By James T. Webb.
When should one seek counseling? Is it worth it? How do I find a counselor/therapist? Such questions often are asked by parents of gifted and talented children. Here are some helpful tips.
Preventive guidance is the best policy, and the most helpful counseling often comes through talking with other parents of gifted children. Parents worry whether their child’s experiences are normal, whether they, as parents, are providing adequate stimulation, about how to react to the exhausting intensity which their child shows, about how to avoid the power struggles, and so on. Gifted children often do not fit the developmental norms published in the parenting handbooks; they tend to reach developmental stages earlier and more intensely than other children.
Parenting a gifted child can be a very lonely experience unless one seeks out other parents. Sometimes this can be done informally just by meeting other parents of gifted children in your school district or neighborhood. Sometimes it can be done via the Internet through TAGFAM or other similar online discussion groups. Perhaps the most helpful are the SENG-Model support groups where parents share common experiences as well as “parenting recipes” under the guidance of trained facilitators. Information about how to set up such groups can be found in Gifted Parent Groups: The SENG Model (Webb & DeVries, 1993).
Preventive guidance also comes from books written specifically about the social and emotional needs of gifted children. There are several excellent resources to guide parents of gifted children, such as Judy Halsted’s, Some of My Best Friends Are Books (1994). Ask other parents, check with your librarian or bookstore, or search the Internet or Amazon.com®.
Even with these resources, parenting gifted children often is a challenge, and emotions and interpersonal interactions are not only intense but also are continually changing. When is professional assessment and guidance needed? If a problem, such as anxiety, sadness, depression, or poor interpersonal relations continues for longer than a few weeks, it would be worthwhile to consider professional consultation. Even if the problems turn out to be minor ones, you will at least have received reassurance and some guidance.
Some families have decided to have a family psychologist in the same way that they have a family physician-someone they can go to regularly for checkups or for assistance if things seem not to be going well. I have often recommended this, particularly to parents of highly or profoundly gifted children, not only because their intensity and sensitivity are so much greater than even that of other gifted children, but also because these children tend to be more asynchronous in their development, and therefore even more of a puzzlement to those around them.
Some parents are concerned about the cost. A thorough professional may take several hours over two or three appointments to get to know your child and to understand your child’s environment. The cost, perhaps $400 to $900, may seem high. However consider what you would pay for a thorough dental examination with x-rays, or to have your child’s teeth straightened. Most parents say that a psychological consultation, including testing, is very helpful not only because of specific recommendations they receive, but also because the assessment results provide a yardstick with which to gauge the severity of the problems and to assess what is reasonable to expect of the child. Certainly, many sources, including the 1995 Consumer Reports study, have confirmed the effectiveness of counseling.
Regrettably, it likely will be difficult to find a counselor or therapist who is knowledgeable about gifted and talented children. Few psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers or counselors have received training in the social and emotional needs of gifted and talented children. They, like many others, often believe that giftedness is only an asset, and that high ability seldom is associated with problems.
So how do you find a psychologist or counselor? I would suggest that you shop around. Ask other parents of gifted children for their recommendations or if they know counselors who have been helpful to them. Most often these other parents are quite happy to share their information and experiences, and many of them will have sought professional help somewhere along the way. As a colleague of mine once said, “There are two kinds of people. Those with problems, and those you don’t know well enough yet to know what their problems are.”
Perhaps you aren’t able to locate parents who can recommend a qualified professional. If you can find a well-trained counselor or psychologist who is open to learning about gifted children, that usually is sufficient. Ask the counselor or therapist about his or her experience and background with gifted children and their families. Then, ascertain if the counselor or therapist is open to learning about this area by consulting with colleagues or reading a few publications. You might mention continuing education programs for psychologists, like those that SENG will offer, about the social and emotional needs of gifted children and their families.
You-the parents-may have to educate the professional about the characteristics and needs of gifted children, and you may even have to supply the professional with reprints of articles or suggest books to read. For example, you may point out to the psychologist or psychiatrist that the book, Guiding The Gifted Child (Webb, Meckstroth & Tolan, 1982), was recognized by the American Psychological Association Foundation, or give the counselor copies of several ERIC Digest articles on the social and emotional needs of gifted children or copies of downloads from websites such as www.SENGifted.org or www.hoagiesgifted.org.
Once you find a professional, enter counseling on a trial basis to see if the counselor’s approach and style fit with your needs. Sometimes a very competent psychologist may have a personal style that simply doesn’t fit with yours. If you are uncomfortable with the initial findings and recommendations, consider getting a second opinion. Second opinions have been accepted for a long time in medicine, and they are increasingly accepted in psychology and education.