Most gifted children and their parents come for therapy in a crisis. Before parents can be helped to manage the crisis, its origins need to be determined. Serious academic problems, anxiety, depression, physical symptoms, mood swings, and suicidal ideation may reflect an underlying neuropsychological disorder or psychiatric disorder. Often, however, these symptoms are caused by a gifted child’s fear of directly expressing their feelings about family dynamics or the child’ gifted development that has been blocked by inadequate curriculum, unresponsive teachers and peers, or their own inner conflicts about their giftedness. Sometimes, these symptoms can be caused by a gifted child’s disavowal of his/her giftedness or a gifted child who has become too ambitious and “spread too thin.” Once the dynamics of the crisis have been clarified, parents can be given practical advice about its management.
The next part of therapeutic work with parents is to help them to understand the elements of a gifted endowment and a gifted personality.These elements include intense, unusual, and passionate interests, a precocious need to function autonomously, uncanny intuitive insights and abilities, and a variety of extra sensitivities. It also helps parents to know the typical developmental struggles of a gifted child: choosing which passionate interests to pursue, whether or not to strive for excellence and expertise, and how to manage conflicting emotional responses to giftedness as it threads its way through adolescence and young adulthood.
After the crisis has been managed, the most immediate concern of parents is how much or how little to support and encourage their gifted child’s potential. Parents are rarely in agreement about these questions. The issues are philosophical, emotional, financial, and social—all intertwined. Often, underlying these concerns are worries that promoting giftedness could mean encouraging elitism, narcissism, entitlement, arrogance, “nerdiness,” and social isolation. On the other hand, parents worry that giftedness that remains undeveloped might leave their child chronically unfulfilled.
These conflicts can usually be resolved by encouraging parents to explore their experiences with their own giftedness. Some parents enjoyed being identified as gifted and appreciated their parents’ support and encouragement; some parents resented “stage parents” who pushed too hard; some parents regretted that their giftedness was overlooked. Sharing these different experiences with each other and with the therapist often allows parents to resolve their differences about how much time and money to dedicate to developing giftedness in their child. Some parents need to be encouraged to do more. Others need to be advised to “back off.”
Parents’ next concerns are how to improve their gifted child’s school experience. Parents often need help in educating teachers and administrators about giftedness and the unique needs of their gifted child. This usually means requesting an enhanced, enriched, and sometimes accelerated curriculum. When schools will not, or cannot, make these changes, parents may need to be encouraged to change schools or consider homeschooling. Even under ideal circumstances, parents will have to augment their gifted child’s formal academics with extra-curricular activities that are matched with their child’s passionate interests. In designing extra-curricular activities, parents should guard against being overzealous. Gifted children, like all children, need down time.
Parents also often wonder how much control a gifted child should have over his/her gifted development. Gifted children can be very stubborn and defensive when parents attempt to either encourage them to take their gifts seriously and work hard to develop them, or conversely when they try to protect them from their own grandiosity. The gentlest suggestions and encouragement can provoke fierce opposition. Parents always want to avoid explosions that might ruin cooperative and loving family relationships. However painful these parent-child battles may be, it is crucial for parents to remember that they have the hard-earned life experience that helps them identify the potential for self-destructive behavior. The price of abdicating responsibility for making important decisions that either encourage their gifted child’s growth or limit it can be far costlier than the fallout of a heated argument.
Parents can be reassured by knowing that battles within the family may ensure that a child’s battles with outside authority figures are likely to be less damaging. Battles in the family can be the proving ground for helping a gifted child engage in productive disagreements in the real world.
Parents are often frustrated by how long it can take psychotherapy to work. It is very difficult for gifted children to believe that the therapist “gets them” and is also actually smart enough to help them. Establishing a therapeutic alliance with him/her can take time and patience. Gifted children, like other children, often blame others for their difficulties. It’s hard for them to admit that their suffering may be due to internal conflicts. Once they can locate aspects of the problem within themselves, the treatment can “take off.”
Most parents find the challenge of fostering their child’s gifted development to be a daunting one—so many complex issues and conflicts have to be dealt with at every developmental level. As depleting as this process may seem, the rewards that come from helping a gifted child develop his/her full potential are enormous.