If you have a child who is gifted or talented, it can be something of a mixed blessing. While they may delight you with their brilliance, humour and originality, they can also be at risk of a range of social and emotional issues.
How can you make sure that your child’s gift of intelligence doesn’t leave their mental and emotional wellbeing overlooked?
1. Move away from the label.
Being labeled with the term “high IQ”, “smart”, “gifted” or “talented” can end up a stigma that can breed resentment amongst peers and place pressures on your child.
Alternately, it can lead to inflated esteem that can mean a crash in the future, when life challenges inevitably arise that intelligence alone can’t navigate.
It can help to not label your child at all at home. Let them be just who they are. If you must talk about their potential, focus on concrete characteristics over labels that imply a ranking system and encourage comparison. For example, “you are very good with numbers” is preferable to “you are smarter at math than others”.
2. Teach them that some gifts have nothing to do with IQ.
It’s important to help your child widen his or her perspective of what intelligence and gifts are. Help them understand emotional intelligence, too. Teach them about the gifts of kindness, patience, compassion, sensitivity, and honesty. Make as much effort to notice these gifts in your child as those that have to do with their brain.
3. Help them recognise the strengths others have.
What if your child starts identifying themselves as special or ‘better’ than other children? This sort of ego can be a whole new way to encourage social alienation, or can mean your child grows up into an adult with poor empathy.
Help them to see other people’s unique strong points, whether it is that someone else is mentally intelligent in another way than them, creative, kind, funny, or a good friend.
4. Keep an eye out for perfectionism.
Signs of perfectionism include being scared of trying new things and intense self-criticism.
Children need to know that it is perfectly okay and even desirable to sometimes make mistakes, because it means we are bravely trying new things and learning.
This means letting them mess up without stepping in to stop them, and then supporting them through the processing of what happened (read our article on raising an independent child).
It also means letting yourself make mistakes. Often, your child is learning perfectionism from you. As Barbara Klein discusses in her book Raising Gifted Kids, “gifted children often have gifted parents, who want to parent perfectly. One of the keys to parenting is acknowledging “good enough.”
Remember, the more your child see you practise self-compassion, the more they will try it for themselves.
If you do find it hard not to be a ‘pushy parent’, think of it this way. People who know how to fail well actually do better in life and their careers. They are braver with their choices and tend to be more creative.
5. Build resilience.
The replacement for perfectionism is indiscriminately praising your kid for everything and turning a blind eye to their mistakes, it’s helping them be resilient.
This means honesty combined with support. Give your child feedback that emphasises their successes but doesn’t sugarcoat what hasn’t quite worked out. “We can work on that next time” can be an effective phrase in building resilience.
Resilience is helped by putting the focus on process over result. Instead of praising getting 100% on a test, praise the focus they gave to studying and that they agreed to go to bed on time the night before the test. This way, if they get 95% on the next test, they not only don’t feel a complete failure, they have a bigger perspective and can see new ways of doing things that can excite them to bounce back try again. Maybe they need an early night before tests, or want to try studying with friends next time.
Again, lead by example. Have a sense of humour about making silly mistakes and don’t let being a parent mean you don’t let your child see that you, like everyone, need good coping mechanisms.
6. Manage emotional intensity.
Gifted children often feel and experience the world far more intensely than their non-gifted counterparts, according to Klein. She notes that this emotional intensity is played out in several ways. Rapid mood-swings, physical sensations which emphasise their feelings, apprehension over what may happen, feelings of inadequacy, and over empathising with others may all be apparent.
If you are not a sensitive or emotional sort, your child’s emotional spectrum might be overwhelming for you, especially as tantrums can be long and frazzling.
But it’s important to help your child manage their emotions. Provide a family structure where boundaries are clear and firm. Then aim to provide balanced and realistic responses to your child’s emotions over ignoring them as ‘drama’.
7. Keep them connected.
Social connection is shown to be very important to esteem and moods. If your gifted child seems prone to social isolation, work to help them find peers they feel alike. If they have hobbies or other interests, extracurricular groups can help.
But if they still don’t feel they fit in, MENSA and Potential Plus are to UK organisations that provide events and activities for gifted children. The peer support amongst parents facing similar challenges that these organisations also offer can help you, too.
8. Know the signs of depression.
Research is divided over whether a high IQ is a direct cause of depression. But the challenges it creates, from perfectionism to social isolation and boredom, are all the sorts of things that are linked to low moods.
Psychologists Webb, Mekstroth and Tolan noted in their research that gifted children may be prone to three types of depression: one from not reaching their own unrealistic ideals, another from feeling isolated, and another about the deeper meaning of life and human existence.
Educate yourself on the signs of depression, such as changes in sleep and eating patterns, and keep the lines of communication open. Again, try to honour how your child is feeling, even if it is different to the way you react to life.
9. And don’t forget your needs, too.