Therapy for the Gifted Child: Dependence – Independence

Gifted children have a precocious need for autonomy. Their demand for this early autonomy can push parents away and deprive the child of living through the normal developmental phase of dependence. When parents respond consistently and reliably to a young child’s needs, she/he begins to trust them and depend on them for feelings of safety and comfort. This beginning sense of trust, safety, and emotional connectedness is unconsciously incorporated and becomes one of the building blocks of the child’s personal strength and resilience.

When gifted children become toddlers, however, many of them often begin to express resentment at having to be a child. They may decide at an early age, possibly earlier than three or four, that they don’t need “mothering.” When parents attempt to collaborate with them in making important decisions, gifted children may feel as if they are being controlled and manipulated. Although talented, intuitive, and brilliant, no young gifted person can “bring themselves up.” Without some parental guidance, a gifted child can feel isolated, humiliated, and overwhelmed when facing the unique challenges of using their gifted endowment.

A gifted child’s pseudo-independence often gets played out with educators and mentors as well; e.g., a gifted child who insists that his/her inefficient technique for learning a piano sonata is better than conventional suggestions for fingerings and phrasing (leaving them vulnerable when the demands of the music become more difficult), or the gifted high school student who rejects a teacher’s suggestions for improving a term paper, or the gifted graduate student who dismisses his/her advisor’s recommendations for revisions of his/her thesis. Many gifted college students fail to graduate when their pride prevents them from accepting that they have become intellectually or emotionally immobilized and admitting that they now need help.

Academic “incompletes” or failures can often create an ironic situation for the pseudo-independent gifted adolescent. When a gifted adolescent winds up back in the protected setting of his/her family home to finish their college degree, it may be seen as a failure, but it can also be understood as an unconscious attempt to finish an unresolved developmental task. Accepting their parent’s help in late adolescence can complete the normal phase of dependency these gifted young people fought so passionately to avoid during their earlier years.

Gifted children often misunderstand their parents’ attempts to advise them. When parents make recommendations for “staying on track,” or set limits on risky behavior, they may tend to experience these parental interventions as their parents’ desire for control or manipulation. Some parents may feel intimidated and reluctant to intervene when faced with the powerful resistance of their gifted child. Most parents want to maintain a loving, conflict-free relationship; however, it is important for parents of gifted children to “hang tough” in the face of their child’s passionate objections. When picking their battles, parents need to remember that their life experience and hard won maturity make them far better equipped to evaluate the positive and negative, short- and long-term consequences of what might be their child’s self-destructive behavior.

Giving a gifted child or gifted adolescent the final say can leave them in a highly vulnerable position. Having too much power, in the face of confusion and overstimulation, can leave a gifted child feeling anxious and overwhelmed. If not managed properly, these feelings can increase a gifted child’s denial and defensiveness, leaving him/her with no other choice than to become more stubborn, more belligerent, more arrogant, and to increase his/her demands for even more autonomy.

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Jerald Grobman M.D.

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Madelon Sann L.C.S.W.​

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