Gifted Parenting, An Interview with Vidisha Patel

By Lisa Van Gemert.

Lisa Van Gemert: To what extent are giftedness and behavior connected?

Dr. Vidisha Patel: Gifted kids come in such a wide range, and their behaviors are equally wide ranging. I don’t know that there’s an exact correlation between the two. Some highly and profoundly gifted children are perfectionists, and that carries over to their behavior. On the other hand, some gifted children are twice exceptional, and their social skills are not something they are able to manage without outside assistance.

LVG: One of the focuses of your practice is on stress and anxiety. How can parents teach children to behave appropriately without increasing stress?

VP: Plan ahead. Prepare kids. With a lot of gifted kids, it helps them to know what’s coming up. If you have a meal planned at some fancy restaurant, well before the gathering, it’s helpful to plan. You explain to the child, “This is what we’re going to do. This is the behavior I’d like to see.” Explain it ahead of time in a positive, proactive way so there’s no pressure. Mention the upcoming event several times so there are no surprises.

Role playing is also helpful. There are two ways to role play. In one way, you’re actually showing them the behavior that is expected. The other way is to reverse roles, with you saying, “I’ll be the child, you be the parent.” Act like a child and have them try and figure out if they think that works. If it doesn’t, ask them, “How would you handle it?” In this way, you’re making them a part of the solution.

LVG: What are the most crucial social skills kids need to learn?

VP: They need to have an understanding of their own emotions. The foundation for social skills is built on relationships. You have to be able to be in a relationship with someone else to live in this world. You have relationships with people at the grocery store, with your peers, and with a variety of different people. Through that you gain an understanding of others, and the basis of it all is communication.

LVG: How can children get an understanding of their own emotions?

VP: In my practice, I use a list of words that are emotional adjectives. When children first come in and I ask them what’s going on in a specific situation, they’ll have a limited vocabulary to describe what their mood or emotion was—maybe only three or four words. So I do exercises and play games to help them. For example, if their mood was the weather, would it be a sunny day or a gray day? I use art to help them identify their emotions. Having children draw emotions can make them very familiar with the concept.

Parents can support that by being open to it. We’re a little scared of working with anybody’s emotions. So much gets shoved under the rug. When a kid gets angry, there can be a tendency to say, “Don’t be angry.” Instead of that, a parent can say, “Ok, you’re angry, but we need to get past that. What is a feeling that would make you feel better?” It’s almost like teaching them a new language. And this is a longer process, like learning any new language.

Frequently, I’ll have kids go home and stop three times a day to ask themselves, “What emotion am I feeling right now?” When they practice that over time, they get better. And then the next step is to apply that to others. You do that through active listening exercises, helping them take that new vocabulary and use it to understand the people around them.

LVG: What are the specific challenges facing parents with regard to teaching gifted children the social graces?

VP: As a parent, you have to model how you want your kids to be. When you see something inappropriate, it’s coming from something someone around the child is doing. When people behave inappropriately, it is often from feelings of insecurity or embarrassment. The parents don’t know how to react, and, really, it’s the parents who need the guidance. Gifted children are so intellectual and they can think beyond their peers, but they are still kids. They need to develop socially and emotionally to catch up to their intellectual ability. If a parent jumps the gun and takes them to an adult venue and they don’t behave appropriately, it’s really due to a lack of understanding on the part of the parent. Of course, this is all done for the right reason—the parent is trying to provide intellectual stimulation—but it ends up making it worse for everyone. The parent puts the child in the inappropriate situation, the child behaves badly, and then the parent feels the need to make up for it. They end up making excuses because they’re embarrassed.

The solution to this is the parents learning more about social and emotional development in general. This would help them know what is appropriate. It’s hard because the child’s intellectualism blurs the line. Parents get confused. Teachers get confused. Am I talking to a 30-year-old or an 8-year-old? This is why it’s so important for teachers to be trained in working with gifted children. Otherwise they have a hard time with this dynamic.