Helping Your Gifted Child Through Divorce: Part 2

By Lori Comallie-Caplan, L.M.S.W. and Marc A. Caplan, Ph.D.

Citation: Online since October 2011.

Over the last 27 years, I have had the opportunity to serve families and children pre- and post- divorce in a variety of roles, including educator, counselor, and mediator. Over the last 30 years, my husband, a clinical psychologist, has served children and families and the courts in a variety of roles: therapist, court appointed custody evaluator and parenting coordinator. This article is a collaboration between the two of us.

Adultizing and Enmeshment

In “Helping Your Gifted Child through Divorce, Part 1,” we ended with being careful about falling into the traps of adultizing and enmeshment. Adultizing is talking to and leaning on a child for advice and emotional support. It is easier to fall into the trap of adultizing the gifted child than the typically developing child because sometimes gifted children seem more like adults than children in their vocabulary and ability to converse on an adult level. For this reason, it can be all too easy for a parent to share things that are inappropriate for a child to hear. In one family that I have worked with, the mother had an affair and told her teenage son to assuage her guilt and because she had “no one” else to talk to. The affair may have happened because her husband and she had drifted apart and she had no support system of friends. That still doesn’t make it appropriate to share that type of information with the gifted child.

In the SENG Model Parenting Group Book, A Parent’s Guide to the Gifted Child, the authors relate, “Some bright pre-adolescents and adolescents are given adult status too early, and they may later openly critique your friends or expect you to consult with them before you date others” (2007, p. 240). Adultizing a child confuses their role in the family and forces them to take on responsibility for the well-being of one or both parents. This adult responsibility translates to a lost childhood free of adult worries and problems. That childhood experience can never be replaced. The child may take on this adult role without the adult forcing it upon them. They may ask questions about living arrangements, mortgages, paying the bills. It is important to address them at an age appropriate level and offer reassurance.

Enmeshment occurs when a parent’s life satisfaction is dependent upon his or her children’s activities and achievements. In these cases, it is difficult to see where the child ends and the parent begins. Newly divorced parents can easily become enmeshed with their child because there is no longer another adult in the home with whom to interact. And sometimes enmeshment happens when parents see children “squandering” opportunities that the parents didn’t have but wish they’d had, like piano or drama lessons, and they then push the child to achieve in one or more of those areas (Miller, 1996).

Ways that Children Adapt

Children, in general, seem to adapt in one of four different ways, as identified by the excellent research of Janet Johnston and Linda Campbell (1988). These four main methods by which children deal with parental separation and conflict are a product of age, gender, and temperament. Given the unique qualities of the gifted child, these different approaches to coping may be expressed to a greater degree or intensity. They include the following:

1. Maneuvering – These children become masters at manipulating their parents to get their needs met. Little by little, they learn to take care of themselves first.

2. Equilibrating – These are the children who become diplomats. They are desperately trying to keep everything under control. On the surface, they seem composed, well organized, and competent. However, under the surface, they are likely to be perpetually anxious. They learn to hide their feelings and to seek safe ways out of the parental conflict.

3. Merging – These are the children who often become enmeshed in the conflict. They may side with the parent they are with at the time. They split their identities in half and have little individual sense of themselves. They are usually unwilling to express their own wishes or desires. Thus, they protect each parent and ensure their loyalty to each parent by “merging” with the parent who is present.

4. Diffusing – The highly reactive child responds to the conflict the way they typically respond to other forms of stress. They may appear to shatter emotionally; in other words, they may appear to be emotional disorganized, emotionally distraught and generally out of emotional control.

Not surprisingly, it has been our observation that the gifted child also copes with the disintegration of the family along these same lines. Because of their intensities, the impact on gifted children may result in more severe reactions.

One must also keep in mind that parents of gifted children in the throes of an unhappy relationship are likely to be depressed and preoccupied. Just when a child may need the parent(s) the most, the parent(s) may be less available, physically or emotionally. Also, parents of gifted children may be inclined to expect their very bright child to be able to handle emotions and concerns competently, since the child has done so well up to this point in time. Their school work has always been great; and before they have been so mature and so competent so far in life.