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Ask SENG: Parenting Gifted Teens

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

By Nadia Webb.

Q: I seem to be in a constant battle with my gifted teenager. Nothing I say or do seems to make a difference. What am I doing wrong?

A: Sometimes the gift we give our children is being willing to ask for help in parenting. It is the single most difficult job, and yet it is one that we feel we are supposed to “know” how to do. Having a child is like having your heart extracted from your body and allowed to walk around all by itself; every choice seems fraught and the right decisions are only clear in hindsight.

Parenting styles tend to shape the kinds of battles we have. As Anna Cavany phrases it, parenting strategies as a continuum between “hot housing” and “thrown to the wolves.” At the extreme, they border on caricature, although we do encounter caricature in clinical practice. It is generally easy to see which pole seems more comfortable and more familiar.

The hothouse parents are aware of their child’s delicacy and vulnerability, trying to shield them from possible misfortune in all of its varieties. They almost have an adversarial relationship with the world at large, viewing teachers as potential stiflers of creativity, potentially under qualified or even malevolent. These parents try to cocoon their children within the best schools or the best teachers, keeping their children tightly supervised, vetting friends, filling after school hours productively, and shifting through various diets (Feingold or modified Feingold?) Adolescence is seen as a particularly precarious time in which unproductive free time is a threat and no opportunity for growth should be missed, barring scheduling conflicts. In some ways, this approach could be seen as a particularly Eastern perspective on childrearing. In Japan, children are viewed as wild beasts that must be brought into the human community through community support and force of parental will.

The thrown to the wolves approach is the practice of Rousseau’s idea of the perfection of natural child. It is a style driven by optimism or preoccupation. Children are fundamentally good in a fundamentally good world; when left to their own devices, they will become creative, productive charming people. Their innate goodness will lead them towards good decisions, with minor mishaps along the way usually caused by the interference of others. Often these parents will reminisce about afternoons playing in creeks with neighbor kids, building forts with scrap wood, or having the house to themselves after school. They point out the competencies they developed at an early age, making meals, running after-school lawn mowing or paper routes for extra money, and learning how to suss out the trustworthiness of others. These are the latchkey kids who were often very aware that they were the actors rather than audience members to their own lives.

At its worst, these children are essentially raising themselves while learning not to seek out adult counsel. If parents have mental illness, substance abuse problems, or other serious life crises, they may simply be unavailable to their children, or available in such a chaotic and unpredictable way that children learn to shunt parents off to the side as rapidly as possible simple to preserve some continuity to their days. It becomes too heartbreaking to think “this time it might be different.”

Giving up hope of outside aid from parents can be an adaptive choice; however, because teenagers are prone to over generalizing, they tend to exclude larger swaths of adults than just family members. They learn from what they know, and it frankly may not occur to them to think of adults as a source of help. Adults are either the problem or the people they are lying to about Mom’s mental illness or Dad’s drinking problem. They become de facto orphans. The story of the little match girl is the story of the little girl who looks in the window to see a warm happy family; She has enough memory of what it was like and seeks it out. Children who are truly raising themselves may never think to look in the window. They assume that happy families are an illusion or are closed to “people like them.”

Asking for help is often the best way to model to children that none of us are experts at everything (despite that spiffy IQ). Ask for parenting “recipes” from other parents of gifted children, including checking for a local SENG model parent group. Consult a family therapist or consider a little reading and compassionate self-examination. The American Academy of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) and the American Psychological Association both offer referral services, as do most state mental health organizations. One of my favorite (and classic) books on power struggles is Rudolf Dreikur’s Children: The Challenge, or you might enjoy Martin Seligman’s The Optimistic Child if you have the intense child who tends to be overwhelmed by life’s little bumps. Build your own personal board of directors of wise people who can listen, cheer, and challenge you as a parent. And know that we are all rooting for you.

Nadia Webb, Psy.D. is a board certified pediatric and adult neuropsychologist, co-author of Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults and serves as a member of the SENG Advisory Board. Dr. Webb maintains a small practice specializing in twice exceptional as well as staff privileges at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans. She has received awards from the American Medical Association, the Department of Defense and a personal citation from Governor Jane Hull of Arizona for her professional work.

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