Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Gifted Challenges' Best Parenting Blog Posts

Each year, I have put together a "best of" list, sometimes including my own blog posts, those of others, or favorite articles I have seen over the past year.

This year, I thought I would honor parents and list some of the blog posts I have written specifically related to the challenges, victories and struggles faced by parents of gifted children. As the parent of two gifted children, I have been there! And as a clinical psychologist, I have witnessed the full spectrum of what so many parents experience.

Below is a list of some of the parenting posts. These posts are not about how to parent. Instead, they are focused on the feelings, reactions, and mixed emotions that affect so many parents of gifted children.

Tips for parents of gifted children: What most parents wish they had known

Guilty thoughts: What parents of gifted children really think

Stress management toolbox: Nine tips for parents of gifted children

Fearless advocacy: A day in the life of a gifted child's parent

Parenting an artistically talented child

What hidden emotions complicate parenting a gifted child?

Why aren't you advocating for your gifted child?

Countering misinformation: How parents can challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about giftedness

Your child is gifted: A parent's reaction

Thanks for visiting this blog. As always, your comments are welcome and much appreciated. I want to wish you and your family all the best for the coming year.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Holiday stress: What parents of gifted children need to know

What is it about the holidays that often creates more stress than good cheer? How many of us feel ambushed by glittering store displays, Hallmark images of family perfection, and holiday sound tracks piped into every building? Amid this season of stress, is it possible to not just survive, but actually enjoy the holidays?

Many families face these questions as the season's demands increase. Ads build upon fantasies of holiday joy, reunion with families separated by physical distance or personal differences, and the creation of lasting memories. It seems like everyone is having a blast at holiday parties and bonding with their families in front of a crackling fire.

The reality is that stress, family conflicts, tight budgets, and unreasonable expectations are rarely acknowledged in these picture-perfect scenarios. Most families are imperfect, and reuniting during the holidays can be a sad reminder that hopes for love, harmony and connection may never be met. Many people stretch their budget, but even more, hold onto desires for family perfection that cannot be achieved. Disappointment, resentment and sadness can result.

Holiday stress for families of gifted children

Parents of gifted children face some unique stressors during the holidays. The combination of gifted children's often heightened sensitivities along with the burden of explaining their differences to those unfamiliar with giftedness can result in additional stress. Some examples include the following:

  • Young gifted children with overexcitabilities and heightened sensitivities may have difficulty tolerating long trips, extended family visits, or religious services. Curious, intense, emotionally reactive gifted children are a joy, but also may not be the most easy-going or flexible travelers. This can result in periods of overactivity, withdrawal and tears, or even meltdowns. Older children may not feel accepted by extended family who view the world differently. Or they may refuse to go along with religious observances that differ from their beliefs.  

  • Along with the difficulty gifted children sometimes have blending into family gatherings, parents are often asked to explain their children's behavior to curious and sometimes highly critical relatives. In addition to trying to calm and manage their children, parents have to challenge misunderstandings about giftedness and assume an advocacy role at a time when they just want to relax.

  • Gift-giving can be complicated. Age-appropriate presents are often a poor fit for asynchronous children, whose intellect may be well beyond their years, but whose emotional maturity is much younger. This can be particularly problematic when selecting books or video games, where the material may be too mature for their developmental age.

  • Gifted children tend to question everything. They may criticize your menu selection for holiday dinners, rearrange decorations on the Christmas tree, and challenge family traditions. They also may raise more profound questions about religion, relationships and life's meaning. The holidays can evoke powerful reactions in gifted children as they struggle with their own spirituality or existential concerns. 

How can you help your gifted child - and yourself - during the holidays?

1. Ask for help. Don't assume that you are solely responsible for organizing, cooking, shopping, planning travel, and completing every holiday task. Ask for support and delegate whenever possible. You might enlist help with anything from additional childcare and household chores, to advice about toy selection. If you are visiting with extended family, informing them about what you need before you visit can minimize potential problems.

2. Set limits. Say no to requests from family or friends that would add to your stress. Set priorities and decline invitations that you know will create an additional burden. Set limits with your child also. Unstructured time during the holidays can result in more opportunities for an anxious child to ruminate about existential concerns, or might require your participation in time-consuming activities when there is little time available. Say no to extra demands and find structured activities to keep your child engaged.

3. Avoid situations that create distress. This might seem obvious; steer clear of potentially upsetting, traumatic or conflict-filled situations. It may not be possible, though, especially when some family events or obligations are unavoidable. But distinguish between mildly unpleasant, dutiful commitments and sacrificing the well-being of your family and yourself. If participation in any family, religious, or social event would be highly stressful or emotionally painful for you or your family, avoid the situation. For example, protect gifted children from extended time with cousins or other children who might bully them.

4. Be realistic. Notice your expectations, and don't assume that extended family are going to "get it" about your gifted child. If you know what contributes to meltdowns, avoid those situations. Don't force the issue: don't insist on activities when your young child needs a nap, don't demand that your idealistic, non-conforming teen spend long hours with a bigoted relative, don't drag your child from one boring activity to another. In other words, don't invite trouble.

5. Focus on what is meaningful. Choose activities that will enrich and enhance your child's interests and correspond with your family's values. If your child has a strong sense of fairness and justice, you both might volunteer at a charity that matters to your family. If your child loves the arts, there are often a range of arts-based activities to sample, from ballet to new film releases to trying your hand at creative baking. If your child is seeking spiritual enlightenment, there is no better time to search for guidance. And don't forget to find plenty of time to have fun with your child.

