By Gail Post, Ph.D.
Most gifted children quickly realize that they differ from their peers. They know that they grasp information at a faster rate. They crave intensity, depth, and intellectual challenge. And they resign themselves to never quite fitting the norm. Even if
they are not openly rejected or bullied, many still feel socially isolated. Gifted children
frequently develop a finely tuned radar for the tempo and feel of the social world around them. Their minds work overtime as they size up each situation, decide how to act, and debate whether to display or hide their true nature.
The burdens of their outlier status and never quite feeling they belong take their toll.
Even though the gifted are no more susceptible to mental illness than anyone else, some gifted children and teens struggle with overthinking, worry, or cautious alertness. Their nervous system seems wired for heightened reactivity. For some, obsessive thinking transitions into anxiety. This tendency may develop despite the presence of a loving, supportive family, the absence of past trauma, or a family history devoid of anxiety or depression. It just goes with the giftedness territory. Gifted children often maintain high standards for themselves. Although sometimes fueled by expectations from family or teachers, it more frequently stems from an awareness of their own capabilities. Even those who underachieve or hide their talents from others are quite aware of their potential and what they might achieve with some effort. They recognize their advantages in learning and feel conflicted about how to manage expectations. Many assume academics should come easily, expect to always excel, and feel shame if they falter or receive a low grade. Some give up entirely after a failure experience and refuse to exert further effort. Others may become anxious, driven, and perfectionistic, focusing on success above all else. Achievement is seen as essential to offset any potential feelings of shame. Recognizing the Shame Cycle While those rare few may shrug it off, most gifted children will ponder their predicament. The self-consciousness that accompanies giftedness is compounded by peer pressure, social media input, adolescent hormones, and their own high expectations. And for many, overthinking and anxiety transition into feelings of shame. Gifted children and teens harshly judge any perceived mistake and feel ashamed when they face an academic struggle or cannot effortlessly engage with others. They mull over past conversations, dissect minute details, and berate themselves for any misstep. They worry that they will be exposed as "ungifted" - impostors who cannot effortlessly excel and are not smart after all. Distorted thinking fuels anxiety and evokes feelings of shame, which pervades their sense of self. Shame stems from a belief that one is deeply flawed and that the flaw will be exposed to others. Brene Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." Shame differs from guilt, which typically involves regret over past behaviors. Shame both results from and fuels overthinking and anxiety. Gifted children and teens caught in this vicious cycle remain entrenched in a seemingly endless battle against themselves. Many gifted children caught in the anxiety and shame cycle will block your efforts to challenge their beliefs. Words of reason and logic fall on deaf ears. Attempts to highlight their strengths (you are more mature than most of those kids, anyway) or put their distress into perspective (years from now, prom won't matter) or diffuse their perfectionistic drive (we love you no matter what your get on the exam) demonstrate your love and support, and may sink in eventually. However, your child may respond with a typical, "You just don't get it!" The emotions they are experiencing in the moment are powerful and intense; you cannot talk them out of their feelings. How can you help? Several approaches may ease the sting of anxiety and shame and alleviate some of the burden. Some basic tips include the following: 1. First, create a shame-free environment at home, where differences are accepted, and emotions are never mocked or criticized. Asking your child to "toughen up" or "shake it off" will only increase their anxiety. Instead, help them approach any signs of anxiety or heightened sensitivity by treating their emotions as understandable reactions that can be managed - not as something shameful.
2. Show respect for your child’s feelings. Acknowledge your child's pain at first, rather than immediately attempting to resolve the situation. Failure experiences, frustrations, and disappointments sting; even when the situation seems minor to us, it can be a big deal for your child. Let them know you understand their suffering. This does not imply that you are dwelling on the negative or enabling any anxiety or avoidance. Let your child know that you understand – and will be available to help them move through and past their distress.
3. Work with your child to identify specific skills and strategies that will help them thrive. Guide them to pinpoint the thoughts, feelings, and automatic reactions that prevent a "resilient response" to setbacks. Some examples include highly self-critical thoughts, worrying and "catastrophizing" about the future, or responding to situations either impulsively or with little flexibility. Identifying problematic thoughts and behaviors provides a roadmap for what needs to change and helps them appreciate how much their thoughts influence their feelings. Helping them brainstorm alternate counter-statements that challenge their negative thoughts provides a concrete tool for overcoming overthinking and shame-based reactions.
