An Interview with Dr. Mark Goulston: Listening to Gifted Children and Adolescents

By Michael Shaughnessy.

Question by Michael Shaughnessy: Mark, as a psychiatrist, what challenges do you encounter when working with gifted children?


Answer by Mark Goulston: Gifted children have a great deal of trouble tolerating boredom, repetitiveness and lack of challenge. They also often have trouble paying attention to something that they don’t think they’ll need in their future if they have a clear idea of what they want to do when they get older, based on their gifts.


Question: What do you see as their particular social and emotional needs?


Answer: They often have trouble listening to people who are not as quick, smart and bright as they are or who are talking about things that don’t interest them. As a result they can appear distracted, impatient or irritable when put in those situations. Such behavior and attitudes are nearly always seen as being negative by teachers and other adults.


I describe them as secondary narcissists as opposed to primary narcissists. Primary narcissists literally don’t care about other people and don’t care if they are rude; secondary narcissists care about what they’re focused on, and don’t mean to be rude. They are just literally thinking and dancing to a different drummer. Primary narcissists are insensitive (in that they delight in ticking others off); secondary narcissists are just not sensitive.


Question: What are some of the issues they face with their peers?


Answer: Because they become easily distracted, impatient and irritable in situations that are boring, repetitive and not challenging, they can be viewed as arrogant, “know it alls” and condescending. This can cause others to be resentful and become angry at them.


Question: How can parents “re-wire” themselves to listen?


Answer: Nearly all of us listen to others through a filter that causes us to assume and presume we understand, know where the other is coming from and, in the case of parents, believe that we know what is best for our children, when we may not. On the other hand, if parents don’t know what is best for their children, that can cause anxiety in the parents and cause them to become controlling. The best approach is to accept that more often than not we are listening through a filter and jumping to the wrong conclusions about our children. To counter this, discipline yourself to ask more questions, listen with an open mind and assume less.


Question: How can parents and teachers help gifted kids to feel “felt”?

Answer: Use a technique I call FTD delivery, where F stands for feelings, T stands for thoughts and D stands for doing (a.k.a. actions). In any given situation, if you can ask gifted children questions that will cause them to respond with their feelings, thoughts and actions, they will feel felt and understood and that you get where they are coming from.


To elicit their feelings, thoughts and actions, ask questions such as these:


· “Of all the activities (or classes or friends), which ones do you like best and least and why?”


· “Which of your friends do you think goes too far and wouldn’t surprise you if they really got into trouble this year? And why do you say that?”


· “Which of your classes do you need to stay current with and which ones do you think you could leave to the last minute if you had to? And why do you say that?”


With younger children that you still read stories to at bedtime, you can help them develop perspective by asking them, “What was the best thing that happened to you today and what was the worst thing that happened to you today?” Hear them out and mirror their feelings by saying, “Wow, that’s terrific! What made the great thing so great?” and “Gee, that sounds frustrating. What made is so frustrating for you?” Then ask them, “What is the thing you’re most excited and the thing you’re most nervous about tomorrow?” After they answer, drill down into those with, “Why are you so excited about that?” and “What makes you most nervous about that?”