Thursday, March 28, 2013

Your child is gifted: A parent's reaction

“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 often associated 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 or, 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.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Giftedness and Non-conformity

“I know I’m never going to fit in,” he remarked casually. “And, you know, I’m actually OK with that.” Many gifted adolescents and adults have recognized from an early age that they differed from their peers. Their intellectual skills, ability to easily grasp complex information, rapid pace of learning, emotional intensity and preoccupation with fairness and justice, to name a few, may create a barrier in relationships. But some gifted individuals have been able to accept their differences without embarrassment or succumbing to pressure to conform. They actually embrace their unique qualities, are unapologetically non-conformist, and cannot imagine joining the crowd just to fit in.

When describing gifted adolescents and adults, conformity is rarely a term that comes to mind. Compliments might include “quirky and independent,” “one of a kind,” or “brilliant and unique.”  Less endearing comments are also frequently expressed. “Encouraging him to fit in is like forcing a square peg into a round hole.” "Getting this class of gifted students to cooperate is like trying to herd cats.” The outside world looks on with curiosity and occasional frustration, often questioning how “someone so smart could be so stubborn.” But this non-conformist stance is not typically borne out of resentment or a desire for conflict. Rather, it develops in response to a combination of characteristics most gifted individuals share, including:
1. A drive toward fairness and justice - Gifted children abhor injustice in any form, stand up to bullies, question unfair rules, and challenge undeserved authority. Some gifted individuals would rather fail a class, lose a job, or get knocked down in a fight than compromise their values. Although championing the underdog may be admirable at times, it can certainly irritate teachers, bosses, and other authority figures who don’t appreciate having their rules challenged or their weaknesses exposed. 
2. High expectations for self and others – While some gifted individuals may be underachievers, most maintain high expectations for themselves, sometimes manifest as perfectionism. Along with this, they expect others to hold these same high standards. When they encounter unethical behavior, suboptimal performance, or inadequacies that can be corrected, they find it almost impossible to maintain respect or comply with what is expected of them.
3. Creative and inquisitive – Gifted individuals thrive on learning, engaging in creative pursuits, exploring new ideas, developing new concepts and inventions, and seeking the meaning of life. They shun rote learning, routine explanations, and simplistic ideas. Slowly paced instruction and boring, routine activities are torture for them. They challenge traditional explanations and concepts, and find new, inventive approaches to solve problems. While innovative and ground-breaking discoveries develop as a result of such creativity, bold challenges to the status quot can ruffle feathers and fuel conflict.
4. Greater sensitivity – Many gifted individuals possess heightened emotional sensitivities that result in stronger reactions to events and greater empathy for others. They are often strong-willed and strive for autonomy. These emotional characteristics, coupled with the likelihood that they have felt out of sync with their peers throughout much of their academic career, all contribute to the development of a non-conformist style. 
Gifted individuals of all ages have to grapple with the implications of their non-conformity on a regular basis. Unique, different and quirky, gifted individuals’ behaviors can be confusing, off-putting, exhilarating, a welcome relief from the norm, a target for bullying, or a model to be emulated. They may be viewed as opinionated and controversial, and may be misunderstood, envied, or perceived as a threat by those around them.  Gifted individuals benefit from learning how and when to best assert their views so that they can have the greatest impact, create the outcome they desire, and form healthy and meaningful relationships. Learning to harness their creative energy and non-conformist spirit with patience and compromise may help them to reach their goals.

Most important, though, is self-acceptance. When you already know you are different, it is healthier to embrace the positive aspects of this fact, than to bemoan it and wish you could be someone else. Gifted individuals can express their unique talents and maintain healthy relationships when they learn to accept and appreciate their differences.