6. Take time for yourself. It's not only about your kids. Make room for what you enjoy, spend time with people you love, and seek out what is spiritually meaningful to you. Discard old, meaningless traditions and unnecessary routine tasks that are performed only because they have persisted over time. Develop your own vision of the holidays - not necessarily that of the media's or your family of origin. Take care of yourself and make time for sleep, good nutrition and exercise. Pace yourself, delegate tasks when you can, and communicate what you need to others.

7. Keep it all in perspective. Manage your expectations and fantasies about the holidays. Most people don't have a "Hallmark holiday" and most families are imperfect. Notice when guilt or unrealistic wishes and beliefs start to color your vision. Learning to accept and appreciate what you do have can be a lesson in joy and gratitude.

Wishing you a stress-free holiday!

This blog is part of the Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Surviving the Holidays with a house full of Gifted! To see more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:

Monday, November 23, 2015

Underachievers under-the-radar: How seemingly successful gifted students fall short of their potential

Research has shown that many gifted children are underachievers who fail to reach their potential. Some mask their abilities so they can fit in with peers, some stop caring and receive barely passing grades, and some drop out altogether. Academic achievement becomes meaningless and their intrinsic love of learning seems to vanish. These conspicuous underachievers often capture the schools' attention because their disengagement is so apparent.

There are other underachieving gifted students, though, who remain hidden; their struggles detected by only the most astute observers. On the surface, these kids seem to be model students, with good grades and stellar test scores creating an appearance of hard work, motivation and drive. Their failure to reach their potential, though, remains unnoticed, well beneath the school's radar.

These underachieving students have mastered the ability to easily coast through school and still achieve good grades and test scores. They finish their work quickly, and distract themselves with reading, texting, doodling, or daydreaming. They might seem cooperative, but in reality, they rebel by taking shortcuts and performing well beneath their potential. Having lost faith in an educational system that appears dull and lifeless, they have learned to entertain themselves and exert enough effort to just get by in school. They don't know their limits, they don't know how to fail, and they don't care to push themselves any more.

Gifted underachievers under-the-radar take shortcuts and certain risks, but none that ultimately help them succeed or reach their potential. Their decisions reflect passive rebellion, risk aversion, conflict avoidance, or attempts to entertain themselves. For example, they may:
  • take "easier" classes to avoid homework that would require much effort
  • avoid competitive activities, such as the debate team or math contests, to evade potentially envious or angry reactions from peers
  • refuse to try anything that might lead to failure or rejection, such as auditioning for the lead in the school play.
  • procrastinate until the last minute to see how quickly they can write a paper before the deadline. 
  • refuse to practice their musical instrument before band auditions, to see if they still make first chair, despite sight reading the music. 
  • take pride in only reading SparkNotes and still getting A's in their AP English class. 
  • avoid participating in the science fair because the project would require too much extra work
  • refuse to study or prepare for the SAT's, claiming they only want a "pure" score to reflect their abilities.

The long, slow road to underachievement

Gifted underachievers typically embark upon school just like most gifted children - eager to learn and excited to stretch themselves and take on new challenges. Disappointment gradually sets in - sometimes soon, sometimes later - but always in reaction to boredom and repetition. Gifted children get used to breezing through most material and occupying themselves while lessons are repeated for other children, They learn to stop asking so many questions to elude ridicule from peers or resentment from their teachers. They also learn that requests for more challenging assignments may evoke a sigh of frustration from an overburdened teacher, or result in busywork or extra homework.

Unlike more extreme gifted underachievers who struggle to attain even average grades, or drop out of school completely, gifted underachievers under-the-radar are not necessarily troubled with family conflicts or personal traits sometimes attributed to underachievers, such as insecurity or perfectionism. And while they may experience pressure to fit in with peers and conform to socio/cultural and gender stereotypes, most of these students are not plagued with emotional or psychological problems. They have become apathetic, complacent, and frustrated in response to an educational environment that has consistently ignored their needs - often for years.

Frustration, apathy and fear

Most gifted underachievers under-the-radar juggle several competing emotions related to their efforts. Frustrated and angry toward a system that labels their learning needs as less important than those of their classmates, they become cynical about what school has to offer them. Some also may feel betrayed by teachers who have misunderstood them, criticized their outside-the-box thinking, or who failed to protect them from bullying.

Apathetic toward schools that have eliminated opportunities such as acceleration or ability grouping, these students may stop caring about their own progress. While they may comply enough to achieve good grades, they rarely push themselves to reach their potential. If no one is going to encourage me, why should I bother?

Without the opportunity to tackle truly demanding academics, gifted underachievers under-the-radar develop a fragile sense of overconfidence. Cynical and critical of teachers and school, they may appear arrogant at times, but this attitude often masks underlying fears. Most realize that they lack the "self-regulation skills" (i.e., organizational strategies and study skills) that their classmates have mastered. When learning seems effortless, there is little incentive to apply strategies and skills that appear unnecessary at the time. Unfortunately, these students remain unprepared for more rigorous work when it finally arrives. Many gifted underachievers suspect that their lack of preparation will catch up with them. They worry that they will be exposed as "impostors" once they land in a more demanding learning environment, and may secretly doubt their abilities.

Three tips for helping gifted underachievers

1. Improve their education 

This might seem obvious, as it serves to both prevent and remedy the problem. But given the philosophical and financial constraints present in many school districts, the needs of gifted children are frequently overlooked. Gifted underachievers under-the-radar benefit from learning that incorporates depth, complexity, and an accelerated pace, where they feel free to express their creativity, where they are not embarrassed to be themselves, and where they are grouped with like-minded peers. As Siegle and McCoach have noted, gifted underachievers need to trust the academic environment and expect that they can succeed within it.

