Summer is that mixed bag of relaxation and fun, along with occasional stretches of boredom and isolation. Many gifted kids love the summer, but others struggle with sadness and fears. Separated from their school friends, sometimes anxious about starting a new class or camp, and lacking structure from the school year, many feel lost and alone. Some parents initiate a flurry of activities and scheduled events; others allow their kids to meander through the summer, devise their own activities, and take a break from education.
Whatever summer plans you envision, consider placing some resilience-building activities on the agenda. Resilience is loosely defined as the ability to bounce back from and thrive after adversity. It is a behavioral skill that can be cultivated - not a fixed personality trait. No one is resilient in every situation; we all are influenced by an interplay of personal characteristics and family, cultural, and social circumstances. (Several blog posts on resilience-building in gifted children can be found here and here.)
Even within the context of greater freedom and relaxed schedules and expectations, summer break still provides opportunities for tackling new and different challenges. Many gifted children thrive when challenged; learning something new does not have to be stressful, especially when unencumbered by grades and exams. Summertime creates opportunities for developing the "non-cognitive" skills that help gifted children thrive. Here are a few guidelines for helping your child improve their resilience-building skills:
1. Try an activity that is new and difficult
It is humbling to try something new. Many gifted children are used to excelling and this expectation may define their sense of self. They expect to succeed, and any possibility of failure or mediocrity can be devastating. Trying something new and difficult provides an opportunity to upend these expectations and build resilience. Summer is a great time for your child to try a new activity. Pushing themselves further or tackling an activity where they have no previous experience can instill humility, resourcefulness, and a sense of accomplishment - just for completing the task. They also unexpectedly might discover unknown strengths and interests.
Skills-building can involve tackling a completely new activity, pushing themselves further to advance a skill they already enjoy, engaging their creative strengths, or refining and delving more deeply into an area of interest. If your child loves math, for example, they might learn to code. If they love art, they might try a new painting technique or transition from watercolor to oil painting. If they always liked science experiments, a fun summer class that explores chemistry might ignite their interests further. Any new skill or ability developed over the summer can build resilience and instill confidence as they approach the next school year.
2. Tackle fears
Summer is a good time for tackling nagging fears and anxiety. A less demanding schedule frees up time to work on what worries your gifted child most, whether fear of failure and imperfection, or entrenched fears and phobias. This requires a measured, compassionate, and supportive approach, devoid of harsh expectations or rigid goals. You know your child best, and probably already know that pushing them too hard can backfire, provoke further resistance, and even increase their fears. Many gifted children and teens feel shame when they struggle to accomplish a task or overcome their anxiety. A child who is terrified of heights, for example, is not yet ready for a ziplining course. However, a gradual approach and gentle prodding or goal-setting can help them face what they most fear.
If your child is afraid of the water, for example, sit with them while they dangle their legs at the pool, and eventually help them ease into the shallow end and splash around. Eventually, you can encourage even greater water skills. If you sign them up for a structured swimming class before they overcome some of these fears, their anxiety likely will increase. If they are afraid of spiders, help them identify at least one insect that does not create fear, such as a butterfly or ladybug, and encourage them to approach these insects whenever possible. Certainly, healthy distractions, calming strategies, mindfulness techniques, and even deep breathing exercises can provide support as they confront these fears. Any experience with overcoming what they fear, even in small amounts, will build confidence. (Please note that sometimes working with a licensed mental health professional can assist them when they need more guidance and support.)
3. Find new friends
Friendships can be complicated for gifted kids. They are drawn to like-minded peers who "get them" and can appreciate or at least accept their sometimes quirky, intense, and offbeat approach to the world. Even when they find someone who seems relatable, they may hesitate to build a friendship. Encourage your child to set a playdate with the child they rave about from robotics camp, for example, or plan a movie outing with their new friend from art class - even if reaching out seems overwhelming. Coach them and use role-play on how to approach other children, as long as your child will let you guide them.
Most kids are not gifted, though, and learning to find friends in that vast sea of neurotypical children will serve your child well. Encourage them to reach out to the new neighborhood child or their tennis partner from camp or the "scary" outgoing, seemingly confident child they sometimes play with at the park. The ability to relate to those who seem different is a skill that will last a lifetime. Introverted, quirky, or shy gifted kids benefit from as many opportunities as possible to flex those social skills muscles.
4. Set goals and follow through on them
While summer is a time for relaxing expectations, you still might encourage your child to set some basic goals and follow through on them. Some examples might include learning to ride a bike, setting a goal to improve their chess rating, writing college entrance essays ahead of time (if they are going into their last year of high school), or even taking social risks as mentioned above. It also can involve tackling a challenging activity or facing their fears. Perfection and absolute success are unnecessary; coming close to reaching their goals, seeing their progress along the way, and keeping an open mind toward trying something new are valuable lessons.
You also may have some specific goals you would like your child to accomplish - like reading a few books or keeping their room clean. You certainly can express your expectations and work with them to devise incentives or rewards for reaching these goals. And a reminder - rewards do not have to be monumental. Develop a reasonable plan with mini-rewards (such as an extra hour at the pool or additional screen time) as they achieve markers of success or demonstrate reasonable efforts to follow through on tasks.
5. Volunteer to help others
If your child is fortunate enough to live in a home where comfort and financial stability are a given, encouraging them to engage in volunteer work creates perspective. While volunteer work is not a typical resilience-building strategy, it helps your child gain an understanding of others' needs, and will build confidence when they recognize that they can be of service to others. Some examples include working on a fund drive to support a homeless shelter, picking up litter at a local park, volunteering at an animal shelter, or coaching a younger student to improve math skills. Gifted children have an abundance of empathy and concerns about fairness and social justice. Volunteer work will appeal to them and fill that longing to better the world. Any meaningful (and safe) activity or effort is valuable and sets a pattern of "giving back" that should last through adulthood.
While the above suggestions might be useful, keep in mind that resilience-building experiences can occur without specific plans. Opportunities for unstructured time and play activities can contribute to improved problem-solving strategies and adept handling of complicated situations. Gifted children develop resilience as they navigate social, physical, and learning challenges, whether managing periods of boredom, negotiating disagreements with neighborhood kids, climbing to the top of the playground equipment, or designing their next LEGO masterpiece. When these real-world situations occur, encourage your child to reflect upon the skills they enlisted and what they learned about themselves. The benefits of resilience-building activities are solidified when they can understand how meeting a challenge fuels their personal growth and confidence. And you, as their parent, are best suited to point out their strengths, their adaptability, and how much they have progressed!