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:


  1. Another fantastic post, Gail! You've highlighted all the struggles and provided useful, practical strategies for surviving the holidays with sanity intact!

  2. Thank you for sharing these helpful insights and suggestions -- they're an excellent reminder for families to be realistic and to take good care of themselves over the holidays.

  3. Gail, thanks for your perfectly focused post. You hit the heads of many gifted nails in this one. Much appreciated!

  4. After reading your post, especially number 6, I gave myself permission to not put up the Christmas lights outside. I feel better already!

    1. Jen, Good for you! Saving on time, energy, and your electricity bill. Thanks for your comments.

  5. I really enjoyed your post! :-) Thank you for the great recommendations.