2. Enlist their sense of integrity

Gifted children are idealistic, with a highly developed sense of fairness and justice. They care about those who are less fortunate, and struggle with existential concerns related to life's meaning. Sometimes their idealism results in discomfort with their talents or guilt about having choices that are unavailable to others. While their integrity is admirable, it can unnecessarily limit their options. Encourage them to appreciate that they can better position themselves to help those in need if they apply themselves academically. Help them recognize that ignoring their talents benefits no one.

3. Engage their passions and interests

Remind them that even if school has been a bore, they can direct their energy toward what they most enjoy learning. Whatever intrigued them as young children can be transformed into a variation of the original activity. If they loved Legos, for example, they could pursue robotics or architectural design. If their interests cannot be met at school, help them find extracurricular activities in the community or online. Once they discover a meaningful, engaging activity, they might be willing to challenge themselves, take on a new and difficult skill, or develop some of the self-regulatory strategies that previously seemed unnecessary.

A final note...

If you look carefully, you will find gifted underachievers under-the-radar coasting through schools everywhere. Some may hide behind average to above average grades; others may be stand-outs or even class valedictorians. None of them have tested their limits and they don't recognize the extent of their capabilities. As they get older and enter college, the work force, or adult relationships, they may "hit a wall." Lacking adequate organizational strategies, fearful of risks, and new to the business of exerting effort, they may struggle with self-doubt, increased apathy, and even feelings of anxiety and shame. It is a disservice for schools to neglect these talented students and assume that grades and test scores are sufficient evidence that they are thriving. Continued advocacy is needed so that even seemingly "successful" gifted students - those under the radar - are challenged to reach their potential.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why do smart women forego success?

Smart career woman
Gifted girls show exceptional promise, typically surpassing boys on most measures of success. Their language, attention and fine motor skills are often 1 1/2 years ahead when they enter school, and their social maturity and relational skills help them thrive in most academic settings. Confident in their abilities, they excel throughout school, receiving higher grades on average than boys. They are also more likely to graduate from high school, college or graduate school.

Despite their relative success, many bright, talented women no longer maintain their confident youthful enthusiasm. Criticized by high-profile authors like Sheryl Sandberg for not climbing the career ladder, women are often reluctant to promote themselves in the workforce or pursue higher paying careers, such as those in engineering or computer science. Some even feel like impostors, tormented by self-doubt and insecurity.

Why do gifted women lose confidence?

The self-doubt and insecurity start out gradually...

Those bright, energetic gifted girls often start to downplay their talents by middle school in an attempt to fit in. They mask their abilities and "dumb themselves down" to appeal to boys, fit society's image of an attractive woman, and avoid conflict with friends. Their self-esteem starts to decrease, and they begin to lose confidence in their abilities, especially in math and science. They may steer clear of the more difficult math courses, believing that boys are intrinsically "more gifted."

Insecurity and self-doubt often persist throughout high school. One study, for example, found that feelings of hopelessness, discouragement, emotional vulnerability and perfectionism increased for gifted girls from 1st through 12th grades. In another investigation, 3/4 of girls who graduated from a school for the gifted did not think they were smart.

Women in college continue to doubt themselves. Many gifted women are challenged for the first time once they arrive at college, and rather than embrace this opportunity, they view it as confirmation of their inadequacies. One study found that female valedictorians lost confidence in themselves when they were in college, despite getting good grades, and that their insecurity increased as they got older.

What are some reasons gifted women hold themselves back?

1. Impostor syndrome: 

Women may doubt themselves and think they have fooled others. Talents and accomplishments are denigrated. Women who feel like impostors assume that it is only a matter of time before their "actual" incompetence and lack of intelligence will be revealed.  Social psychology studies have shown that men consistently overestimate and women consistently underestimate their abilities and subsequent performance. As long as they view themselves as impostors, they will continue to doubt and disparage their accomplishments.

2. Attribution error: 

Women often attribute their success to luck or effort, and any failure to lack of ability or an internal flaw. There is a widespread assumption that gifted men are intrinsically "smarter" and that women's success is due to hard work.  In one survey of professors, presumed brilliance was identified as the reason why women were underrepresented in certain fields in both science and liberal arts (e.g., STEM, philosophy, economics), and their prevalence in other fields (e.g., molecular biology, neuroscience, psychology) was attributed to hard work.

3. A higher standard:

Women often hold themselves to an unreasonably high standard. They expect themselves to perfect a skill, have complete knowledge of the facts or master an argument before they assert their authority. Women often lack confidence, hold back on asking for a promotion, expect to earn less, and ask for less when it comes to salary. 
According to Kay and Shipman:
"Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels."
4. Identity conflict:

Adult women also doubt their right to engage in focused, competitive goals. They don't want to be labeled as "bitchy" or bossy, and worry that success will be seen as a threat to friends, family or men. Women have been raised to focus on relationships and to put others first, and a single-minded emphasis on career is in conflict with their sense of self. Even self-identified feminists may feel guilty winning an award, surpassing colleagues for a promotion, or being the breadwinner in the family.

But, sometimes, it's not about confidence...

Self-doubt, sexist stereotypes, prejudices, an absence of workplace support (e.g., no child-care or family leave), and the glass ceiling all impact women's progress; yet one of the greatest dilemmas many gifted women face involves finding a meaningful work-life balance. This not only includes an ability to combine work, relationships and child-raising, but also pursuing a career that is both meaningful and challenging.

