Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Back to school during a Pandemic: How to help your gifted child thrive

These past 18 months have been tough, Loss, uncertainty, anxiety, and the daily inconveniences wrought by COVID-19 have affected just about everyone. It is not surprising that parents of young children have been identified as one of the most stressed-out demographics. Lack of clarity about childcare, few good educational options, and questions about when to allow your child to socialize are just a few of the stressors parents face. Worries about keeping your family safe, supporting your child's emotional well-being, and the possibility of another lost school year add to the mix. 

With school starting up again, parents may question how to support their child's motivation and well-being. Will they adapt after a year of online or hybrid classes? Will they flounder socially, especially if they had limited contact with peers over the past year? Will they exert effort - even if classes seem different or revert to online instruction again? 

Parenting a gifted child poses additional challenges. While some gifted children are highly adaptable, others may struggle. Rigid expectations, perfectionism, heightened sensitivity, and difficulty relating to peers complicate adjustment to this new normal of 2021. And watered-down or hybrid instruction is likely even more frustrating for gifted children. 


How can you help your gifted child adapt to this new school year? Here are a few ideas to consider:


1. Support their innate resilience

Remind your child that despite disappointments, they will thrive and adapt. Allow your child to feel discouraged - without shame - but then address how they can move forward. This is no different than how you might respond to their disappointment over losing a soccer tournament, failing a test, or friendship woes. Let them know you care and understand their upset, but reassure them that you know they will move past this. For younger children, you might invoke a superhero character they admire who rises to a challenge. For older children, point out the character-building aspects of enduring hardship (even if they roll their eyes), and that you have no doubt they will get through this. Point out that resilience is borne of struggle.


2. Challenge any tendency to obsess or intensify their anxiety

Many gifted children - with such highly active minds - have a tendency to overthink and obsess. Remind them that logic and strategic planning are quite different from obsessive thinking. Help them develop strategies for relaxing their body and mind by identifying calming techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, mindfulness, and using their senses to relax through music, aromatherapy, or visual imagery of a peaceful scene (note that in addition to the links listed here, many additional strategies can be found online). Essentially, you are providing them a toolbox of strategies they can try. Point out that overthinking and overplanning only temporarily relieve anxiety, and instead, fuel further obsessive thinking. Help them identify a reasonable plan for whatever worries them, and agree to stick with it. Cognitive-behavioral techniques and resilience-building strategies, as mentioned here, can be used to challenge negative thinking.


3. Use this period in time to overcome perfectionism, rigidity, and unrealistic expectations. 

During the Pandemic, some activities once viewed as reliable outlets were curtailed or completely eliminated (e.g., sports, theater, music ensembles). Schools cut back on classroom instruction, and offered whatever they could as they limped through a difficult year. If your gifted child holds high standards or is perfectionistic, their efforts may have been stymied. This is a good time to revisit the downside of perfectionism, and support a healthier intrinsic drive to excel. The absence of typical feedback or competitions through school may allow them to engage their abilities without comparing themselves to others. If your gifted child holds inflexible expectations toward self or others, encourage them to work toward breaking free from these constraints. The Pandemic has been a great equalizer, and your child may be able to put some harsh, self-imposed expectations into perspective. Achieving perfection, for example, may no longer seem so important. 


4. Encourage motivation, despite limited opportunities

If your gifted child trends toward underachievement - especially when frustrated with the curriculum - remind them that hard work is still expected. They may feel discouraged and angry over rote assignments or an absence of extra-curriculars that provided contact with like-minded peers. Nevertheless, just as their household chores have not magically disappeared during the Pandemic, they still are expected to apply themselves at school. Remind your child that these are difficult times, and although their frustration is understandable, their job as a student requires active effort and participation. You might consider sharing examples of your own past motivational struggles. Again, acknowledge their distress, but remain consistent with your reasonable expectations.


5. Help your child envision new and different opportunities

For gifted children who already felt disconnected from school, online or hybrid classes or homeschooling may have provided relief from social stressors. A reduction in academic demands may have opened up new opportunties that previously were overlooked. Your child may have discovered new hobbies and interests over the past year, developed deeper friendships within their "social bubble," or felt free to be themselves without the peer pressure to conform. Help your child embrace some of this self-discovery and continue to incorporate it into their lives going forward. 


As we all stumble through this difficult period of time and wait patiently until life regains some normalcy, recognize that your loving, attentive, consistent, and forgivably imperfect parenting provides the foundation that allows your child to thrive. Your flexibility, endurance, and ability to regroup when situations go awry also serve as models for your child's learning. Wishing you all a healthy, engaging school year ahead.

(Note: if you or your child cannot rebound and feels depressed, anxious, or hopeless, it is critical to seek support through your local crisis intervention center or therapy with a licensed mental health professional.)