4. Help your child build a repertoire of calming techniques. Calming words or phrases can provide comfort during times of stress. Help them devise a calming mantra or phrase they can enlist under stressful conditions. Envisioning a relaxing place, such as the beach or the woods, also can be centering. Practice mindfulness along with your child to encourage focusing on the present rather than worrying about the past or predicting the future. Calming techniques can include a range of deep breathing, mindfulness, and deep muscle relaxation exercises, and many apps are available for guidance. Calming music or even using a comfort object (that old blanky in the back of the closet) also can alleviate stress. Lessons in self-compassion can help them appreciate and accept who they are, rather than harboring shame for not fitting the norm.
5. Encourage use of techniques that improve mastery of their anxiety. Gifted children who are highly sensitive may experience strong physiological reactions when anxious. Rather than viewing sensations of heightened arousal as threatening, encourage them to reframe how they label those sensations, and view them as adrenaline that can enhance their performance. Imaginal rehearsal, where your child pictures successful mastery of an anxiety-provoking task, can ease the jitters ahead of time. This might include imagining the steps involved for a successful class presentation, asking a friend for a favor, or sitting calmly through an exam. Finally, expressive outlets, such as art, dance, writing, and physical exercise, as well as developing appropriate assertiveness skills, will help defray and alleviate the build-up of stress.
6. Plan ahead for anxiety-triggering situations, such as exams or potentially stressful social gatherings. Help your child learn to identify those thoughts, expectations, and fears that amplify their anxiety. Encourage them to develop a plan or “toolbox” of calming, comforting, and distracting techniques, such as using a calming mantra or deep breathing before an exam, and learning to challenge negative assumptions and expectations. Reframing physiological arousal, as mentioned above, and modifying expectations also can help. Additional tips for taming test anxiety can be found here. 7. When emotions run high and fuel anxiety, encourage your child to research the facts. Suggest taking on the role of a junior scientist, journalist, or attorney, and seek out the data. For example, many overthinking traps, such as all-or-nothing thinking, assuming we know how another person feels, and imagining the worst possible outcome are common anxiety triggers. Encourage your child to uncover the truth rather than adhere to unproven assumptions that escalate fear.
8. Keep in mind that your child's independence, confidence, and self-sufficiency are the ultimate goals. Gifted children learn best and build confidence when they can problem-solve and face difficult situations on their own. Yet, encouraging your child's independence is not a "hands-off" policy; in fact, it involves actively supporting them to face challenging situations and create expectations for success – and refusing to "rescue" or shield them from developmentally appropriate responsibilities. You can encourage your child to take academic risks and appreciate that some achievements are even more gratifying when they initially seemed out of reach. Your attuned awareness and acceptance of your child's strengths, struggles, and underlying fears will help them feel understood.
9. Be the person you want your child to be. Children model our actions more than our words. Show your child that you can laugh at your mistakes, bounce back from failure, and change directions when necessary. Demonstrate how you challenge yourself to overcome your own fears, whether they involve public speaking, wearing that daring bikini, or zip-lining. Show compassion for others, manage your own feelings of envy and longing, and challenge any lingering biases. Difficult life experiences provide an opportunity where we can role model how to weather missteps and failure, learn from these setbacks, and consider how we might behave differently in the future. Our children see that we are not crushed by failure, even if we feel frustrated or disappointed. In other words, they witness our resilience. The strategies listed above take practice. Some may be useful for your child and family situation; others may not. Experiment with different ideas to find an approach that will have an impact. Your child might benefit from the additional support of a licensed mental health professional, especially if you notice signs of clinical depression or disabling anxiety, such as hopelessness, sleep and appetite disturbances, self-harm, excessive mood swings, panic attacks, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, a sudden drop in grades or a change in behavior. Even if your child is not highly anxious, a skilled therapist can tailor the above listed techniques to what your child needs, and also guide you in your efforts to support your child. Anxiety and shame do not need to diminish your child's love of life. No child should have to suffer.
Gail Post, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, parenting coach, workshop leader, and writer. In clinical practice for over 35 years, she provides psychotherapy in the Philadelphia area with a focus on the needs of the intellectually and musically gifted; consultation with educators and psychotherapists; and parent coaching/consultation throughout the U.S. and Canada. Dr. Post served as co-chair of a gifted parents advocacy group and continues to advocate through workshops with schools and parenting groups. Her writing related to giftedness includes online articles, several book chapters, an upcoming book about the gifted parenting experience, and a long-standing blog, Gifted Challenges. You can follow her at www.giftedchallenges.com, https://www.facebook.com/GiftedChallenges/, and https://twitter.com/giftedchlnges, or find out more at https://www.gailpost.com.