Many women feel torn between pursuing a career that is personally meaningful (such as one focusing on social justice) and a job in a lucrative or competitive field.  A challenging career may be compelling, but women also want flexibility, autonomy, the ability to make a difference, and options for including family needs in the equation. 

Rosenbloom reported that interests and preferences explain 83% of the gender differences in choosing a career in information technology - not confidence or math ability. Women were identified in this study as being less interested in inanimate systems, and more concerned with plants, animals and people.

Pinker also concluded that women made an active choice to avoid STEM careers, suggesting that women may not want to sacrifice personal interests for salary, are less willing to tolerate the relocations often required in these jobs, and may want to focus on people and the arts rather than objects.

Mohr referred to a frequently quoted Hewlett-Packard internal report indicating that women applied for promotions only when they thought they met 100% of the qualifications, whereas men applied as long as they assumed that they met 60% of the criteria. Mohr claimed that women's lack of confidence was not the only interpretation to consider: fear of failure, a tendency to strictly follow rules, and lack of familiarity with the hiring process also hold women back.

In the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youths, those who scored in the top 1% were tracked down in their 50's. While most were highly satisfied with their lives, earned more than others, and were more likely to have doctoral degrees, gender differences were identified. Men were more likely to be CEO's, work in IT or STEM, to have pursued higher pay and freedom as career goals, and earned more than the women in the study ($140,000 vs. $80,000 on average); the women were more likely to work in health sciences, arts or education careers, and sought fewer work hours and greater flexibility in their work.

What smart women need to know...

Smart women need to appreciate their talents and recognize their right to accomplish whatever goals they set for themselves. Negative stereotypes and expectations that either they or others impose need to be challenged and relinquished. Decisions based on values, needs and personal goals rather than conformity, external pressure or a desire to please others is critical. Women do not have to pursue a highly competitive career; they just need to know that they are entitled to choose that path, or to turn it down for something equally meaningful. 

In addition to my work with gifted individuals, I have specialized in women's issues and eating disorders for over 30 years. This blog post is one in a series about gifted girls and women.

Other posts about gifted girls and women include:

Key relationship dilemmas for gifted women
Women, success, and harnessing inherent strengths
What keeps women from STEM careers?
Why do smart girls develop eating disorders?
Difficult passage: Gifted girls in middle school
Gifted women, gifted girls and mental health
Gifted or pretty: What do parents want for their daughters?
What stops girls from learning math?

Articles and books worth reading:

American Association of University Women. (2015). Solving the equation: The variables for women’s success in engineering and computing. Washington, D.C., author.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory of women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. American Association of University Women. 1111 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC. 

Jensen, F. & Nutt, A. (2015, January 3). Teen girls have different brains: Gender, neuroscience and the truth about adolescence. Salon.com.  Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2015/01/03/teen_girls_have_different_brains_gender_neuroscience_and_the_truth_about_adolescence/

Jordan, J., Kaplan, A, Miller, J. Stiver, I. & Surrey, J. (1991). Women’s growth in connection. New York: Guilford Press.

Jordan, J., Walker, M. & Hartling, L. (2004). The complexity of connections. New York: Guilford Press.

Kanazawa, S. & Perina, K. (2009). Why do so many women experience the “imposter syndrome”? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200912/why-do-so-many-women-experience-the-imposter-syndrome.

Kay, K & Shipman, C. (2014, May). The Confidence Gap. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/the-confidence-gap/359815/

Lubinski, D., Benbow, C., & Harrison, K. (2014). Life paths and accomplishments of mathematically precocious males and females four decades later. Psychological Science, 25, 2217-2232.

Pinker, S. (2010, April, 19). Women, computers and engineering: It’s not all about bias. [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-village-effect/201004/women-computers-and-engineering-its-not-all-about-bias.

Russell Sage Foundation. (2013). The rise of women: Seven charts showing women’s rapid gains in educational achievement. New York, author.

This blog is part of the Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Ages and Stages of Giftedness. To see more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Gifted children and adults: When is therapy helpful?

As a gifted adult or the parent of a gifted child, you may have wondered if either you or your child would benefit from therapy.

You also might have questioned whether it was really necessary. Am I overreacting and being an alarmist? Will it help? And when is it worth the cost?


Although education, mental health and health care professionals have been known to misdiagnose and mislabel gifted thinking and behaviors as a sign of disturbance, it is just as important to not overlook problems when they arise.

And gifted people often possess traits that make life more complicated!

While depression, anxiety and self-defeating behaviors are universal, giftedness poses specific challenges that bring with it several risk factors for emotional distress. Gifted children and adults are not more prone to psychological problems; rather, emotional distress among gifted individuals may be precipitated, heightened or modified by these gifted traits:

  • Overthinking - Due to their active minds, many gifted individuals have a tendency to obsess, ruminate, worry, hyperfocus, or spend an excessive amount of time deconstructing a simple concept. While sometimes this might be entertaining, like solving an interesting puzzle, when the focus is on something distressing that is not easily resolved, it can become overwhelming.

  • Perfectionism - While perfectionism is not necessarily more common among the gifted than anyone else, some gifted people feel compelled to strive for perfection. They hold exceptionally high standards for themselves, avoid taking risks, and feel devastated if they fall short of their goals. This can contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and, ironically, procrastination, which allows them to avoid tackling the dreaded task.

