Wednesday, June 19, 2024

How Parents' Expectations Affect their Gifted Child

We all have expectations – for ourselves and for our children.*


However, the daunting responsibility of shepherding a highly gifted child into adulthood can seem overwhelming. We are keenly aware of their potential, which may increase our expectations along with questions, worry, and uncertainty.

Gifted children are also quite aware of their potential and how much they differ from their peers. They recognize their capabilities, yet sometimes falter. Insecurity, perfectionism, fear of rejection, and discomfort with competition all take their toll. Parents often feel uncertain about how much to push their child to achieve, when to back off, and how to balance their own expectations.

Will my involvement and encouragement help or hinder their progress? How much should I actually push them? How do I distinguish between what will provide opportunities for my child as an adult and what is best for them right now?


Expectations are not inherently bad. Most families hold certain expectations related to family values, cultural practices, manners, honesty, responsibility, and a work ethic. And maintaining positive, realistic, and appropriately high expectations for your child lays the groundwork for their own path toward internalizing values related to responsibility and achievement. Children benefit from your expectations; it boosts their self-esteem and builds resilience when they complete tasks or behave responsibly and know that you trust them to tackle a challenge.


Tips for managing expectations:


As a psychologist, I have seen the essential importance of parents’ attuned awareness to both their child and their own wishes and expectations. This involves recognizing your child’s unique strengths and challenges, as well as what influences your parenting decisions. The following are some ideas to consider as you explore your expectations:

1. Recognize your child’s unique abilities, talents, and interests, as well as their limitations and what saps their motivation. Consider what expectations are appropriate in light of their abilities, developmental level and unique challenges, such as anxiety or a twice-exceptional condition. Recognize the internal pressures they may be feeling (such as insecurity or perfectionism) and the school, community, or social climate that affects them.

2. Consider how to best motivate your child. How do they respond to your encouragement? Do they thrive when challenged? Are they receptive to your input, or do they argue, rebel, or withdraw? Notice what typically works (e.g., goal setting, firm limits, reminders, humor, supportive comments) and what backfires. Always avoid using harsh punishment, threats, shaming, or insisting on accomplishments that are well beyond their capabilities.


3. Distinguish between what is necessary now and what can wait. Recognize that there is a trade-off between their needs in the moment and what might build pathways toward future success. Consider their temperament, level of sensitivity, frustration tolerance, mood, and the skills they still need to learn. Pick your battles, compromise when appropriate, and appreciate the importance of timing and pacing in your attempts to motivate them.


4. Help your child find value in academic goals and appreciate how their efforts (and not just their innate abilities) are associated with positive outcomes. Remind them that while success can include excelling at a high level, it is also evident in less noticed but equally important actions, such as adopting organizational strategies, overcoming social anxiety, staying focused in a class they dislike, or showing kindness to others.


5. Recognize when your own needs affect your expectations and parenting decisions.** Consider the impact of family of origin influences, concerns about others’ perceptions, and possibly, your own unmet academic or career aspirations. Parenting can be a tough lesson in humility when it requires letting go of expectations, especially if they are misaligned with what your child needs. Your personal self-awareness, a recognition of your own wishes and expectations, and the flexibility to change course, when necessary, will help your child move forward.

Most gifted children are well aware of their potential and likely feel some internalized pressure to achieve. Recognize when this awareness is a motivator and when it contributes to anxiety, inertia, or insecurity. They need to know that while you hold certain expectations for them, you love them no matter what – regardless of their successes or failures. Let them know that you are there to support them and help them build the necessary skills they need for achieving their goals.

The photo above is courtesy of Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto

A similar version of this article was published in Davidson Institute Expert Series, and in the NAGC's Parenting for High Potential newsletter: 

Post, G. (2023). The conundrum of high expecations. Parenting for High Potential Newsletter, Vol. 12, No. 3, September.

** For insights about parenting gifted children, please see my book, The Gifted Parenting Journey. Available through the publisher and the usual bookseller sites, this book addresses a previously neglected topic in the literature: the needs and emotional life of parents of gifted children.