By Marc A. Caplan, Ph.D.
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.
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 children with all their intensities react just as strongly when they feel (either real or imagined) that they are being displaced in the family.
“When a gifted child feels he or she is not getting enough attention, for whatever reason, she can be quite skilled at calling attention to herself.” (A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, Webb, Gore, Amend, and DeVries, Great Potential Press, 2007, p. 201.) This attention can be gained by either positive actions or negative actions. I’m sure all of us can think of any number of examples of how our children have enlisted attention by both positive and negative means.
One must also be careful, in certain family circumstances, that an older gifted child does not gradually take the role of being responsible for the younger children or even becoming the “adult” in charge. While this child may initially accept this role, he or she may later come to resent it and withdraw from the family. Siblings may also resent this dynamic, which is not altogether unusual in the single-parent family.
Unequal abilities among siblings also bring complexities for the parent as well as the siblings. We all communicate at multiple levels, some conscious and some unconscious. Messages about values and abilities can be overt or subtle. A child can feel that they or their talents are valued or undervalued by virtue of these subtle or overt messages. Parents do unconsciously send messages that one talent or even one child may be more valued than another. Even when you have children who are all gifted, they may be quite different in thinking styles and areas of intelligence. It’s easy to fall into the habit of seeing one thinking style as being more valued than another, particularly if your own thinking style tends to match that of one of the children and not the other. Emphasize that each child is valued for his or her own unique strengths, abilities and gifts.
There is a difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian. Parenting styles can be characterized along a dimension from authoritarian to permissive. Authoritative parenting is characterized by responsiveness to children’s needs, explanation and negotiation of discipline and decisions, and appropriate monitoring of children’s behavior. An authoritative parenting style is associated with positive outcomes for children. In contrast, more permissive parenting is characterized by a warm parent-child relationship but low parental monitoring and control. Authoritarian parenting is distinguished by dogmatic, not negotiated decision-making and punitive discipline. Both permissive and authoritarian styles are associated with more negative outcomes for children.
Families often come to me in which children, especially very bright, gifted children, believe that they are to have an equal vote within the group (family). I generally remind the family that families are not democracies; they are benevolent dictatorships. Everybody does not get an equal vote. The parents are in the driver’s seat. Even if the child can produce a better argument than the parent, it is the parent who has the final call. This is not to say that communication is overlooked. It is important to maintain open communication. This also means acknowledgement of feelings. Feelings and emotions are important in any communication. All behavior has communication value; this includes squabbling and fighting.
It is also important to realize that understanding and agreeing are not synonymous or equal. Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean that I don’t understand you or your feelings.
Also keep in mind discipline and punishment are not the same. Gifted children especially are quite sensitive, so usually a small amount of punishment typically goes a long way. Discipline, however, is designed to help a child learn to manage his or her own behaviors. The best thing a parent can do is to help a child achieve self-regulation and responsibility. Effective parenting involves discipline that shows children not only what they have done wrong but also what is appropriate to do the next time. I am also a firm believer that one earns respect from a child by giving respect to the child. Repeated use of harsh words, a harsh tone and harsh punishment conveys a measure of disrespect to the child and does not serve to model the very thing that you expect from the child.
Keeping the Balance
There are five important points to keeping balance in the family.
1. Communicate. Actively listen to your children. Listen to their feelings, wants, needs, dreams and desires.
2. Discipline. Establish discipline by teaching self-regulation and self-determination. Set limits for your children but provide choices within those limits.
3. Encourage Excellence. Encourage striving for excellence rather than perfection. Teach frustration tolerance and stress management. Be a good role model.
4. Value each child. Avoid comparisons and highlight each child’s unique traits, aptitudes and behaviors.
5. Take care of yourself. Work with your spouse or other parents to support one another. Give time to yourself to renew, replenish and recreate.