  • Isolation - Given the fact that gifted (and especially highly gifted) individuals are in the minority, many feel isolated and misunderstood. Some have difficulty finding a close group of peers or developing meaningful friendships or relationships. Isolation and loneliness can contribute to low self-esteem, depression and delays in social maturation.

  • Underachievement - Some gifted children and adolescents either "dumb themselves down" to fit in at school (or sometimes merely to survive and avoid bullying) or become so disenchanted with the lack of intellectual challenge that they perform well below their potential. Not only does this cause stress within the family, but it can ultimately contribute to low self-esteem (as the child may start to believe the persona he or she has created) along with feelings of hopelessness and depression.

  • Impostor syndrome - Gifted individuals, especially women, sometimes doubt the validity of their accomplishments. They believe they have fooled everyone, that the truth will be discovered (i.e., that they are not smart and are undeserving of any accomplishments), and that any success is due to luck rather than their abilities. 

  • Asynchronous development - Social/emotional and intellectual development are often out of sync for gifted children, and some definitions of giftedness even claim asynchrony is its defining characteristic. When intellectually advanced children lag socially, they may struggle to fit in and experience rejection and criticism from peers. They may feel isolated and misunderstood, and respond by withdrawing, becoming depressed, or occasionally, retaliating.

  • Oversensitivity and emotional overexcitability - Gifted people often experience heightened emotional reactivity and sensitivity.  This can create a tendency to be easily hurt, respond intensively to emotionally charged situations, and feel deep empathy for the pain others suffer. Too much emotional reactivity can contribute to depression and anxiety. Many also feel misunderstood when less sensitive people label them as "too sensitive" and criticize their emotional reactivity.

  • Existential depression - Some gifted individuals grapple with a perception that life is meaningless, and become disillusioned and depressed. Their intellect and emotional depth allow them to ponder the meaning of life with great intensity, and they may feel lost and alienated until they can reconstruct a new sense of meaning and purpose. 

Many gifted people have managed to adjust to these traits with success, but others suffer and would benefit from the guidance of a psychotherapist who can offer support and help them develop  perspective and coping skills.

And parents of gifted children often struggle with anxiety and frustration when trying to help their child, whether attempting to challenge underachievement and procrastination or helping them weather the storm of heightened emotional reactivity and oversensitivities. Parents benefit from the feedback and support of a psychotherapist or family therapist who can help them manage their child's emotional or behavioral problems along with their own personal reactions.

Here are some brief facts about psychotherapy:
1. Therapy provides a safe, supportive and challenging environment where you, your family or your child can develop tools for change. Through exploration of thoughts, feelings, or long-standing patterns, a greater understanding of how to relieve distress and change problem behaviors can be accomplished. Therapy with adults and adolescents typically range from here-and-now techniques that address current thoughts and behaviors to in-depth exploration of past family patterns and how they relate to current problems. Additional approaches include family, couples and group therapy, parent guidance, and play therapy. (For more on psychotherapy, see: Understanding psychotherapy and how it works.)
2. Searching for a licensed mental health professional can be a challenge at first. Experience, training and skill certainly count, but finding a a therapist with specific expertise in your areas of concern, and where you truly feel understood is also essential. Good referral sources can include close friends, your family physician, school counselors, or professional organizations, such as state psychological or social work organizations.
3. Don't wait to get help. Symptoms that warrant an immediate evaluation by a licensed mental health professional include any threats of harm to self or another person, or a loss of contact with reality. Also, therapy is indicated if symptoms of distress or self-destructive behaviors interfere with school, family, work or relationships, and/or if they create unhappiness that is unrelieved by alternative attempts to address the problem.  Common symptoms can include (but are not limited to) the following:
  • Depression (persistent sadness, mood swings, frequent crying, hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, sleep and appetite disturbance, suicidal thoughts)
  • Anxiety (panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, compulsive rituals, generalized anxiety)
  • Anger (difficulty managing anger, frequent tantrums or hitting in children)
  • Self-destructive and acting out behaviors (cutting, eating disorders, school refusal, running away from home, drug or alcohol abuse)
  • Persistent and unresolved problems (low self-esteem, body image concerns, parenting problems, marital or family conflict)
In addition to psychotherapy, gifted children and adolescents benefit from other sources of professional help and support, depending on their specific needs. These can include:

Psychoeducational testing - It might seem obvious that gifted identification would require an evaluation, but many schools only use broad, generic screening tools. As a result, many gifted children are not identified, and even when they are, useful information about learning differences and even possible learning disabilities are missed. Testing must be conducted by a licensed psychologist or school psychologist. If testing is not available through the schools, check with your pediatrician for referrals. Don't wait to get your child tested.

Occupational therapy - Some gifted children may have fine motor skill deficits that affect their handwriting and interfere with their ability to function in school. Others may have sensory processing issues, such as an oversensitivity to touch (e.g., cannot tolerate labels from clothing touching them). Occupational therapy can help children with these difficultlies. Again, your school or pediatrician may be a good source for referrals.

Educational consultation services - Sometimes psychotherapy is not necessary, but coaching or guidance related to your child's or your own personal goals may be what you need. Consultation, or coaching, is much more direct and goal-oriented than psychotherapy and is not intended to resolve psychological problems or emotional distress. When researching a consultant or coach, look for someone with training and certification as a psychotherapist, education specialist or life coach.

College planners - Many families are caught off-guard when planning for college. They might assume that the schools will advise them or that their child's smarts will land a merit scholarship. Families often discover much too late that their child's school may offer little guidance, and admissions opportunities may be lost. College planning consultants can help, for example, with strategically planning for college, prepping for the SATs, or reviewing college essays. But it is important to get good recommendations for whomever you work with to ensure that they are experienced and can truly help your child.

