This is an E-Ticket Ride! The Rollercoaster that is Parenting Gifted Children

I was born and raised in Orange County, California, home to world-famous Disneyland. Until 1981, admittance to this beloved theme park included purchasing coupons, labeled A through E, for specific rides. E-coupons were always in highest demand (and were more expensive) because that was your ticket to the most exciting, the most adventurous, and the most gut-wrenching experiences in the park. As opposed to the A-tickets which were rides for “babies,” as I recall. If you’ve just learned (likely confirming your deepest intuition) that your child is, in fact, gifted, you’ve just found yourself on one of the most thrilling rollercoasters of parenting. A ride fraught with anticipation and anxiety, valid concern and moments of sheer bravado–this is an E-ticket ride!

In case you haven’t already noticed, gifted children are intense. What I mean to say is, gifted children are INTENSE! A good day at school becomes, “the BEST day of my life;” something built out of LEGOs is “The MOST Incredible Creation” and cannot ever be disassembled; while an argument with one friend and, suddenly, “EVERYBODY hates me”!
Life raising a gifted child is life on a rollercoaster of extreme highs and distressing lows. It is ironic that parents of the gifted are often accused of “pushing” their children when in fact, most are hanging on for dear life! How does one “push” in this cling-to-what-you-can-or-die-trying scenario? Seriously, though, the parents of gifted kids I’ve met and worked with aren’t living vicariously through their children’s intellect, they aren’t grabbing for attention from media or anyone else. They have very real problems and very real concerns that are easily overlooked by friends and family. After all, their children look normal.

So your daughter comes home from school and, in the safe cocoon of the kitchen where you are busy throwing together something that will pass as dinner before rushing off to get everyone to their respective lessons and sports practices, she wants to expound indefinitely on how every single man, woman and child she has ever met now hates her, her clothing is stupid (because Katie said so), her classes are too boring (or too hard or too stupid), and, oh, by the way, she’d like to pierce her belly button over the weekend because Jamie did it and at least she’s telling you in advance (unlike Jamie). Inhale. Exhale. Got that seatbelt securely fastened?

New rules: Yes, you are there to hear about every trial and tribulation your child faced that day, but first, she must initiate the conversation with between one and three positive comments on her day. We sometimes forget to share our joys with each other and, instead, wallow in commiserating. One positive remembrance of the day can turn the whole tone of the conversation around.

She must also learn to measure the words, “everyone,” “every class,” “all my clothes,” etc. with a more accurate accounting of how many, exactly who and precisely what. By the way, you should relish in the fact that your daughter is dumping the woes of the world on your lap–she trusts you and values your input. She is safe with you. This could very well be the basis for a long-lasting, trusting relationship that will survive when the going gets really tough: the teen years. Your daughter needs you to stay the course, rock solid, no matter what she comes home with.

With my own children, it’s those last few moments of being tucked into bed at night that open the flood gates of fears, worry, stress, and complete freaking out. Perhaps that’s when they can truly guarantee that they have my undivided attention. Or maybe it’s a way of extending the inevitable bedtime (never a hard and fast time in our household anyway) by just a few more minutes. It is typical for gifted children to reveal their deepest feelings just before falling asleep though, as that’s when the emotions surface, preventing sleep or even a relaxed state. Whatever the motive, the safety of bed and goodnight snuggling seems to bring out the darkest memories of the day for my kids or the fears and concerns for the next day. I can’t bear to send them into dreamland with all that worry, so I usually indulge. At least for a bit. I do insist on revising the assessments: Really? The WORST day of your life? I thought the time (fill in the blank) happened felt worse than this. I try and offer some perspective on the overall review of the day’s events, reminding them that tomorrow is another day, what feels overwhelmingly dreadful right this moment may be resolved by morning, etc. I don’t ever make light of their emotions, or of the very real feelings they are experiencing, I ask only that they balance the assessment of various disappointments with how devastating those events truly are. Sort of a “big picture” view, if you will.

