Things I've Learned About Parenting a Gifted Child

5 years ago

"Mommy, sometimes I feel like I miss something that isn't even there."

Hormones? Anxiety? 

"Well, you're getting to the age when you will start having these suckers called 'hormones.' They help you grow your boobs, but they can be a real pain when it comes to emotions coming out of nowhere."

"Hormones make you feel bad?"

"Sometimes. When I was your age, I started to have anxiety."

"What's that?"

"When you feel nervous or really excited or scared for no reason out of nowhere. If you feel those things, tell me, and I'll tell you more about it."

Saying these words gave me a huge download of anxiety, of course. Please, God, don't let her have anxiety disorder. Please give her my husband's even keel.

It passed, and she didn't mention it again. I don't believe in sweeping emotions under the table, as I feel my emotions with the strength of a hurricane, and I know how great or horrible they can make your life if they're kicking on too high a gear.

Last night, we went to parent-teacher conferences. Her classroom teacher talked about social skills and reading levels and practice those math facts!

Her gifted teacher invited my daughter to attend the conference with us. Her teacher talked about confidence with math and how my daughter needs to work on her confidence so she can take risks in that area. We talked about how scary it can be when you're gifted and just know the answers to some things through absorption, and then you hit on something that doesn't come naturally. She turned bright red.

Her teacher told my daughter she is intuitive and how important that would be in her life, to be able to walk into a room and understand which people were feeling good today and which people weren't. Her teacher complimented her on her ability to sense who needed a boost and provide that boost.

Then her teacher handed us a few articles on parenting the gifted child. I don't know if this sort of literature was available when I was in school or not. I haven't asked my parents yet. I was in one of those programs, and I don't remember anyone ever talking to me about the flip side of just knowing the answers to some things without having to learn them in any sort of thought-out way. I remember being completely unprepared for my first colossal academic failure and questioning my whole existence as a result when it happened -- the side effect of knowing the answers automatically to some things.

I don't want that to happen to my girl, but seeing her eyes dart around in a way I've never witnessed before and watching her practically climb the chair with anxiety when we talked about timed math tests reminded me of that feeling of panic when the answers don't just pop like they do with spelling or reading comprehension or wherever your gifted wheelhouse is academically.

Her teacher gave us one article I particularly wanted to share, because if you are a gifted person or are parenting a gifted child, it's important to understand the flip side of a brain that works differently than the "normal" people (a word I use extremely loosely). It's called Gifted As Asynchronous Development, and it's by Stephanie S. Tolan. Here's a short excerpt that grabbed me:

Often the products of gifted children's special mental capacities are valued while the traits that come with those capacities are not. For example, winning an essay contest on the dangers of global warming may get a student lots of attention and praise while her intense emotional reaction to the threat technology poses to the planet and its life forms may be considered excessive, overly dramatic, even neurotic. If she tries to act on her beliefs by going on strike to force her family or school to renounce what she considers harmful technology, she may be ridiculed, scolded, or even punished. Writing a winning essay is deemed not only okay, but admirable; being the sort of person she had to be to write it may not be considered okay.

When we focus only on what gifted children can do rather than who they are, we ignore vital aspects of their developing selves and risk stunting their growth and muddying or distorting their sense of themselves and their worth.

That is a hard one, when you're parenting a gifted child. I find myself getting very frustrated with her daydreaming, her inability to break focus when she's creating something. Last night I could not get her to stop making two levels of invites to go trick-or-treating with her -- there was the VIP level for her friends, and then a different, generic "guest invite" level for any of their +1s. For trick-or-treating. All I wanted her to do was go take a shower and go to bed.

It's hard not to push with the math facts to the point that it's uncomfortable, because her classroom teacher told her she tested her in reading up to the level she can go -- but she doesn't really know because that was the top end of the bar. The math facts tears flow instantly, at the mere mention of math facts, because the timed tests are the only things she's ever not just been able to do, and she feels a deep sense of shame because they are not easy for her. I see this shame in her eyes.

From Tolan's article:

Many gifted children are able to develop their gifts and use them productively. But some of these achievers, as adults, live their lives with a nagging discomfort with themselves. They focus, as the people in their childhood environment did, only on what they can do because they are ignorant of (or uncomfortable with) who they are.

It's my job as the parent of a gifted child to do the following things:

  • Remind her she is enough just for existing and being a kind person. Achievements will come and go. Some days you're the windshield and some days you're the bug, and that has ultimately got to be okay or your life is going to be too exhausting. No one wins every day.
  • Teach her coping skills for when the inevitable failure comes. Deep breathing. Reframing. Humor. Talking to a loving friend or partner. Reading great quotes from smart people who bombed it spectacularly. Exercising. Getting enough sleep.
  • Help her understand that her intellectual brain is not her. It's not her spirit, it's not her soul. It's a handy thing to have around, but it is not the sum total of who she is. Her intellect's strengths or failures should not be the ruler by which she judges her existence on this earth.
  • Encourage her to use her gifts to get what she wants out of life, but to understand the consequences of success -- successful people have constraints on their time, they have a lot of people depending on them, they have a lot of pressure to perform every day. Just because you're good at something doesn't necessarily mean you will be happy doing it.
  • Provide her with the endless creative and intellectual challenges she needs via the Internet, books, games and parental focus. She needs to engage with my husband in me in a way that's different than some kids engage with their parents. She needs us to be parents and set limits and boundaries, but she also needs us to be creative partners participating in her elaborate schemes and internal stories. She needs us to let her stage Macy's-level window displays out of the junk in her room and appreciate her use of the color wheel doing it, and she needs us to listen to her while she worries about all the bad things that could happen to her fish if he lived in the ocean, because she is sincerely concerned with these things and needs to be taken seriously.
  • Recognize when she needs to disengage because she's getting too worried about something.
  • Encourage her to keep writing down her stories, because writing allows a person to get as dramatic as she needs to be while exploring possibilities in a safe and socially acceptable way.

I'm no psychologist or teacher or social worker. The things I wrote above are my instinctive reactions to her as her mother and as a reader of the literature provided to me by her teacher (there was more, but I'm not going to quote it all). And as a gifted person. It's hard to write that, because when I grew up, it was considered bragging to say you were gifted, even if you were. It shouldn't be -- gifted means your brain works differently sometimes in a way the world values and sometimes in a way it doesn't. It's an end of a spectrum. Every characteristic of a person is on a spectrum. We all fall somewhere.

As an adult, I find this research comforting, because even though my parents never made me feel bad about my extreme emotional reactions to everything from Hurricane Katrina to the death of an author I never met in person to my often-inappropriate desire to fix things for complete strangers, other people did. I've been called too sensitive, dramatic, over-reactive and worse. It alarms people when they see this part of my personality in full force. I know it makes people uncomfortable, and I usually try to hide it in person, the same way I used to sit in class and only allow myself to raise my hand every fifth question so I wouldn't be THAT KID.

I always thought my extreme reactions were wholly attributed to my anxiety disorder, but now I'm wondering if it's just the side effect of my brain grokking some concepts in a different way than the average bear. If that's the case, I can forgive myself the drama and focus on helping my daughter avoid 37 years of wondering why they hell I react to things that most people find puzzling at best and annoying at worst.

My daughter is very smart, that's true, and that's wonderful. But she also tends to walk around with her heart on the outside of her body, and I just want the best of everything for her. Nothing in life is all roses, and neither is being gifted.

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for