While not a substitute for communicating with family or friends, therapy or other support services can provide a unique opportunity for exploring concerns in greater depth and for receiving useful, direct feedback. Whether it is for your child, your marital relationship, or for yourself, therapy can help.

This blog is part of the Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Asking for Help. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_asking_for_help.htm

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Supporting your emotionally excitable gifted child

She's just too sensitive. Why does he overreact to every little thing? I wish she would just go with the flow.

Have you heard these comments about your child?

Have you even said them yourself at times, especially during moments of exasperation?

Many gifted children exhibit heightened sensitivity and reactivity, or emotional overexcitability.  One of Dabrowski's five overexcitabilities, emotional excitability can create particular challenges for parents, teachers, and especially for the child who may feel she is held captive by powerful and overwhelming emotions.

Imagine what it must be like to:
  • Experience strong, intense reactions to seemingly innocuous events and situations because the place, person or situation triggers a powerful memory or association
  • React intensively to even routine situations, experiencing strong emotions and even physical effects such as headaches or heart palpitations
  • Feel drained because of overwhelming empathy and compassion for those who are less fortunate and suffering
  • Become distracted from routine tasks, responsibilities and even pleasurable activities because of a preoccupation with existential issues and injustices
  • Struggle with heightened sensitivity and fear of social rejection, and feel comfortable only with intense and meaningful friendships and relationships
  • Experience sadness and depression because of existential anxiety due to a precocious concern with death and the meaning of life
  • Weather criticism for being too sensitive, reactive, "dramatic," emotional, gloomy, introverted, pessimistic, serious, or even idealistic

Then again, as the parent of a gifted child, you are probably gifted, and may know all too well what it feels like to be emotionally excitable. But whether the emotional reactivity is eerily familiar or hard to fathom, there are some basic tools for managing your child's emotions:

Establish a no-shame zone

It is easy to unintentionally minimize your child's feelings. Even well-meaning attempts to help him gain perspective may instill feelings of shame. Gifted children are particularly sensitive to feeling ashamed as a result of their highly sensitive and introspective nature. When the parents they love and trust tell them that what they are feeling is nonsense, they may feel ashamed of their reactions and even of their basic nature. Establish an environment where feelings and reactions are acceptable, even if certain behaviors (e.g., hitting) are not allowed.

Help make feelings more understandable

Even young gifted children can learn to connect the dots when it comes to feelings. This does not mean launching into a discussion when she is in the middle of a tantrum. But it does include helping her understand that feelings are not magical and can be associated with actual events. You might point out, for example, that most people feel cranky when they are hungry, that it's normal to get angry when someone takes your toys, and the pit of fear in her stomach happens to a lot of kids on their first day of school. Simple, reasonable explanations help gifted children make sense of their inner turmoil.

Find outlets for emotions

Help your child feel comfortable expressing his feelings. Help him learn to verbally express what he feels in an open and respectful manner at home with his family (e.g., "I get mad when my brother can stay up later than me") to minimize the likelihood of either acting out the anger (i.e, hitting his brother) or learning to suppress anger altogether. Appropriate physical expressions of anger can also help (punching a pillow, engaging in exercise). Create an environment where sad feelings are acceptable and tears are never mocked or criticized.

Explore healthy tools for managing and containing emotions

Gifted children also benefit from learning how to contain their thoughts and emotions at times. Your child will learn a valuable lesson in social skills, for example, if she can refrain from telling her friends that they are clueless. You can also help her learn how to relax, calm herself, and use comforting and healthy distraction skills when upset. Deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, and calming music are useful tools even young children can learn. (Note: there are many apps and tools online that offer deep breathing and mindfulness techniques for children. If you don't find any that work, your child might benefit from a mindfulness class or meeting with a therapist.)

Emotional reactivity is part of who they are

Gifted children must accept and make peace with who they are. Emotional reactivity and sensitivity is not just a theoretical construct: research has identified greater activity in brain regions associated with empathy among highly sensitive people. Gifted children can learn to accept their emotional reactivity as one aspect of who they are, and as a trait that can enrich their world. It can enhance their lives with great sensitivity, insight, and intensity, but also bring pain and despair if left untended. As a parent, you can help them appreciate this gift by showing acceptance and appreciation for their sensitivity (even when it is exasperating), by guiding them to find the tools to manage their struggles, and by showing compassion when they need your support.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Overexcitabilities. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:


Monday, August 17, 2015

What was the best class your gifted child had in school?

What would you select as your gifted child's "best" class in school? What would go into your decision? Would you base it on the teacher's skills, the quality of the classroom material, the level of innovation, or the amount of engagement among students? What would your child pick and what would influence the choice?

I have thought about this a lot over the years. Certainly my children have had their favorites, often based on several amazing teachers, the level of classroom engagement, or sometimes just due to the number of friends who were in the class. If I asked my kids, they might come up with a variety of choices, ranging from AP Calculus to phys. ed.  But if I could vote, I would choose a particularly innovative class one of them had in sixth grade. He might not agree, but as a parent and gifted advocate, the mere existence of this class in a district that shunned ability grouping was a monumental achievement.

A group of about 25 students were selected from a student body of over 350 for an advanced Language Arts and Reading class. Most, if not all, were already identified as gifted; if not, they were clearly exceptional writers, avid readers, and deep thinkers. Students were selected by the GT and other language arts teachers; parents and the students themselves had little knowledge of the class ahead of time.

