Parenting can be hard. And raising a gifted child creates dilemmas other parents may not face. Your child's quicksilver mind, expectations of fairness, need for logic, and heightened sensitivity create a quandary when it comes to decisions. Asynchronous development, intensity, and twice-exceptional conditions cloud the picture even further. Most of us muddle through as best we can.**
How can we, as parents, determine whether our parenting decisions are truly in the best interests of our child - or if they merely benefit us personally?
Let me clarify. I am not referring to any of the following:
- Clear and necessary choices related to safety or finances or basic respect for others (such as refusing to let your child attend a sleepover unsupervised, or asking your teen to consider colleges that offer financial aid, or insisting that your child make amends when they have wronged someone).
- Expectations that benefit the child and the family (such as insisting that they complete their chores or participating in a summer activity or camp - which allows both parents to work throughout the summer).
- Taking time for yourself and setting boundaries and limits (such as creating downtime for yourself in the evening, insisting on that much-needed date night out, or setting limits on the decibels of noise you can tolerate in your home).
But sometimes, decisions that might seem tailored toward your child's best interests create unanticipated problems. Often, such decisions are driven by anxiety, uncertainty, or sincere efforts to protect your child... but they end up backfiring. How can we ensure that our complicated, difficult, perplexing, and uncertain decisions best serve our child's needs and are not merely based on our own?
We can start this process with self-reflection and ask ourselves several key questions:
1. Will my attempts to help and protect my child create an environment of safety and support, help to increase their confidence and independence, and support their capacity for resilience in other situations? Or will my involvement inadvertently convey that doubt about their abilities, thwart their healthy drive for autonomy, or create an unhealthy dependency on our family?
Kayla and Jesse* were anxious about their daughter leaving for college. They were not worried about drugs or alcohol as much as her vulnerability living so far from home for the first time. And of course, they knew they would miss her. They told her they trusted her, but insisted that she must call them every day. She resisted at first, but also knew that her parents' anxiety would increase if she didn't comply with their expectations. She internalized their anxiety and doubts and started to worry that perhaps she would not be able to handle college life so far from home.
2. Are my reactions and decisions based on my own anxiety and personal history? Can I distinguish my own wishes and goals for my child from what they truly need?
Mara and Tim knew that their gifted teen had tremendous potential. Their families never encouraged them to try hard and were uninvolved in their academic choices. As a result, they wanted to ensure that their son push himself to reach his academic potential. They insisted that he take as many AP classes as possible and participate in both an afterschool sport and a club. He felt pressured and angry, but they insisted that he continue, and even threatened to restrict social activities if he did not follow through. He started to withdraw and rebel, and ended up failing two of his classes.
3. How do I determine when I must become involved from those times when I need to let my child struggle and accept natural consequences? Can I remain attuned enough to my child's current needs - and consider their developmental level and emotional capacity to take on challenges? Can I recognize when my involvement or interventions provide temporary relief (from my own anxiety as well as my child's) but interfere with building a foundation for their future problem-solving abilities, resilience, confidence, and burgeoning independence?
Rebecca and Kevin were frustrated with their son's reluctance to complete his homework. They were diligent about sitting with him every evening to ensure that he followed through on assignments. They answered questions about his homework to "help" him along, rather than insisting that he give the math problem another try, or take the time to look up information for a science project. They checked over his writing and even helped rewrite some of his papers. They wanted him to succeed, feel good about himself, and wanted to ensure that he received good grades - unaware that their "help" was contributing to his reluctance to try harder. As a result, he learned to doubt his abilities and refused to attempt difficult or challenging schoolwork.
What went awry for the families mentioned in the examples above? They clearly love their children and want the best for them. But their attempts to shield them from failure or risks backfired and contributed to unexpected and negative outcomes. One of our greatest challenges as parents involves learning when to intervene and when to hold back. This might mean restraining ourselves from getting involved, allowing our child to fail, containing our own anxiety and expectations, and recognizing when our involvement temporarily relieves our anxiety but interferes with our child's capacity to learn new skills and face unpleasant challenges.
The challenges inherent in "normal" development
Children struggle and careen from a desire for your comforting guidance to a drive toward autonomy. When my three-year-old tussled with a stuck toy and wailed, "I need your help, but I want to do it all by myself!" his reaction epitomized a universal desire for both support and independence. It is often confusing for parents, as we navigate each situation and yet try to stay grounded in our values and goals. We obviously hold different expectations for our child of five than for our fifteen-year-old. It is a part of normal development when our two-year-old shouts "no," our middle-schooler rejects our political views, or our teen refuses to share the details of their social life. We may not like it, but such behaviors are normative and allow our child to assert their independence.
The next time you leap in to assist your child or insist on their compliance, ask yourself the following:
- Is this what my child needs at this given moment in time?
- Is this essential to their long-term development?
- Are my expectations based on my child's abilities, temperament, and developmental level?
- Are my reactions driven by my own uncertainty, anxiety, or influences from others?
Sometimes we must intervene to prevent or remove our child from a physically unsafe or emotionally abusive situation. But most of the time, decisions are not so clear-cut. Each child is different, of course, but the more we feel grounded in our parenting values and goals, can rein in our anxiety and worries, and consider our child's unique strengths and challenges, the more we help them develop into the confident, independent, and kind young adult we hope they will become. Ideally, we can respond based on clarity about acceptable behaviors, maintain some flexibility based on the situation at hand, and remain grounded in an appreciation of our own personal worries and goals for our child.
*Names were changed to protect privacy and confidentiality
** For more insights about parenting gifted children, please see my new book, The Gifted Parenting Journey. Available through the publisher and the usual bookseller sites, this book addresses a previously neglected topic in the literature: the needs and emotional life of parents of gifted children. For more information about this book, snippets from editorial reviews, and upcoming workshops and book events, please see this link.**