I recently re-read Anne Frank’s diary. If you haven’t read The Diary of a Young Girl through adult eyes, I’d recommend it. I took away a completely different understanding of her circumstances, her life, her youth than when I read it as a teen. And, as an adult who now grasps the complexities of giftedness in a way that I didn’t as a teen, it was impossible not to see Anne’s own giftedness, both in her words and in her own complexity of thought, altruism, emotional intensity, psychomotor intensity, precociousness, and so many other ways.
It most definitely goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway just to be completely clear, the teens I work with today are in no way under the same intensity of oppression and global threat as Anne, her family, and so many millions of people were in the 1930’s and 40’s. And yet, it was impossible not to hear the voices of “my” teens in the words and internal experiences of Anne.
“No one understands me!” This phrase is part of me, and as unlikely as it
may seem, there’s a kernel of truth in it. Sometimes I’m so deeply buried
under self-reproaches that I long for a word of comfort to help me dig myself
out again. If only I had someone who took my feelings seriously”
(location 4005 of kindle version)
Sure, some people would write this off as the typical teen anthem, and I suppose some of her sentiment could be attributed to the developmental tasks of adolescence. But her words also show her reflection that it isn’t just the typical teen angst. I cannot count the number of times I heard very similar words issuing forth from gifted and 2e teens in my office. And these are the words that can stem from and spark existential depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and a host of other mental health concerns.
Our initial instinct may be to pacify. “Oh, that just can’t be true. People understand you. I was young once, too. What about Taylor? She seems to get you? You just haven’t found your people yet.” And while all these things just might be true, they simply aren’t helpful. In fact, by saying any of these things, we are simply confirming to the adolescent mind that they were right. “See – no one understands you, this idiot thinks Taylor is more than just a volleyball friend.”
So, I challenge you to bite your tongue. Pacify your pacifications. And just walk into the trenches with them. Commiserate. Join them. Express how sad that must be to feel misunderstood and lonely. Tell them that it’s normal for outliers to feel that no one gets them, because, frankly, very few people do.
We’re talking about, at most, 5% of the population who could fully understand a gifted teen. Make that a profoundly gifted teen and that percentage shrinks exponentially. Make that a profoundly gifted teen with another exceptionality who’s experienced trauma and is living in an environment of food insecurity and threat of homelessness, and there may be one other person on the planet who is wired similarly. And, our kids need to be told that. They need to be told that it will be more difficult for them to find the people who understand them or take their intense emotions seriously. Knowing that the interpersonal struggle is expected relieves them of the internal assumption that they are the problem.
So, no pacifying. Explain that, in reality, very few people will understand them. And, let them know while you don’t understand all about their experience, you care about them and will listen continuously with without judgment for a lifetime in order to understand them better. It’s amazing what a little active listening can do. Simply reflecting back the words a teen said, providing them validation, truly focusing on them, helps them feel more understood. And, in truth, it actually does help you understand them better.
A couple of years ago, after a day of poor listening and procrastinating and moaning and groaning, I sat my 3 gifted kids down on the couch, and in mom-of-the-year/drill sergeant style I stared them down and said:
“From now on you have one response when I ask you to do something. You say ‘Yes, mom!’”
I say, “Go clean your room.” You say, ‘Yes, mom!’
I say, Wash up for dinner.” You say, ‘Yes, mom!”
And then I had them practice.
If you have gifted kids, not-so-gifted-kids, or been around a kid once in your life, you know how well this little military conversation worked. Operation-Listen-on-the-First-Time was a complete and utter failure. And, in truth it would be a failure with any child (they are their own little people with their own wants, needs, and thoughts, after all), but this approach absolutely would never work with gifted children, unless they lived in an environment of enormous fear and awful consequences. I’m going to assume that none of us are aiming to create that type of environment.
Gifted kids perceive and think about the world in unique, complex ways. They are designed to question, probe, understand, explore, and think outside of the box. They want to know the reasons why something works the way it works, and and wonder if there are other ways to make it work. They are curious, inquisitive problem solvers.
And we love this about them.
Except when it interferes with our own plans.