What ensued was a remarkable classroom experience where gifted students (finally!) were challenged. For the first time in six years, my son read books that corresponded with his abilities, and discussed them with a classroom full of peers.  He was no longer expected to quietly read on his own. He engaged in debates requiring higher-level thinking each day, and was given assignments that were more complex and demanding than anything he had received in the past. And most importantly, he didn't have to hide who he was - he shared the classroom with peers, so there were no expectations to keep his thoughts to himself, dull his enthusiasm for learning or dumb himself down to fit in.

The class itself was not exceptional on its own merit, but it was quite different from what the school typically offered. In fact, it was so unique that it was kept hidden from most other parents. In an era when ability grouped classes were falling out of favor, when administrators feared parents might complain that their child was excluded, it was a bold move to permit this class to even exist at all. Gifted advocates and parents quipped about the "super secret, double accelerated language arts program," hoping the success of this class would spark a renaissance of ability grouped options (but all the while counting the days until it might be disbanded).

Why should gifted children have to wait six years to participate in a challenging class that addresses their educational needs? And what about the rest of their day? As beneficial as it was, this language arts class was only one  subject, one class period a day. While he also, thankfully, had access to a "double accelerated" math class, taught by a brilliant teacher, the nature of the material did not permit the same degree of collaborative class participation. All other classes during the day were heterogeneously grouped. Social studies, science, health, and foreign language were designed to accommodate the needs of all children, i.e., set at a slower, more tedious pace.

When GT teachers are asked to compensate for an absence of challenging classes, when hardworking teachers are expected to differentiate instruction, an almost impossible task in most classrooms, when gifted children's needs are minimized, discounted, or discussed in hushed tones, due to fear of other parents' reactions, there will be casualties. Gifted children become bored, disenchanted, and disengaged, if they even make it to sixth grade without completely losing interest.

This particular innovative language arts class was disbanded a few years later. Despite its success, the concept of a "double accelerated" class created too much controversy, too much cognitive dissonance for the district to bear. Better to adhere to philosophical trends in education promoting heterogeneous grouping and differentiated instruction. Better to support the appearance of equity over the importance of meeting each child's unique educational needs. Better to eliminate a successful, cost-effective and minimally disruptive program (i.e., it was only one class out of an entire roster) than risk accusations of favoritism toward those gifted kids.

My son probably remembers little about the class now that he's in college. I'm sure it was neither his favorite nor most memorable class. He was fortunate to have had some nurturing elementary school teachers. The double accelerated sixth grade math class also was challenging and meaningful. And a few stand-out high school honors and AP classes taught by some exceptional teachers provided a welcome relief from the desperate boredom of middle school. But this sixth grade language arts class seemed remarkable to me... a rare gem that briefly flourished and raised the bar, before it was extinguished.

Did you or your child have a class that made a difference?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Self-advocacy for gifted teens and tweens: How to help gifted teens take control of their classroom experience

I am pleased to offer a guest post from blogger Ilana Teitelman, focusing on how adolescent and pre-teen students can advocate for themselves. This is a much-needed skill, especially relevant as the school year approaches. Enjoy!

As students start to reach fifth and sixth grade, and enter into the world of middle and high school, they become more and more responsible for their own emotional and academic well-being. It is around this time that special needs students begin attending their own IEP meetings and being asked to listen and comment on their strengths, weaknesses, and accommodations. The ability to advocate for yourself can benefit all students, though, especially those gifted students who may have special needs or concerns in the classroom but do not have written plans and regular reviews.  

Why should gifted students self-advocate? First and foremost, the ability to speak up for yourself is an important social skill that all students, but especially gifted students, can benefit from learning. There are a variety of benefits to older students learning to communicate their own needs, rather than allowing their parents to be their sole advocates.

  • Gifted students who speak for themselves may get help and resources sooner.  Students have regular access to teachers and administrators in a way that parents don’t.  Especially for smaller, more immediate issues with simpler solutions, students may get what they need faster if they can ask for it themselves.
  • Gifted students who self-advocate don’t have the same stigma as parents who advocate for their students.  It may not be fair, but many parents who speak up on behalf of their child’s needs are labelled “helicopter parents” or may be seen as pushing their own agenda. This is especially true as students get older and are more able to speak for themselves.
  • Gifted students are often great problem solvers. Why not let them put those skills to use helping solve the problems they’re encountering in school?  While it is never solely the student’s responsibility to solve school problems, they often have unique insight into what solutions could help them. Even if their idea isn’t feasible (I had a student who wanted to install a pull-up bar in the hallway ceiling), it might lead to ideas that are workable (pull-up breaks on the playground instead?).
  • Self-advocating is a good outlet for the creative energy and passion for justice that many gifted students possess. Writing up a proposal to a teacher, making posters, or preparing a presentation on a school issue (in a respectful, professional manner) are real-life tasks that prepare students for the outside world. They also require hard work and academic energy. This work can help adolescents “own” their giftedness and hone academic skills in an authentic way.
  • Self-advocating is “cooler” than having your parents advocate for you. Gifted students in middle and high school are highly cognizant of peer perception. “Standing up” to a teacher (again, respectfully) can get you respect as a teen and tween (Wow! You got Ms. Gold to change her mind on the test policy?). Having your parents get those results does not garner the same respect, and may even be embarrassing for students (Wow! You had to have your mom call Ms. Gold?). This is not to say that you shouldn’t advocate for your older students- often they very much need you to. But it can be worth it to let them try to solve certain problems on their own, at least at first.

