Therapeutic Assessment of Gifted Children: A Psychodynamic Approach

Introduction: The Need for a Comprehensive Assessment

The assessment of a gifted child and his/her problems needs to be comprehensive. Intellectual (cognitive) and intuitive (non-cognitive) aspects of giftedness, emotional maturity, quirky personality traits, passionate interests, personal values (the balance between altruism and self-interest) as well as learning problems, psychological symptoms, and behavioral issues should all be evaluated in context.

The gifted child’s parents establish the context by providing a description of the child’s giftedness: when it was discovered, its development, as well as the meaning of giftedness for the child and his/her parents. Family history, marital dynamics, peer relationships, medical issues, education, and developmental history provide a more complete context. Giftedness and contextual factors by themselves do not cause problems but unresolved emotional responses to them may.

The unique feature of the psychodynamic assessment of the gifted child is its explanation of how the child’s conscious and unconscious emotional responses to his/her giftedness and the context within which it developed have caused troubling behavior, psychological symptoms, and academic problems.

Background: Contextual Issues, Emotional Issues, and Giftedness

Contextual Issues

Most clinicians acknowledge the importance of contextual factors such as developmental, family, marital, parenting, medical, social, and educational issues when assessing and treating the problems of a gifted child. Although most conventional assessments provide some context, generally the gifted child’s past and current circumstances are considered secondary, co-existing, or incidental features. Little effort is made to explore exactly how these “contextual factors” may have influenced academic performance or behavior.

Emotional Issues

Conventional assessments also treat emotional factors as secondary or co-existing issues—either emotional reactions to the gifted child’s problems or as separate, co-existing “co-morbid” disorders, such as anxiety, depression, psychosomatic disorders, mood disorders, or personality disorders (for other possibilities, see the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 edition 5, 2015, American Psychiatric Association). Conventional assessments have no method for distinguishing between these possibilities or determining how each of these possibilities may have interfered with the gifted child’s intellectual functioning and behavior.

Conventional assessments also offer no method for exploring when more subtle conscious and unconscious emotional factors have been the primary cause of a gifted child’s intellectual and behavioral problems. A child’s giftedness, personality, and the context within which these develop do not in themselves cause problems but a gifted child’s maladaptive efforts to resolve emotional conflicts about them may: for example, when a gifted child’s unresolved conscious and unconscious emotional conflicts about “contextual factors” and his /her own experience of being gifted may become displaced from these original sources and transform into academic, cognitive, or behavioral problems. Furthermore, conventional assessments offer no method for understanding how a gifted child’s failed attempts to resolve these conflicts with conscious adaptive coping mechanisms and/or maladaptive unconscious psychological defense mechanisms may have led to these displacements and transformations.

Assessing Asynchronous Development in a Gifted Child

An important part of understanding how emotional issues affect a gifted child’s cognitive and emotional functioning is understanding asynchronous development.

Asynchrony is a common feature of all children’s development: some skills develop in advance of others, and some growth milestones are met later than others. Understanding the difference between normal developmental lags and neurobiological or developmental pathology is a crucial part of the assessment of any gifted child. This is especially true for gifted adolescents for whom skills and activities often develop at vastly different rates than their emotional development, which generally proceeds at a normal rate.

Gifted children and gifted adolescents are rarely emotionally gifted. In attempting to solve their own emotional problems, they generally use the same primitive psychological methods—avoidance, denial, acting out, and projecting blame onto others—used by normally endowed young people. Although these primitive psychological defenses in adults are often considered signs of serious psychopathology, in gifted children and gifted adolescents, they should be considered a normal aspect of development until proven otherwise. A puzzling aspect of asynchronous development in gifted children is how skillfully they can help their friends solve emotional problems and yet how little they can understand and work through problems of their own.

Giftedness Assessed

Another important part of an assessment of a gifted child and his/her problems is an examination of all aspects of a child’s giftedness: when it was discovered, how it developed, and how others and the child responded to it.