In a classroom with 22 kids, we don’t have time to get through the material and wander down the rabbit trails of wonder. When we’re just trying to cook dinner after a long day at work, we’re in no mood for the Wisconsin Inquisition. And, when we’re tired and needing our kids to get ready for bed, we just want them to say, “Yes, mom” and head off to do it.
And, yes, there are times when our kids just need to listen. If they are running out into the street with a car coming, they need to just stop when we tell them to, without question or debate.
But, most of the time, we need to be okay with the fact that our little fast-minded, curious kids are going to negotiate, to argue, to question, everything (yes everything) that we say. They aren’t trying to be disobedient. They are trying to understand. They are trying to find their own motivation and reasons for performing the requested action. They need to understand, and we need to be understanding of that.
The biggest shift in the agreeability of my children, and decrease in conflict was when I stopped expecting them to change their nature and personalities and started to change my mindset and parenting style.
I’ve learned to slow down. Breathe. Stay calm (most of the time). There are very few things that are actually as urgent as they feel.
I’ve learned to prioritize. Again, there are very few things that are actually as urgent as they feel. Reminding myself of my priorities keeps me and my expectations in check. My priorities? To nurture emotional, physical, and relational safety, and wellness. To guide my children to be content, effective, compassionate adults. To nurture their unique personalities and to be proud of their specific wiring, quirks, and to know themselves. When I start to feel annoyed by the negotiating 6 year old, I remind myself of my long-term goal.
I’ve learned to engage with the questions, provide my responses, be flexible when able, and stand firm when necessary.
I’ve learned to be as proactive as possible and provide the reasoning ahead of time. Rather than wait til we’re in the grocery store and arguing over whether or not they can pay me back and buy some candy, I try to set the clear expectations. “Hey guys. We’re going to the store. We are only purchasing crackers and gatorade. We will not be looking at toys or the candy aisle because we only have 15 minutes to get to Destination Imagination and I have limited cash on me.” This also is the case for those times when they absolutely need to listen. Ahead of time, when all is calm, we talk about the cue word for when they simply need to listen immediately. I promise them I’ll only use the cue word when it’s an actual safety issue, and will explain after the fact, but when they hear me use it, they simply need to do what I say.
I’ve learned to draw the line when the negotiating lingers on too long. When we find ourselves in a loop of excuses, arguments, pleas. When I’ve already listened to them, provided my rationale, decided it’s a time to stand firm. When they still ask and try to negotiate anyway, I respond with a simple, “Asked and Answered.” “But mom! I know you said dinner is in 15 minutes, but I’m hungry now. Can I please have a cookie or two?” “Asked and answered.” “But, I’m really hungry!” “Asked and answered.” “But, mom! I’ve expended all my glucose and now I have no energy and will be lazy and unproductive. I can feel my body moving through ketosis and entering autophagy. My metabolism is slowing and my immune system is weakening. Do you want me to be lethargic, weak, and sick?!” “Asked and answered.”
I’ve learned to stop assuming my children “won’t” do something, and assume they “can’t.” I assume best intent.
And so, as we enter a new year, I encourage you to try a new mindset and adapting your parenting style. Why?
Asked and answered. 😊
Heather Boorman, MSW, LCSW
Past WATG Board Member
Therapist with Boorman Counseling, LLC
I’ll admit I’m biased. Being a mental health therapist gives me a different perspective than many and I’ll probably always prioritize psychological and relational wellness over other things, like earning potential or grades.
However, I’m fairly certain that even if I pursued my childhood vocational ideations of being a pediatrician, or a teacher, or a full-time mom of 12 kids, or the first female quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, I would still be frustrated by the typical discourse about gifted kids. I don’t know why the word gifted, or advanced learner, or intelligent, automatically triggers people to start talking about education as if our gifted kids can be distilled down to these amazing brains that just need to be filled and challenged correctly, or as if their other needs will just automatically be met if they’re educational needs are, or as if they aren’t neurologically wired differently than other kids and therefore may also have different social, emotional, psychological, and physical needs than other kids.