Self-advocating for gifted students can be a source of pride and an outlet for their intelligence and creativity. It also helps them learn important social skills that will help them beyond school.  And it empowers them to find solutions to make school more of a productive and positive place. These results carry over to other problems that may arise, in school and out.

So how can students self-advocate effectively? Here are my top four tips. Share these strategies with your child for a more successful negotiation with their teacher(s):

  1. Pick the right time.
Most teachers don’t appreciate being interrupted in the middle of class, or bombarded in front of a group of students. While your points may be accurate (and your tone respectful), if you call out in class or when there’s an audience present, you may seem disrespectful. Try to find a time when the teacher is available to talk privately. After all, you want her/him to really listen and respond thoughtfully, right? The start of class may be good, or during a time when the class is engaged in seatwork independently. Even better, ask if you can have lunch, meet them after school, or schedule a meeting during your study hall!  

And if you’re worried about approaching the teacher, or they never seem available, try writing a letter. It gives your teacher time to think about and respond to your concerns on her/his own time, and it gives you the chance to organize your thoughts and express what you want to express.

  1. Know the classroom/school systems.
Think about how your school and class are set-up and how you could make that work for you. Think of it as a big logic puzzle. If the first five minutes is always spent checking in and getting homework out, maybe you could arrange to be three minutes late to do push-ups in the hall before a big test. You can promise to come in silently, put your homework right down on the pile, and sit without interrupting. Or maybe Fridays are always spelling tests, and you’ve been acing them all year.  Maybe you could arrange to instead spend Fridays in the library doing an independent research project. As long as you’re willing to make project contract with your teacher, and have a way to show your work (a paper or presentation, maybe?), your teacher may be fine with it.

  1. Identify Your Problem Areas (before you meet).
This one is two-fold: you want to be able to say what the specific problem is, and you also need to be able to admit if there are problems you’re responsible or partially responsible for. In terms of the first part, make sure that you can point out the exact things that you’re having trouble with. This can be hard!  But if you come in and say, “I’m bored,” your teacher may have no idea what you’re talking about. It even may seem like you’re just criticizing his/her teaching.  

If you can instead say, “I already know all my spelling words every week,” or “I can’t get my ideas out fast enough writing by hand,” or “the readings are a lot like what I did last year for my research project,” then the teacher can see a specific problem that she/he may be able to solve. It also shows that you’re being thoughtful and not just complaining.

In terms of admitting your own problems, this can be tricky, especially if you know you have good reasons for what you’re doing. You may be ignoring your partners during group work because they don’t understand any of your ideas! Or maybe you’re calling out because you’re so frustrated that no one else has the answer and the teacher won’t call on you when you raise your hand! But being able to admit when you’ve been doing something that may be causing a problem shows that you’re really realistic about what’s happening in the classroom. It will make your complaints and ideas seem more realistic and legitimate.  

If you can say, “I know I’ve been having a problem calling out,” or “I need help not ignoring my partner during group projects,” you’re showing that you want to be a partner in solving classroom problems. Besides which, your teacher will really appreciate you taking responsibility, which will probably make her/him more willing to work with you and go the extra mile to help. Yes, it’s the teacher’s job to help, but they’re humans too, and most humans are more willing to do extra work if it’s for someone who’s kind and helpful. So use that to your advantage if you can!  

  1. Come with (Realistic) Solutions Ready, but Keep an Open Mind.
You’re a problem solver and you know how to look at something and make connections that other people may not see. You are also the closest person to the problem, so you have a unique perspective to share. It’s great if you have ideas about what might help!  In fact, by thinking about the school and classroom systems, you may already have come up with some ideas. Just take a minute to make sure that they’re realistic.  

Not having to take math anymore probably isn’t an option, even if you feel your time would be better spent with extra writing class instead. And, unfortunately, schools have tight budgets, so asking for lots of special equipment or your own daily tutor might not be possible either. But there are often already resources at your school that you might be able to take advantage of. The library is often a good place to start. Or maybe there’s a teacher who could help you start a club? Or your study hall teacher could supervise a project with you twice a week?

Separately, there may be small things that you could do on your own to make things better. Maybe moving your seat would help you tune out the person next to you who always sings under her breathe? Maybe you would be more willing to raise your hand from the back of the room, where you’re not front and center. Or maybe tests are stressful and you could bring a card to them that reminds you of breathing exercises or positive affirmations. Most teachers are happy to accommodate you when they can, especially if you’re not asking for them to do a lot of extra work!

That all being said, make sure you keep an open mind. You have the right to expect to be listened to, especially if you’ve followed these strategies and stayed respectful. But make sure you take the time to listen as well.  You teacher may have reasons why your ideas aren’t as do-able as you thought they were, or may need to talk with someone else for approval. She/he might also have some changes to make to your ideas to improve them. This is good! It means that you’re being taken seriously, and may result in a better end solution. Keep an open mind and you may be surprised what can happen.

Of course, you may try all of these things and it still may just not work out. That’s unfortunate, but it happens. If you’re willing, try to go through the process again with a different person, like a guidance counselor or principal. At this point, you may want to ask your parents for help too. Often they can back you up and bring a stronger authority to your ideas.  

In addition to all these strategies, try to find at least one adult at school who you can talk to. Even if they can’t help you with this specific problem, having connections at school can give you important insight and support.

These strategies have worked for my students when they’ve needed to negotiate or communicate a problem with other school staff (or with me!), and I hope they work for you, as well.  If you need specific advice or help coming up with solutions, feel free to contact me directly at my website, Guiding Your Gift. I love to hear from parents, students, and educators!

-Ms. Teitelman