By Matthew J. Zakreski, PsyD.
“You have to understand that there’s just no way that I can go back to school until the wildfire situation in Australia is under control.” I had this conversation with a student who was frantically pacing around his school’s track, surreptitiously calling me during gym class while fighting back tears. “What am I going to do?”
At first glance, this might seem like your typical excuse to get out of school: Find an issue and feign emotional upheaval until the demand situation is removed. But gifted kids are anything but typical. And this young man was in emotional crisis, one that no one at school was equipped to understand. My client, whom I will call Steven, was a 15-year-old high school junior (he skipped third grade). He wanted to be a scientist when he grew up, specifically around climate change. He told me that he had gotten involved with climate change “when I was ten or so, and I thought, ‘Hey, I can probably figure that out.’” These sort of aspirational career/life paths are common in the gifted community, as they appeal to the gifted mind’s deep desire for challenge while also addressing the gifted sense of justice.
It seems like long ago (and just a few things have happened since then), but the Australia wildfires of 2020 were a really big deal when they happened. Steven had no direct connection to Australia, but he had a strong fondness for our neighbors Down Under. When he brought up his concerns to his support team at school, they empathized with him but really went no further. How could they? They had students with more immediate (both in proximity and intensity) crises. But Steven was significantly upset to the point that it was interfering with his performance at school. Afterwards, when I debriefed with a fairly befuddled school counselor, she admitted, “I mean, I care that he cares, but what do I do when he cares SO MUCH?”
Gifted kids care . . . a lot; perhaps, too much. They care sincerely, existentially, and empathetically. As such, their feelings are big. And big emotions are more challenging in that they are often mishandled by the adults in the gifted kids’ lives. Parents fall into problem-solving (at one point Steven’s parents offered to fly him to Australia to help. You can imagine how overwhelmed they must have been!), which runs the risk of patronizing or missing the point. Teachers try to redirect attention back to the task at hand, which risks alienating the student (“They call it ‘Current Events’ for a reason,” Steven scoffed after his AP History teacher changed the subject). Other adults fall on the well-worn ideas of “calm down,” “don’t worry about it,” and “try to focus on something positive.” With all of this negative feedback, gifted kids will often articulate to me in therapy that they don’t want to have feelings, want to stop caring. “If I never got so worked up, everyone’s lives would be so much easier and so much better,” Steven moaned.
We cannot not have emotions. The gifted brain, in particular, is wired to have more emotions, more often, and for longer than neurotypical brains. (Note: the science behind this is well-established but too dense to go through here; please see my GHF article with Nicole Tetrault PhD for more.) In therapy, we measure outcomes in these same three dimensions: intensity, frequency, and duration. It is important to note that the goal of therapy isn’t to get one (or any) of these areas to zero; that isn’t possible. The goal is to manage emotions such that the intensity, frequency, and duration of the emotions shrinks to the point where it is manageable.
How do we do that? The short answer is hard work, practice, and emotional knowledge. It is amazing to me how often our kids know very little about their own feelings and how they work. Now, emotions are not easy to understand. And when you have a gifted brain that much prefers logical, quantifiable information, emotions feel unknowable and impossible. Since those feelings make us uncomfortable, it is easy to attempt to ignore or dismiss them. But we still have to try! Feelings are going to impact us whether we want them to or not. Therefore, it behooves us to get a handle on them before they handle us.
Steven kept describing how hopeless things were and how no one at school understood him. In these moments, it is so hard to resist the urge to debate these points (“Of course people understand you!”; “Things aren’t hopeless!”; etc.). But that’s not what Steven was really asking for. When your gifted student, child, or client is going full “verbal fire hose” at you, that’s the moment to listen more and talk less. Ultimately, try to focus on how their words are making you feel, because that is what your kid is trying to communicate. In psychology, we call this separating content (the things that are being said) from process (how and why those things are said, and what that might mean). As Steven ranted about the inherent evilness of corporate pollution, I got his sense of desperation… but also the sense of his anger.
“Steven,” I said. “You feel angry to me. Can we talk about that?”
He stopped. He caught his breath. And he said something that I’ll never forget. “Why can’t I be angry?”
“Of course, you can be angry. Do you feel like you can’t?”
“People get so scared by my anger! They complain about it all the time. Because I used to scream and yell and punch walls. So, I stopped showing anger. Now I just act like I’m depressed and anxious, because that’s easier for them to manage. Of course, that means that they try to fix it, which only pisses me off more because that’s not actually what I want. I want someone to be mad with… and mad at!”
Working with gifted kids comes down to that moment and to that concept. Can you join-- cut through the noise to identify their feeling--and then join them there? Like many things in therapy, it is a simple idea… but not easy to do. Steven was sad and worried about climate change (who isn’t?); but most importantly, he was furious. He didn’t feel like he could safely share that feeling, so he didn’t. But in not sharing that feeling, he entered a system where he wasn’t getting the help he needed because he wasn’t being fully honest.
To my fellow mental health professionals, teachers, and parents: this is hard work. You’re going to fail way more often than you succeed. But the good news about kids is that they give us many chances. So, focus on showing up and listening. Steven knew all the things that he could do to help stop the Australian wildfires and to combat climate change; he didn’t need me to tell him those things. He needed me to see his big feelings and help him to hold them. He needed to feel not alone. That, I could offer him.
I joined him in his anger, and we talked about being angry and what that means. We talked about how anger can motivate him to do good things and bad, and how to focus his energy on prosocial things while accepting that the discomfort that comes with anger is both unavoidable and natural. I told him that we didn’t have to have a solution now, but his feelings were justified, and we would keep working until we found one. We kept talking and processing, and ultimately, he was motivated to start an Environmental Club at school. He found some like-minded peers and they started working to make their place a little cleaner and healthier. The outbursts (at least about this issue) have largely stopped, though he still is worried about climate change (once again, who isn’t?). Overall, things are not totally better, but they are better.
And in this line of work, that’s a win.
Matthew Zakreski, PsyD is a high energy, creative clinical psychologist who utilizes an eclectic approach to meet the specific needs of his neurodiverse clients. He is proud to serve as a consultant to schools, a professor, and a researcher on Giftedness. Dr. Zakreski is a member of Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), and the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children (NJAGC). He is also a member of the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education (PAGE) Board of Directors. Dr. Zakreski is the co-founder and lead clinician at The Neurodiversity Collective. His website is www.drmattzakreski.com