It’s always been odd to me that education is so front and center when talking about gifted kids. I mean, when we talk about the wellness of neurotypical children we rarely fixate on school. Sure, education might come up in the conversation, but rarely is it the first focus, nor the sole focus. And yet, somehow, with some rare exceptions, our country has delegated the conversation about giftedness within the walls of the education system.
There was an article posted at Psychology Today in January 2018, “Ten Tips for Parents of a Smart Child” by Marty Nemko. I read it hopefully. I thought that just maybe it would include information about the intense way these kids live, the intense ways they perceive and experience the world, the intense and exhausting journey it is as parents of these children. Sigh. Most of the article centered on strategies to intellectually engage your child. Sure, the last tip said we should remember “Your child is a human being, not just a brain”, but that seemed like a throw away post-script after the previous nine tips reinforced feeding the brains of our kids with smart caretakers, smart friends, and google.
Yes – finding the appropriate educational fit for our gifted kids is important. Yes, we need to allow our kids with amazing brains amazing opportunities to challenge them and grow them and think the big thoughts and challenge the norms. And, yes, if our intellectually intense children aren’t given the opportunities to embrace and enhance their intellect, they will not be able to be holistically well. But that is simply one piece of our kids.
Our kids are often emotionally intense, curious, creative, empathic, socially advanced or socially immature, hilarious, thoughtful, dramatic, argumentative (in all the best and not-so-best ways), mature, silly, wiggly, perfectionistic, justice-oriented, fair-minded, fascinating little creatures. They are as diverse as any other group of people. They have emotions. They have physical needs. They have social needs. They have family dynamics and environmental dynamics and all the things that every other child has, except they can be exponentially more intense. And it is this intensity that makes it exponentially more important to focus on the whole gifted child and not limit them to their brains.
What is the point of this little rant, other than to allow my own catharsis? It is to keep us intentional -- Intentional about seeing the whole of our gifted children.
Educators need to be intentional to include socio-emotional learning into their daily work with these kids. In all of my biased honesty, our gifted kids probably need to be taught emotion regulation skills and social skills and wellness skills more than they need to be taught the academic stuff they’re gifted in. If our gifted kids can feel well and regulated, the academic pieces fall into place because their curious minds will drive them to get them filled. I know – what about the underachievers? Truth is, they probably need a little work on the socio-emotional skills to help them find wellness and learn advocacy and assertiveness skills and they’re achievement will fall into place, too.
Health professionals need to be intentional to learn and understand each gifted child’s unique personality and makeup. Those of us who know about the particular psycho-social traits of gifted kids need to intentionally teach our medical and mental health colleagues.
Parents need to be intentional to help teach their children the emotion regulation skills. Frankly, if the algebra doesn’t get done, but my child learns how to tolerate frustration, I call that a win. Remember that we are tasked with guiding these kids into adulthood. Our job is to provide the skills to be in relationship, to pursue interests, to be well. Let’s be intentional about prioritizing this wellness and character development over physics. Because, again, I all but guarantee that a gifted child who feels holistically well will get her intellectual needs met, too.
Check out SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of Gifted) for more resources to help guide your whole child into wellness.
Join us at WATG 2018 as there are many sessions available that do focus on more than learning. I’d love to meet you at the Pre-Conference workshop that I’m offering specifically for parents.
And let’s all commit to intentionally seeing our gifted kids beyond the academics.
Just 2 days ago, the majority of our family packed ourselves in the van and trekked 3 hours into the middle of the state to reunite with our 13-year-old. He had been at S.O.A.R. Camp, THE camp in WI offering typical camp activities and gifted enrichment activities all in one week. And, by the way, founded and directed by WATG President, herself, Cathy Schmit.
After seeing my son (and giving him a hug, but not too big of a hug because he is 13 and way too cool for big mom hugs in public, after all) and having the worried mom part of me reassured that he had fun, made friends, and felt like he fit in, I sat back and basked in the joy of being in the midst of a group of gifted kids.
Yes, there are lots of struggles in parenting or teaching these brilliant, developing minds. Yes, the emotions and insistence on precision and perfectionism and constant need for debate can be crazy-making, but when we wade through that stuff, and just sit and listen, these kids of ours are pretty amazing. It’s easy to get caught up in the struggles and miss the amazing.