Conventional methods limit their assessments of a child’s giftedness to a meticulous examination of what are assumed to be separate parts of intellect: processing speed, various components of memory, executive functioning, etc. These apparent separate intellectual functions are then compared against statistical norms, resulting in an overall numerical value for the child’s intellectual functioning.

However, conventional assessments rarely evaluate the non-cognitive or extra-cognitive aspects of a child’s giftedness. The gifted child’s imagination, sources of inspiration, curiosity, passions, special esthetic and physical sensitivities, intuition, clairvoyance, and affinity for the complex and profound are difficult to describe, let alone measure. Yet, it is these traits that gifted children identify as being responsible for the effortless nature of their accomplishments and the most “authentic” aspects of their giftedness. Their powerful ambivalent responses to these non-cognitive aspects of their gifted endowment and the effortless nature of their accomplishments are what often give gifted children the most difficulty. Even when giftedness has developed under ideal circumstances—with plentiful resources, and generous parental, social, and educational support—gifted children still have difficulty embracing this aspect of their giftedness.

Gifted children have powerful conflicted emotional responses to the involvement of their parents, teachers, and mentors in supporting their gifted development—evenhanded, measured efforts may seem intrusive, manipulative, and controlling. It is easy to understand a gifted child who retreats from high levels of accomplishments because of “stage” or “tiger” parents. However, it is confusing when a gifted child rejects reasonable, respectful encouragement unless one understands that this often happens because of the gifted child’s inability to resolve his/her inner conflicts about being gifted.

It is identifying how these unresolved emotional reactions to the non-cognitive aspects of giftedness have become displaced and transformed which are often the main clues to the causes of the gifted child’s academic, cognitive, and behavioral problems.

An assessment of how well a gifted child can accept and use the non-cognitive aspects of his/her special endowment—regardless of context—is often the key to understanding the child’s academic, cognitive, and/or behavioral dysfunction: a gifted child’s emotional responses to how others react to their giftedness are often secondary issues.

A child who is gifted in many domains may experience existential depression when he/she has to choose one area of expertise over another. Typically this problem occurs in the upper grades when the effort to keep up high levels of performance requires more time, more energy, and more sacrifice. Resolving these issues is the key to retaining “downtime” and fun.

Specific Contextual Issues

The Educational Context

Do the gifted child’s teachers believe in giftedness and understand what it means to be gifted?

Are the gifted child’s teachers willing to provide individualized, enriched curricula? This is important for precocious readers who need the constant challenge of advanced materials.

Does the school provide non-academic activities that promote gifted potential?

Does the school setting have appropriate peers that provide the gifted child with an appropriate social milieu in which to develop his/her gifted potential?

Parental Issues

Parents often have different sets of conflicted feelings about discovering giftedness in their child. One parent may feel blessed and excited while the other may feel intimidated and overwhelmed. Parents may feel that investing too much in their child’s giftedness will make them a “stage” or “tiger” parent. On the other hand, parents may feel a more passive approach—allowing a gifted child to find his/her own way—may risk the gifted child’s disengagement when the going gets tough. How a gifted child responds to his or her own giftedness will be influenced by how the parents respond.

Peer Relationships

Gifted children often flourish in a group of gifted friends who share their same intellectual sensibilities and sense of humor; however, a gifted child always struggles with how much private time to devote to their own interests and how much time to devote to “hanging out” so they can also feel like they belong.

Medical/Genetic Trauma

Serious medical illnesses or surgeries may have limited a gifted child’s social and athletic growth. However, these traumas may have provided an opportunity for a gifted child to develop the ability for solitary, concentrated exploration that makes full use of their gifted endowments. As potentially productive as this is, gifted children may have strongly conflicted feelings about giftedness that develops under these circumstances.

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Jerald Grobman M.D.

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Madelon Sann L.C.S.W.​

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