Keeping the Family Balance

By Marc A. Caplan, Ph.D.

Family Dynamics

When we talk about family dynamics, we are referring to the interactions between individuals in a group who are united by ties of marriage, blood or adoption. The adults cooperate financially for their mutual support, and the people are committed to one another in intimate, interpersonal relationships.

Most of us who work with families perceive the family as a complex system that works to maintain the status quo or homeostasis. Each family has its own hierarchy and set of rules, which govern the behavior of the members and help maintain homeostasis. The family system can function well and be healthy for its individual members, supporting their growth and accepting their change. Or the family system can be dysfunctional, and the dysfunction, especially in one or more of its members, may serve to disrupt the homeostasis.

We can talk about different types or classifications of families, at least in the general sense. For example, an inflexible family is resistant to and isolated from forces outside the family and does not adapt well to changes within the family (Satir’s “me and you against the world”). In an enmeshed family, each member is too greatly involved in the lives of the other members, to the point that individuals do not have personal autonomy and often feel controlled. This would be in contrast to a disengaged family, in which the members pay little or no attention to each other. Another family system may take the form of pathological triangular relationships, where parents avoid dealing with conflicts with each other by always keeping the children involved in their conversations and activities. They may even, in an unconscious or unknowing way, maintain a child’s pathology to keep the focus off their own problems.

So how does giftedness make a difference to families? Does it make a difference? Are families with gifted children and gifted parents any different than any other family? The answer to this question is both yes and no. In some cases, the answer is no. Your family has to deal with all the normal miseries that any other family deals with. Mobility (the average family in the United States moves once every six years), divorce and remarriage (nearly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce), the glut of information available to anyone (within minutes you have access to information from anywhere in the world about nearly anything going on. This information is available not just to adults but to almost anybody with access to a computer, TV, ipad, or smartphone), and simply the faster pace of living (I’m old enough to remember the predictions that with the advent of computers, washing machines, dishwashers and so forth, we would all be working fewer hours and fewer days. The fact is many of us work many more hours than the previous generation, and the majority of us live in families in which both parents are employed, which is rather different than in previous generations).

Of course, many times giftedness does impact the family dynamic. One or more gifted children, particularly if they are highly or profoundly gifted, greatly impacts family dynamics. What you’ve probably found is that gifted children often react strongly to events in the family that upset the family equilibrium. Gifted children often react strongly to these events with worry, anger, guilt and a variety of other emotions. That’s not to say that other children don’t react. But because of a gifted child’s inclination towards overexcitability in one or more of the areas we’ve noted, their response to the situation often may seem far more extreme and even disruptive to the family as a whole. The emotionally overexcitable child may react with a sense of foreboding and “end of the world” dramatics when told that a change is imminent for the family, such as a move or even a change in schools. All of a sudden these children may feel that they are not going to have any friends; they’re not going to be able to make any friends; and they will be alone for the rest of their lives.

The perfectionist child who shares a room with a sibling may be in constant turmoil because the sibling refuses to organize his or her things to the perfectionist’s standard. By virtue of the fact that these children are intense in a variety of different ways, their intensity impacts the family directly and indirectly in ways that are different than what we see in the average family. When you have, as is often the case, parents who are themselves gifted, then the intensities can be magnified as well as the conflicts. Some studies have suggested that nearly 75 percent of gifted children also state that their parents’ expectations of them are different. That is, in a two-parent family, each parent is perceived as having different expectations of the child or children. It is not uncommon for parents to have differing parenting styles. What I have often seen in families is dissimilarity between parents, such that one expects a great amount and the other becomes the protector. Children in general are inclined to play one parent against the other. However, when you have a gifted child this maneuvering can become quite sophisticated.

Accommodating Differences

Many parents become aware early of the depth and intensity of their children’s knowledge, insights and their various overexcitabilities. In the case of multiple children—with different and varying patterns and degrees of overexcitabilities—the process of discerning and developing an understanding of the range of these differences becomes complex and sometimes disruptive to the family equilibrium. Families often have to make significant changes to accommodate the intellectual and social/emotional needs of the children. In fact, one parent termed this “asynchronous parenting.” This becomes even more apparent when one sibling is less excitable than another sibling.

A gifted child’s intensity affects his relationship with siblings. Naturally, a gifted child often compares him or herself with other children in the household. Power struggles ensue, especially for time and attention from the parents. Frustration with volatile sibling relationships is not unusual. Sibling rivalry can occur in many different ways. Most often it is expressed through angry behavior, which in itself can take many forms (spiteful words, bullying, fighting, criticizing, etc.). In this case, parents should focus primarily on the underlying reasons for the behaviors rather than on the specific behaviors themselves. If you understand the reasons or motivation, this should lead, hopefully, to a calmer approach to dealing with the behavior. A very instructive exercise mentioned by James Webb in A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children is to go home and one day tell your spouse, “Honey, I love you so much, and you are so wonderful and absolutely delightful, that I’ve decided to get another wife (or husband) just like you.” (A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, Webb, Gore, Amend, and DeVries, Great Potential Press, 2007, p. 200.) What do you think your reaction would be? Now, let’s assume the new spouse is equally praised and told how cute he or she is and then you are asked to let this new spouse wear your clothing, play with your toys and use your personal items. How would you feel and respond? Feelings of anger are no less intense for your children. Gifted child