For example, my son totally geeked out as he talked about the afternoons they spent in an 1800s version of mock trial in which they debated child labor and women’s suffrage. How cool is it that young teens eagerly tackle social justice topics and love to learn the skills of argumentation.
And how about the kid I heard declare, “I’ve determined there’s an algorithm for effective conversations.”
Or meeting the kid who developed his own language and took the time to teach his cabin. And hearing the boys in his cabin praise him and see the brilliance in the way his mind works. Oh, and he had his own business cards. How awesome is that?!
Or witnessing the products of unleashed creativity in skits, song, and dance.
And the humor! This is one of my favorite things about specializing as a therapist who works with gifted/2e kids, teens, and adults. I’m guaranteed to laugh. Each and every session these kids demonstrate such wit that it’s impossible not to laugh and appreciate it.
And even those gifted “things” that can drive me crazy are also so endearing when I have the mindset to simply soak it in and appreciate it. Like the kid at the picnic table who corrected a statement I made and backed it up with citations of the studies he’d read to prove me wrong. Love it!
Or the sweet ways in which many of these kids fit the stereotypes . . . the races to solve rubiks cubes, the chess tournaments, the geeking out for Harry Potter night, the kid who felt the injustice of it being a Harry Potter night and not a Lord of the Rings night. And the sweet ways in which many of these same kids shattered the stereotypes with their outgoing, extroverted natures, their physical skills, their typical kid silliness.
It's easy to get caught up in the extra effort it takes to guide these amazing kids. It’s easy to feel the overwhelm and pressure as we guide them. It’s easy to want to give the “gift” of giftedness back to whomever gave it to these kids in the first place. But, when we take the time to just sit and bask in the presence of these kids, it’s also easy to feel the joy.
When we think of gifted individuals, we rarely think of “slow”. They have fast thoughts, fast learning, fast emotional reactions. Nor do we think of “calm”. They have moving bodies, moving mouths, moving excited energy. And all this fast energy and movement can be great. It can be life-giving and innovative. It can also be overwhelming and paralyzing.
My oldest was about 4 when he started trying to share the metacognitive inner workings of his brain with us. He compared his brain to a castle. “And mom,” he said, “there’s an army of a bazillion thoughts always trying to push their way into my castle. And I don’t have any guards out there to choose which ones get to come in, so they’re all just climbing all over it’s a mess. I need a guard . . . (insert thoughtful face) . . . maybe two.”
It’s shown up with different metaphors and different words, but time and time again I have heard the gifted kids and teens I work with (and more than a few adults, too!) asking for the same thing. They need a guard.
It can be exhausting to have five million and three thoughts racing through your mind all at the same time. It can be shame-inducing to have intense emotions catapult you into behaviors you don’t want to do before you even know you’re doing them. It can be anxiety producing to have energy rush through your body and have no outlet. We need guards.
And so, as my end of the traditional school year present . . . I give to you . . . 2 guards.
Guard 1 hales from Deep Within and is as old as the beginning of life. She’s that one neighbor who is ALWAYS hanging around. She can be quite shallow, which gets your stress level up, because who wants to make shallow conversation all the time, really?! But, she can also be deep and full of life and peace. Meet . . . . Your Breath!
Your Breath is the first level of defense. She’s on call 24 hours a day and all you need to do is intentionally help her be deep and she’ll slow that pesky, approaching army down in its tracks. You’ll know when she’s deep and at her protective post when you feel your belly rise as she moves in and fall as she moves out. Your Breath creates enough space and slows the thought army down enough that your brain can decide which one thought to focus on.
Which brings us to Guard 2! Guard 2 is known throughout the world. Never late or early, Guard 2 is always right on time. He doesn’t do much, but he’s always there. Meet . . . . . Mind Ful!
Mind Ful stands side by side with Your Breath. He helps to focus attention on what’s happening right now, right in front of the castle. Because he doesn’t judge it, he simply notices, it allows time for the brain to reflect on how it wants to respond to the thoughts and which of the thoughts to focus on first.