Rollercoasters of our own creation

Be sure to avoid creating rollercoasters with your gifted children. For instance, if you know that your child responds negatively to large crowds or noises, don’t insist on a family trip to a crowded mall or large amusement park. You will likely be signing on for tantrums and frustration. Read your children’s cues about what they can manage as far as noise, lights, crowds, and other stimulations, and respond accordingly. If your son knows that throngs of screaming children will cause him great anxiety and make him want to hide under the table or cling to your leg, he should turn down the birthday invitation to Chucky Cheese. Perhaps he could offer, instead, to have his
best friend over for a private celebration. Help your children think up creative ways for circumventing situations that lead to stress and discomfort. A private lunch and play date will likely be better remembered and can be a lovely way to express birthday wishes while avoiding the noise and chaos of a public restaurant.

When my oldest was an infant, he would scream at the sound of the garbage disposal or the vacuum. So I always made sure my husband or I could take him outside or walk him in a stroller while the other took care of whatever offending chore needed to be completed. My mother would lecture me that I was pampering and acting far too overprotective, but I knew in my heart that extreme noises were actually painful to my son’s small and developing ears. In fact, many gifted kids experience heightened sensitivity to sound, they are not just crying for attention. Some children of high intellect experience sensation to light more intensely than others. And some gifted kids have tremendous tactile discomfort with clothing labels or socks that aren’t at the same height on each leg. (Look for Hanes® and other brands that have eliminated tags, altogether.) Research and be sensitive yourself (pun intended!) to the very real sensations your gifted child is experiencing; these extreme sensations and reactions are not unique among this population.

Gifted children love to build and create, whether it’s with pre-packaged toys such as LEGOs or K’Nex, or just a roll of Scotch tape and recyclable materials. Most have an emotional attachment to their creations and great difficulty discarding them. If you’ve found yourself in a fire hazard collection of inventions and art that your child is deeply connected to, you might try starting a scrapbook. A picture of The World’s Greatest Creation can easily be stored within the pages of a photo album, along with numerous other mementos, for later review and enjoyment, allowing you to discard those items blocking passage through the halls. There will likely be great debate about what to keep and what to toss, but a scrapbook may make the process easier.

Siblings

Research from the Gifted Development Center (www.gifteddevelopment.com) shows that 36% of siblings are within five IQ points of each other; 61.5% are within ten. If you’ve got one gifted child, you can almost bank on the others being gifted as well. There is probably no relationship more volatile among gifted children than that between siblings. If one gifted child is intense, justice-oriented and sensitive then two are exponentially more difficult to live with. Add a third or fourth child to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for disaster! One technique I’ve discovered to halt the rivalry between extremely frustrated children is to get out the digital or video camera. Sounds terrible, I know! Who wants to photograph for posterity your darling child ready to hurl something at his sibling or strike a blow at him, right? But it works! The moment they realize they are about to be the subject of a scrapbook page (one of my favorite hobbies), the action stops. It takes awhile to cool down and be able to laugh at what Mom almost caught on camera but it can turn even the ugliest of arguments into play. You can actually feel the mood of the room change as the frustration dissipates and the camera hams emerge in all their silliness and goofy smiles.

Where did this come from?

“The apple doesn’t usually fall far from the tree.” Parents are usually within ten IQ points of their children. By adulthood, you have likely managed to temper your reactions to noise and light, to moderate your responses to slights from others and to react in an “appropriate” manner to losses and disappointments. Now it’s your turn to guide your children in their responses. As your children approach obstacles, recall from your own experience growing up how you wish you’d been treated or received and offer that comfort and support to your kids. We each remember the devastation we felt when snubbed by a member of our peer group or if we earned a grade lower than we had worked toward. Don’t dismiss or belittle these episodes in your children’s lives.

Be a good role model for your children. Demonstrate acceptable responses to situations and support them through these seemingly uncharted waters. Show them how to politely navigate around situations that could create anxiety and, instead, make alternate choices that won’t leave them–and you–stressed out.

One of the gifts you can and should give your child is to recognize and appreciate your own giftedness. If your child were an accomplished athlete, her skills would be applauded. But American society consistently encourages us to hide our intellectual prowess and blend in with our class- and age-mates. Gifted children are the square pegs that struggle to fit within such holes. Make your home and family a safe place to be gifted; a place where intellectual pursuits are applauded and rewarded, where stimulation abounds and opportunities are plentiful. Indulge your children’s passions to whatever extent possible, while honoring their sometimes temporary but fervent quests for knowledge, knowing that another tangent is inevitable. Delight in your children and allow them to delight in you. You have much to share with one another.

Then, fasten your seatbelt, because this is an E-ticket ride!

Satria Permadi

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