How are children affected when the adults in charge behave badly? What happens when children are mistreated or even bullied, or when they witness adults making bad decisions? What impact does this have, in particular, on our gifted children, whose reactions are amplified by their heightened sensitivity, emotional reactivity, and radar for what is fair and just?
Most children trust those in charge of their welfare - until something shakes their assumptions. Many adults assume that children will forget or will not be affected if they are treated unfairly. On the contrary, many of their wounds persist and create lasting effects into adulthood.
Children form lasting impressions when subject to situations where adults are hostile, shaming, highly critical, dismissive, bullying, or complacent in the face of verbal or physical violence. Sometimes children can move on, ignore the adult's bad behavior, and retain their capacity for trust. For others, though, these incidents are engraved in their memories, instill profound distrust in others, and mar their self-esteem. They remember their sense of helplessness and distress when those they trusted did not behave appropriately or intervene.
John*, a highly successful entrepreneur, still harbored feelings of insecurity that success could not alleviate. His educational trajectory included numerous experiences where teachers and professors did not "get" him. They underestimated his abilities, discounted his interests, and worse, never intervened when he was bullied by other students. John used those troubling experiences as an incentive to propel himself forward. However, he had difficulty trusting authority, as well as business partners and customers, and worried that they would discover his weaknesses. He joked about some of the childhood incidents and how they led to "impostor syndrome," but was still clearly bitter and wounded.
Even if children are not the victims themselves, they learn to distrust or disrespect authority when they witness another child's maltreatment. Clearly, examples of child abuse, injustice, and trauma are everpresent on the news and children are exposed to this harsh reality. Gifted children, in particular, ponder the injustice of maltreatment and may become anxious or lapse into existential distress. It can be particularly challenging when injustice occurs in their daily lives and they are faced with the difficult choice of whether to stand up to the adults in charge.
Emily* recalled a situation from high school where a teacher started harassing one of her classmates - someone who was often disorganized and turned in schoolwork late. One day, the teacher not only commented on this boy's missing homework, but started to berate him and called him lazy, sloppy, and fat. It seemed so wrong to her that his weight was targeted and mocked. However, she did not complain or even tell her parents. She was afraid of potential backlash and worried that if this teacher knew she told anyone about him, he might humiliate her about her acne. So she remained silent - and felt guilty about her silence.
Of course, bad behavior is not limited to poor decisions or shaming verbal comments. Gifted children become disillusioned when political leaders make bad decisions and contribute worldwide to injustice, maltreatment, wars, and climate destruction. On a level closer to home, though, children can be targeted because of their race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, body size, presumed inadequacies... and sometimes because of their gifted abilities. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse still persist, and tragically, some children experience abuse from family members, educators, medical practitioners, the clergy, babysitters, and sports coaches, among others. Spanking is still considered an acceptable form of discipline by many families and corporal punishment is still legal in public schools in 14 US states, and in private schools in 48 US states.
Pete* described an incident at the private parochial high school he attended. He was laughing with some friends during class instead of paying attention. The school "disciplinarian" was walking by and overheard him. He pulled Pete out of class, had him stand and face the wall, and hit him repeatedly on the back of his thighs with a golf club. Pete was in physical pain, but has even more vivid memories of his anger and disgust toward this teacher. After this incident, he gave up on his religion, and thirty years later, still has not returned to it.
How can you protect your child?
1. Trust your instincts. If you sense that something is amiss, that an adult involved in your child's care or education has difficulty controlling their anger or is shaming or dismissive, investigate further. Just because your neighbor raves about a particular teacher or day care center or camp, for example, does not mean it is the best fit for your child. Be prepared to intervene or change course.
2. Trust your child. Yes, children lie, but often this occurs when they are avoiding punishment (like stealing that last slice of cake) or an unpleasant task (when procrastinating about homework). Most children do not lie about harassment from adults. Show your child that you believe them and investigate further. If you don't take them seriously, they may not confide in you the next time something occurs.
3. Pay attention to your child's unique temperament and needs. Some children can "shake off" teasing or bullying. Others cannot. Just because you want your child to toughen up doesn't mean they can do this automatically. You can help them build resilience, but this takes time. You may need to balance your expectations or desire for their resiliency with your child's sensitivity, developmental level, emotional reactivity, and any history of past traumatic events.
4. Check your own fears. When our children are hurt, we feel hurt as well. Witnessing our child's distress can evoke memories from our own childhood struggles. As I have emphasized in my book about parenting gifted children, to ensure that our fears do not influence our decisions, we must make sure that we have addressed our own painful childhood memories (whether through psychotherapy, spiritual guidance, or even heartfelt conversations with trusted friends).
5. Stay alert and attuned. Our gifted children, in particular, need our support and attuned involvement. This does not mean hovering or shielding them from situations that provide necessary healthy challenges. Every child will experience teachers they don't like, criticism about their performance, or other upsetting events. These incidents can foster resilience, as children see that they can adapt and recover. However, we still need to be attuned to when something more serious is occurring. Violent, abusive, shaming, or neglectful behavior from adults is damaging, and can instill cynicism, distrust, and hopelessness that may last a lifetime. As mentioned before, you may need to move them away from the offending adult, school, or other activity if the situation is harmful.
6. Provide support. Many children shrug off our efforts to guide them. However, they notice and appreciate our caring and empathy, even when they don't admit it. Offer to listen, check in on them when they seem upset, and offer your advice when they are open to it. If you have concerns that your child has been abused, you must take action to protect them, find medical or mental health support, or take legal action if necessary.
We can remind our children that we are there to both protect them and help them develop self-confidence and the strength to face challenges. When we cannot shield them from troubling situations (since, of course, we are not always nearby), we can help them vent their emotions, work through their anger, fear, and sadness, and gain perspective about what occurred. Their trust in us as parents and their willingness to share creates a sense of safety as they venture out into a sometimes hostile world. It also helps them see that building trust in future relationships will provide support when they encounter struggles later as adults.
* Names were changed to protect confidentiality.