Truth be told, the people inside the castle have a hard time utilizing these 2 guards. It’s easy to get panicked or for gifted brains to want to pay attention to all the things all the time. So, it takes practice. Practice taking those deep breaths. Practice paying attention to this very moment in time. Daily practice.
Summer is a great opportunity to practice slowing things down. Use an app like Calm or Stop, Breathe, Think. Sit outside and simply notice what your senses are taking in for a moment. Take 3 deep breaths every time you reach the end of the chapter in your beach read.
Employing Your Breath and Mind Ful will most definitely not come naturally to most gifted brains. But, the more they are used, the stronger they become, the more skilled they are, and the less frequently the castle will be overrun by the thought brigade.
It’s official. I am the parent of a teenager. Correction: I am the parent of a gifted teenager, which means all the basic teen stuff times three hundred and fifty-two.
Many of us think about parenting a teenager (particularly an intense teenager) and we instinctually groan, fill with dread, or cower in the corner. In fairness, I’m only 1 week into parenting a teenager, so my story might be different if you were to talk to me in 2 years, but right now, I can honestly say I am super excited for my son’s teen years.
I think teens get a bad rap. Yes, they have hormones coursing through their bodies that can make them act a little erratic from time to time. Yes, their priorities start shifting and they have the potential to make decisions with some pretty big consequences. Yes, their eyes roll and their snark takes on a new level of intensity. But, when we understand them and see the delights of this stage, all of those things are tolerable at worst and maybe even a little endearing from time to time.
Teens have an important developmental job. They are learning to think for themselves and to separate from the adults in their lives to map out their own journeys. The teen years allow our kids to come into their own and play with their identity. This can be painful and cause chafing from time to time, but ultimately, if we can be mindful of their ultimate job, we can better embrace and support their journeys.
Luckily, our gifted kids often give us ample experience parenting teen-like behavior before they even come close to the teen years. The negotiating and arguing and thinking for themselves that parents of typical kids experience during teen-dom often starts when our gifted kids are 2. Or 1. Or at least by 5. This makes the teen years a bit easier because we’ve been practiced in the art of negotiating and explaining our rationale. Many of our gifted kids force us to listen to their voices from a very young age, so by the time they are teens, we know how to validate them in ways that other parents may not.
Also, our gifted kids tend to be more self-reflective than more typically wired kids. This can work to our advantage. They may have a keener awareness of their strength and limitations, their desires and goals. Our job is to listen, provide guidance from the sidelines and when asked, provide opportunities for them to expand and grow or focus on their own path and interests.
Teen years go smoother when we fully accept our kids and their important developmental job as it is.
They suddenly declare themselves pescatarian? Support them in that. You don’t need to alter your own diet if you don’t want to, but you can help them learn recipes, meal planning, and cooking to enhance their chosen lifestyle.
They spend most of their time in their room? Ok. Let them. Many of our gifted kids are introverted and their need for alone time and space may magnify during the teen years. If you provide a loving and accepting environment, they will reappear in the living room at some point. On their time.
They want to quit band, dress all in black, and dye their hair? Why not? Are these really battles worth fighting? Allowing our teens to experiment with different identities while they still live among our walls ensures they have a soft crash pad if it all falls apart.
Model effective problem solving and executive skill development with them. Help them lay out the advantages and possible consequences of a particular choice and then (barring genuine life or death safety concerns), let them decide their next step. Let them fail. Tolerate your own emotions as you watch them face the consequences of their choices. Let them surprise you in their successes. Greet them with compassion through it all.
Dig into the deep existential questions they voice and ponder. Ask them the deep existential questions. High school can be rough for these kids because they tend to be concerned about more global issues than who is dating whom and what Joe said at the party last week. Give them space to explore those questions and help them find other intellectual peers, of any age, to explore those questions with and dad just isn’t the person they want to do that with anymore.
Embrace their sense of peers. If they’d prefer to hang out with people in the mid-twenties who are also into the visual arts. Let them. A big chunk of identity forms in relationship to and with others. Teens can be peer focused, it’s their job, but help your gifted teen broaden the understanding of peer and hook into the places that will most likely provide them those intellectual peers.
