, it would appear to be a positive event, a confirmation that one’s child possesses higher than average skills, abilities, or talents. And while this is valid, there are complicating factors that go along with the label.
Some of the reactions parents may experience when their gifted child is first identified include:
- Relief – After years of suspecting their child was gifted, it is a welcome relief to finally obtain supporting data that confirms what they already knew in their hearts. Parents may have doubted their observations, questioned whether they were exaggerating, and pursued friends, family and medical professionals to help them reckon with their child's precocious behaviors. When testing confirms their perceptions and provides a framework for understanding their child, they can feel more informed and empowered as parents. It not only validates what they have already suspected, it provides an explanation for additional characteristics that frequently correspond with giftedness (such as asynchronous development or overexcitabilities).
- Excitement – Many parents experience an initial burst of elation after learning that their child is gifted. They may take pride in their child’s creativity, talent and intellect, feel overjoyed about the range of possibilities available to him or her, and perhaps, feel in awe of certain unique skills. If the child is their own biological offspring, their reactions may range from immodest pride (“he’s got my math skills”) to bewilderment (“how did I end up with such a talented child?”). Most feel blessed that their gifted child has the potential to accomplish what he or she may want, and the good fortune that some things, at least, will come easily to him or her.
- Confusion and Fear - Some parents may feel overwhelmed by their gifted child’s needs. They have difficulty grasping how their child’s learning style impacts his or her academic performance, social interactions and behavior within the family. They may hold high expectations for their child and demand perfection, or, conversely, minimize the significance of the child’s abilities and fail to advocate for a meaningful, appropriate education. Some may feel threatened by their child’s autonomy, drive, and emotional intensity, along with a tendency to sometimes challenge authority. Others may worry that their child will be ostracized for appearing different, and will be unpopular, or seen as unattractive. Parents of profoundly gifted children, in particular, often feel overwhelmed sorting out how to best meet the child’s social and educational needs.
- Guilt – Predictably, guilt tends to haunt many parents of gifted children. They question whether they have done enough to foster their child’s abilities, if they made the right choices about schools and outside activities, and if they have advocated enough for what their child needs. They deliberate over when to push for additional services in schools, or whether to allow their child to muddle through the school system like everyone else. They question whether advocacy helps their child get what he or she needs, if it fosters a sense of entitlement or isolation from peers, or whether it can backfire and cause resentment among teachers and administrators. At times, they may downplay their gifted child’s successes to avoid the appearance of bragging, but then feel guilty about minimizing their child’s talents.
Ultimately, most parents learn to appreciate their child’s “gifts.” Gaining a greater understanding of the social and intellectual needs of gifted children and adolescents is critical. Some websites, such as www.NAGC.org or www.hoagiesgifted.org, provide a wealth of information and references for useful books and articles.
Just as important, though, is for parents to understand their own complex, strong, and at times, ambivalent reactions to their child’s unique needs. Speaking openly with a trusted friend or family member can be a start. Sometimes it can be helpful to speak with a school psychologist or teacher who works with gifted children. Finding a group of parents who share similar concerns can be an enormous support, can provide an opportunity for honest communication about the struggles and successes one’s child experiences, and may be a resource for suggestions regarding outside learning opportunities, ideas for advocacy, and more information about gifted education. If doubts and fears persist, speaking with a therapist who is knowledgeable in this area can provide understanding and perspective. All of this lays the groundwork for helping your gifted child pursue a stimulating, challenging, and creative education.