Life with a Challenging Child: What to do when your gifted but difficult child is driving you crazy

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

By Barbara Probst.

Note: This article was first published in Issue 10 of the Twice Exceptional Newsletter (April 2005), It has since been reprinted in SPELD News (Specific Learning Disabilities Quarterly, Volume 38 No. 2, May 2006) and Mindscape (Queensland Association for Gifted and Talented Children, Inc., Volume 26 No. 1, January 2006). For additional information, see

Parents who come to me for consultation and counseling are usually at the end of their rope. They are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, disgusted and distressed at the way their child’s issues and needs have taken over their lives. Schedules, decisions and daily routines all seem to revolve around a difficult child who – despite every accommodation and intervention – isn’t getting any easier to live with.

These are caring, committed parents. They’ve taken their child for every kind of evaluation and therapy but nothing seems to pinpoint the source of the problem or how to make it better. They’ve embarked on a time-consuming, expensive search for an explanation – usually in the form of a label or set of labels –in the hope that it will lead to an effective treatment, a way to fix or at least improve the situation. They’ve followed the “medical model:” diagnose, treat and eventually cure.

Although diagnosis has become more refined – we recognize that there may be a complex interaction of elements, and we can discriminate better between conditions that initially appear the same – diagnosis is not necessarily what’s needed. Many children do things that are odd or excessive, but not all of these things indicate a disorder to be repaired or a deficit to be replenished. The tendency nowadays is to pathologize children, to view any difference or difficulty as a symptom rather than a personal trait. This “pathological lens” isn’t fair to these children; what’s more, it doesn’t help parents deal with them effectively.

A more useful approach is to look at the whole child, at his unique “spreadsheet” of assets and difficulties, as Mel Levine recommends. Each of these traits is something specific – perfect pitch, inflexibility, poor time management, a knack for language, impulsivity, artistic flair, inability to read social cues, and so on. While some of these traits may appear on symptom lists for certain disabilities, the whole child is more than the sum of his parts. And for a child to mature and become integrated, nurturing his assets is at least as important as addressing his weaknesses. In fact, a youngster’s difficulties or quirks may turn out to be his most important strengths. In many cases “problems” occur because a specific trait such as excitability or tenacity, manifesting at the wrong time or to the wrong degree, has gotten cut off from its appropriate context and thus appears as something negative.

Many of the problem behaviors in a gifted child are actually due to exceptional sensitivity rather than to willful disobedience or protest at not getting his way. This may be sensory sensitivity to factors such as noise or texture or the number of people in the room (sensory integration issues), or emotional sensitivity to perceptions of unfairness, discrepancy or insincerity. Gifted children can be acutely aware of when others are being false – when there is a difference between a person’s words and his intonations or body language. The heightened awareness of contradiction (when someone breaks a promise, does something that seems unjust, contradicts an earlier statement, changes a plan or says something he doesn’t really mean) can be unbearable to these children. This can result in behaviors that may look oppositional or rude – refusing to listen, running away, tuning out, becoming angry and defiant, and so on – but are actually coming from the child’s acute sensitivity and inability to tolerate contradictory impressions.

This can also be intellectual sensitivity, when a gifted child who is a divergent, creative thinker becomes so overwhelmed with all the aspects, side-bars, possibilities and implications of a subject that he “overloads.” Conversely, the gifted child who is a deep, intense thinker may become so hyper-focused that he cannot attend to anything he considers extraneous and may become irritable or even explosive if adults try to distract his attention. In all these instances, interventions based on trying to motivate the child to change his behavior (all forms of reward and punishment) fail miserably because the child’s disintegrated state has nothing to do with motivation.

What intervention does succeed? In my own work with families, I take a practical approach based on three principles:

1. It’s the parent who has to do most of the work, not the child.

2. Our first task is to find specific points where we can be helpful.

3. Our second task is to give children the chance to do it right.

Learning takes place when we do something right, not when others react to us for doing it wrong. It makes no sense to expect a child to have the inner resources to do all or most of the changing. We adults have more capacity to self-reflect and struggle with our habits than children do; we can reason with ourselves, foresee outcomes, engage our minds in the struggle with emotional habits. It’s unrealistic to expect our children to do this first, no matter how many stickers or stars we offer. And if we change, our children will follow.

What kind of change is n