Encourage respectful discourse and self-advocacy. Teach your teens the skills to voice their opinions and needs to ways that they will actually be heard and draw people into conversation rather than push people away.
Use this time to model pursuit of your own dreams, goals, social justice. The teen years can be a great time to re-engage with your own passions or try on new passions. Model to your teens what proper self-care and self-expression looks like.
And, above all, choose your mindset. Yes, the eye rolls can be annoying, or they can be loved. Some days my husband and I have an internal contest to see who can get the most eye rolls in a day. (I won, by the way. I’m masterfully skilled at being the embarrassing mom. Just use teen slang and you’ll win at the eye roll game, too!). Approach your teen and this stage of your life with lightness, love, compassion, and understanding. Allow yourself to be excited to watch who they are becoming. It really is a pretty exciting time.
There we were. Me and my son, whom I call Chimp . . . . and the ski school director. I understand why she came over. With skis strewn, sobs a wailin’, legs sprawled, and gloves littering the bottom of the bunny hill, to the uninformed eye it must have looked like a serious injury. To the trained eye, this was just a young gifted child trying to learn a new skill.
For days I’d been prepping my youngest son to hit the slopes. I knew it would be challenging. Any 5-year-old strapping long, odd boards onto his feet and heading down a hill would be challenged. And, I knew he’d get frustrated. I knew his perfectionist desire to learn things easily would be given a workout. And still, we landed at the bottom of the hill in a frustrated, I’m-giving-up heap.
Gifted kids are often not very good with frustration. They often don’t know that learning a new skill is supposed to be frustrating. They wrap their precious identities up with doing well and learning quickly and when that doesn’t happen, big massive frustration ensues.
And (she admits with head hung sheepishly while simultaneously mustering up some self-compassion), seeing the complete and utter lack of frustration tolerance might have triggered up a less than patient response from me. Ok, fine. My own frustration tolerance somehow didn’t show up on the hill that day, either. Yes, I was frustrated because my child wasn’t handling his frustration well. And I handled my frustration by snipping at my son to listen more closely (!), to take a breath (!), to get back up (!) and keep trying (!). JUST HANDLE YOUR FRUSTRATION ALREADY, FIVE-YEAR-OLD!
Yep. My approach worked as well as you can imagine.
And so, more as a reminder to myself than to anyone else, how can we help build up our child’s frustration tolerance?
Step 1 – Breathe.
Step 2 – Breathe again.
Step 3 – Remember that it’s going to be frustrating.
Step 4 – Take a break.
Step 5 – Breathe again.
Now that you’re tolerating your frustration, here’s what you do with your child.
Model Effective Frustration Tolerance. Repeat steps 1-5 as long as you need to so you are providing a calm and secure environment. We must first regulate ourselves.
Put Your Child in Frustrating Situations. Kinda impossible to learn to tolerate frustration if we never feel frustrated. Take your kids to do something new. Intentionally give them difficult work. It’s easy to want to avoid frustrating situations, but trust me. If we do, we’re only teaching our kids to avoid frustration at all cost.
Prepare Them. Let them know that they’ll be frustrated. Talk about frustration. Prepare ahead of time the steps they can take to manage it well. Normalize that frustration is an essential part of learning something new.
Teach Them to Breathe. Teach them to take those belly breaths. Their bellies should get bigger as they breathe in and smaller as they breathe out. Practice it together. Rock stuffed animals to sleep on your bellies as you lie next to each other on the floor. Take breathing breaks throughout the day.
Channel Stuart Smalley. Practice affirmative self-talk. I can do it. This is hard, but not impossible. It’s ok that this is difficult. I can keep trying.
Get Frustrated! OK – now it’s time to actually get frustrated and practice the breathing, the positive self-talk. Remember to do your own steps 1-5. Be encouraging and positive in words and tone. Remind them that they’re supposed to be frustrated. Give them specific feedback on what is going well. Validate the frustration. Share the frustration. Take a minute to look around and notice some beauty around you. Take a moment to look back at what they’ve accomplished so far.
