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
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
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
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.
LVG: What kinds of activities can parents involve gifted kids in that can help their
social and emotional development?
VP: Team sports are always of value. Depending on what the child’s interests are,
music can be of value. Maybe not an instrument you play by yourself, but rather an
involvement in a band or orchestra where you develop a relationship with others. It’s
important to have the child do something that expresses emotion—sports do that, music
does that, art does that. Also, the opportunity to be with like-minded kids and families is
LVG: How can parents avoid using giftedness as a way to excuse unacceptable
VP: In certain instances, the parents are gifted but might not know it because when they
were kids that word was not used. For instance, where I grew up in the Northeast, the
term gifted wasn’t used. I didn’t hear it until I got to Florida. Unfortunately, parents use
that label as an excuse for the successes and failures of their child.
Sometimes the parents aren’t gifted, and so they don’t understand what’s going on with
the child. In that case, they need even more education and more support. Nobody ever
does anything to intentionally create a scene or hurt someone, but they may end up in
those situations, and it becomes very confusing because they are thinking, “I was trying
to keep my child interested and motivated and it went wrong. Now what do I say to
cover this up?”
LVG: How can you balance the need for kids to learn to behave appropriately with
the need to be themselves?
VP: As a parent, you can control the situations you put them in. It’s going to be trial and
error to see what works. If you take them to the movies and they scream and yell and
carry on because they have a hypersensitivity to the darkness or the noise, you leave.
The next time you try a different tactic. If that still doesn’t work, you learn, OK, this is not
a place I can take this child. It’s trial and error because each child will be different. As a
parent, you have to forgive yourself. We’re not given a handbook, so we’re learning as
well. Understand that your child is not doing this intentionally. Work with your child, not
against him. Many of those situations occur when there is confrontation between the
parent and the child. This is another situation where role playing is very helpful.
LVG: How can a parent be objective about his or her own child’s behavior? We’ve
all met people in denial about their “little darling.”
VP: It helps to get outside guidance because it’s very hard to be objective about your
own child. It also helps to think about it and contemplate their behavior when they’re not
there and there is nothing that’s involving them that’s there. Frequently, the reason we
have the parents who are not objective is because they’re acting in the moment and not
I would encourage parents to look at their child through an outside party unless you
have a couple who can be objective for each other. Sometimes you get a relationship in
which Dad’s too strict and Mom’s too lenient or vice versa, but sometimes they can
balance each other. The difficulty is that there is no perfect balance because you
achieve balance and then something will throw it off and the balance is gone. It’s a
continuous process, and as adults we sometimes forget that. We think, “OK, we’ve got
this down.” And then the kid develops and the balance shifts. It’s a lot like riding a
bike—you’re never really perfectly in balance; you are constantly adjusting in order to
LVG: How do you avoid arrogance and yet help a child have self esteem?
VP: You need lots of modeling by a teacher and by parents, especially. There is
appropriate appreciation of the child, and praise [should be] used, within reason. But it
is also important to watch the child interact. It is important to be there when the child is
interacting with others so you can see how she is doing. Does she seem arrogant, shy,
angry, or unable to communicate? You can see it quickly in a situation in which you are
not participating. For instance, go to a birthday party with your child but stand away and
observe; you can learn a lot about where your child is in terms of interaction with others.
Also, you can role play and turn the situation around. Depending on the intellectual level
of the child, you can say, “I know that you understand this [subject] a whole lot better
than Johnny, Sarah, and Susan, but when you say that in those words, it doesn’t come
out right. Can you think of a different way to say you’re proud of your work?” It helps to
ask open-ended questions because if you just tell a child what to do, he won’t do it. He’ll
argue back or just not do it. If you make him part of the solution, he is more likely to do
LVG: As a mother of two gifted children yourself, what advice can you give other
parents as a parent, not as a professional?
VP: I tell myself as much as I can (and I try to tell my friends also), we’re not
perfect—we’re learning. It is so important to be patient with ourselves because if we
lose patience with ourselves, how can we help our kids? It’s OK to get it wrong. Many
parents think that they should have it down pat right away, but sometimes I make more
strides with my children when I can talk with them about how I was wrong and how I can
improve the next time.
Mensa Resources for Parenting Gifted Children
Plenty of Mensans are still sprouting through shoes faster than parents can purchase
them. If you’re the parent of a gifted young Mensan, the organization offers resources
for you and your child.
Join the Discussion. The Bright Kids Listserve is a busy, vibrant forum open to members
and non-members alike. With discussion topics ranging from picking schools to testing,
this list is wide-ranging and lively—parents helping parents.
Join a SIG. The MPowered Parenting SIG is the group for Mensans parenting bright
children. Share tips, strategies, success (and unsuccessful) stories. Find more
information at groups.yahoo.com/group/MPoweredParenting.
Hop Online. The Mensa Foundation sponsors www.mensaforkids.org. Here you’ll find
resources for parents, teachers, and children, including games, lesson plans, and more.
Get In Touch. Mensa’s Gifted Youth Specialist Lisa Van Gemert is available
firstname.lastname@example.org to help point you in the direction of other
Mensa’s Gifted Youth Specialist, Lisa Van Gemert, knows a thing or two about
navigating the rigors of interacting with gifted children, having been both an educator
and a mother of bright kids. So she was the perfect choice to sit down with Dr. Vidisha
Patel to discuss the finer points of raising above-average-intelligence children.
Patel, a practicing therapist in Sarasota, Florida, and a member of the
board of directors for Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), works in
private practice and with pregnant teens. She is a frequent conference speaker,
consults for Florida State University as a trainer of primary caregivers on infant mental
health, and is married and parenting two gifted children.