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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?”

In all these cases do not give unsolicited advice or editorial input unless they ask for it. What you are trying to do is show them good and bad things happen every day, but life moves on and is pretty good anyway. You are also showing them that talking things out has a great way of reducing stress.

Another exercise you might use to help children develop perseverance and patience is once a week at dinner time for you or your husband/wife to have everyone talk about something they didn’t want to do, but had to do, and that it was probably best to do rather than not do it and get into trouble. For instance, a parent can say, “There is a meeting I went to on Wednesday that I didn’t want to go to, but I went and pushed myself to pay attention, and even though it wasn’t great, it would have been much worse if I hadn’t gone.” Many times kids think erroneously that their parents get to do whatever they want to do. When they realize that everybody does things they don’t want to do but are responsible to do, it helps children develop perseverance and patience.

Question: How can teachers make gifted kids feel valued and valuable?

Answer: The answers to the next question will help them feel valued and valuable because you are showing them that their feelings, thoughts and actions are all worth your knowing about.

Question: What is an “empathy jolt” and why would high I.Q. kids need this?

Answer: An “empathy jolt” is taking a moment to imagine what your kids feel that they may not be telling you or anyone, especially something that causes them frustration or pain. For instance, you might say to them, “I’ll bet sometimes being told you’re smart and being in the gifted program puts pressure on you to always score better than other kids and I’ll bet that sometimes feels lousy. In fact I’ve heard that some gifted kids feel so stressed by it that they wish they weren’t gifted so everyone would stop having all these high expectations of them. Can you see how some gifted kids can feel that way? Have you ever felt that way?”

If that is empathically accurate, you may see your child’s eyes tear up with relief at feeling understood. If that happens, you haven’t made them cry, you’ve enabled them to cry, which takes pressure off them, causes them to mentally and emotionally exhale, feel grateful to you and be more willing to listen to what you have to say.

Question: How can you use “Hmmm” with above average and talented children and adults?

Answer: When above average and talented children and adults begin speaking and pick up speed in what they say, they unconsciously expect you to interrupt them and compete with them (because that is what they would do and therefore believe you will do). If, however, when they pause to reload their next sentence or are finished with what they have said and instead of your getting into a debate with them, you say, “Hmmm” or “Tell me more about _______ (the item they had the most emotional charge on),” they will be disarmed, continue to speak and go deeper. If you keep doing this without competing with them and then share back with them what you heard without your even responding with your opinion unless they ask for it, they will not only affirm that “Yes” you heard them, but it will prime their minds to be open to what you have to say.

Question: What kinds of Power Thank You’s and Power Apologies should parents and teachers be using?

Answer: A Power Thank You has three parts: 1) Thank the person for something specific that they did; 2) Acknowledge the effort it took for them to do it; 3) Tell them what it personally meant to you.

A Power Apology also has three parts: 1) Apologize what you specifically you did wrong or failed to do; 2) Tell them the negative impact it had on them, i.e. “I know it caused you to feel betrayed and that you could no longer trust me;” 3) Say you’re sorry and mean it with no excuses, and what you are going to do moving forward to correct it so that it doesn’t happen again.

A Power Thank You and a Power Apology should be used whenever you sincerely feel them and when the other person really deserves either.

Question: How can parents create a one on one situation with their child?

Answer: Use the “side by side” approach when you are in the car or are both involved in an activity and looking forward vs. being in a face to face situation which can seem challenging or adversarial. Also schedule it in both your and your child’s schedule to let both of you know that connecting on a regular basis is important to you both.


Mark Goulston, M.D., is a business advisor, consultant, trainer and coach. Dr. Goulston was a professor at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute for more than twenty years, become a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and was named one of America’s Top Psychiatrists for 2004-2005 and again in 2009 by Washington, D.C. based Consumers’ Research Council of America. He is the author “Just Listen” Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone. More information is available at his website,

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