Take a Break. We need time to reset, to re-center, and to relax. Your child probably needs this, too! Tolerating frustration takes a lot of energy. Be sure to take breaks to refill your energy tank and your child’s.
Get Back at It. Try again. Rest and return to the frustrating task.
Praise the Process. Don’t just praise the new skills being learned, but praise that your child allowed themselves to feel frustrated and managed to move through it.
Reinforce their Lovability and Worth. Gifted kids can get mixed up beliefs about their identities and feelings of conditional worth. Even in the midst of the frustration and thrown gloves, remind them that you love them. Remind them that they are valuable and amazing no matter how good they are at this new skill. Remind them that they are so much bigger and more than their abilities.
Chimp and I aren’t still stranded at the bottom of the bunny hill. The ski school director eventually left us alone after she realized her typical tricks just weren’t going to work with my intense kid. I followed steps 1-5, calmed myself down, gave him a hug and said, “This is frustrating, huh?” Chimp nod. “Do you know that I love you?” Chimp nod. “Do you know that you’re one of my favorites?” Chimp nod. “Will I stop loving you if you can’t ski?” Mischievous Chimp grin, followed by a Chimp nod. “What?!” Followed by a bazillion and one kisses and giggles. We gathered our gear. Went in for food and a break. Headed back out for more attempts. Had more frustration intolerance, but ended the day with smiles.
On the drive home, a sleepy Chimp voice asked, “Mom? When can we go skiing again? That was fun!”
This article has previously been published @ www.thefringybit.com.
According to an online dictionary, perfectionist is defined as “a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection.” I think this is typically what we picture. A person who is so driven for perfection, and nothing but perfection, that they stop at nothing to get it and destroy everything else in frustration. And while this can, indeed, be what perfectionism looks like, I usually see it in much more subtle ways. Typically, people are wise enough to say, “well, I’m not really a perfectionist. I don’t expect perfection. I know that’s unrealistic.” And yet, these same people are frequently perfectionists. So, what does it look like?
Perfectionism looks like the preschooler quitting an art project because it is difficult or isn’t turning out the way he wanted it to.
It is spending 2 hours scouring the internet for just-the-right song to put to a slideshow.
It is retaking a test because you got a B.
Perfectionism is sitting quietly in a group, meeting, or class because your thoughts might come out wrong.
It is doing the extra credit assignment when you already have an A or B.
It is revising, and editing, and rewriting with meticulous detail.
It is a preschooler refusing to put on his own socks because it is difficult and he doesn’t do it well.
Perfectionism is pretending you aren’t interested in an activity because you don’t think you’ll do it well.
Perfectionism is a child defiantly refusing to do something.
It is procrastinating until the deadline is right upon you.
It is beating yourself up over any mistake.
It is not cleaning because you know once you start you’ll be grabbing the toothbrush and scrubbing out every single corner and you just don’t have the time for that.
Perfectionism is wanting to do your best and feeling like your identity and worth depends on how well you do.
That’s really the core of perfectionism, feeling as though your worth and lovability are conditional on performance or achievement.
For example, perfectionism is strong in my youngest one. He’s impulsive and psychomotorly intense and 5 years old, so he crashes into mistake after mistake most days. When there are significant ones, and he is reprimanded, he immediately crumbles and usually his negative, perfectionistic beliefs come spilling out of his mouth. I give him a few moments alone, and then I scoop him up and pull him into my lap. I don’t expect eye contact, but I do ask if he’s ready to listen. When he’s ready, I ask, “Did you make a mistake?” He says yes. “Were there consequences to your mistake?” He says yes. “Did I get angry and frustrated with your behavior?” He says yes. “Did I stop loving you?” He now knows this is coming and, with a mischievous little grin on his face says, “yes.” I attack him with friendly kisses and giggles. “Does that mean you’re a horrible person because you made a mistake?” That same eye-twinkling grin and “yes.” He’s now attacked with tickles and giggles. We gently reinforce the lesson learned and he moves on his way. Giving voice to those pesky underlying, unhelpful messages makes them weaker and allows them to be rewritten.
Give voice to the perfectionism. Refute that voice.
See the perfectionism under the behaviors.
Remember that everyone makes mistakes.
Remember that mistakes are actually helpful things because they teach us something. In fact, I’ve learned far more from my mistakes than I ever have from my successes.
Encourage and model being kind to yourself.
Encourage failure and trying difficult tasks. Model doing things that are uncomfortable and difficult.
Read up on self-compassion and implement it regularly.
Remember that every human that walks this planet is unique and worthy of love. Remind your child often just how valuable they are, and especially remind them at times when they act the most unlovably.
Perfectionism can be sly and sneaky and tough to conquer, but it can be conquered and softened. Just don’t expect to do it perfectly. 😉
Any other “This is Us” watchers out there? Silly question given that there were 14.76 million viewers of the January 23rd episode alone. I’m one of those many millions who have fallen in love with the show. And not just because of the fantastic acting and writing, but because of their nonchalant, yet incredibly accurate, portrayal of raising a gifted kid and being a gifted adult. I love how the character of Randall shows that giftedness impacts his life without highlighting his giftedness as the defining characteristic of his identity. I love how he lives an ordinary life in the midst of his extraordinary intellect and abilities.
But, this isn’t really meant to be a post all about me gushing my fandom, nor am I making a case that the show gets everything about giftedness right all the time. No, instead I want to explore a story arc from the last episode that had nothing to do with crockpots.
In the last episode, Randall and his spouse bought a low-income housing complex, with the intent of improving living conditions for the tenants. They hold their first tenant meeting and learn about all the complaints and Randall jumps full steam ahead promising immediate fixes for everything. His passion for justice and desire to be helpful and intense excitement oozes out of his every pore. His wife gives him the knowing look and encourages him to “slow his roll”. The episode continues with Randall getting in over his head, making some hasty mistakes, and having to have the “you were right dear” conversation with his spouse. To which she answered (to the best of my paraphrased recollection), “Let me share my knowledge with you and just slow your roll. We’ll get to it all, but we need to slow our roll.”
I don’t know about you, but as a gifted adult, I could completely relate to this. In fact, I believe my husband and I have had several similar conversations with me assuming the role of Randall and Jon being the spousal voice of wisdom. And, as a parent to gifted children, I could also completely relate to this. My kids come to me with HUGE ideas matched by their HUGE excitement and they are ready to dive head first into the project of the day.
The true beauty of this story, lies in Beth’s response to her husband. She has mastered the art of supportive realism. She doesn’t immediately stomp on Randall’s enthusiasm, but she doesn’t jump in head first along side of him, either. Such a difficult balance to find.
I know that I’ve accidentally squelched my children’s dreams when I’ve tried to spare them from future disappointment or mistake making by calling their enormous plans into question. I’ve heard other gifted kids call their parents “dream destroyers” when parents focus too much on realistic expectations and don’t match their child’s enthusiasm. I’ve also been on the receiving end when my husband would question an idea I was intensely excited by. He wasn’t meaning to, but it felt as though he took a little pin and popped a hole right in my beautiful, exciting balloon.
But, I’ve also experienced the mistakes of my hasty over-commitment to one of my intense ideas. And I’ve seen my kids feel the overwhelm of similar mistakes. Which is why I loved the phrase, “just slow your roll.” It simultaneously gives credence and support to an idea, while also providing realistic caution.
So, when your kids come to you with their 32nd AMAZING idea of the day, get behind them. Support them. Mirror their intense excitement. Voice confidence that they’ll be able to do it. And remind them that they don’t have to do it ALL right now. Help them learn project management and planning. Help them move forward fast enough to maintain the excitement and enthusiasm, but not so fast that the snowball rolls faster than they can run. Help them to slow their roll.
It’s been a common theme in my practice over the past month or so. Parents come in frustrated that their kids are no longer doing homework, or following through with practice, or seeming to even try at school. In truth, I typically see this trend starting in about October or November for our gifted and 2e kids. After the shine of a new school year wears off, and they’re faced with the same day in and day out type of assignments, they appear to care less and less. Behavior problems might increase. Homework struggles ensue. Teachers set up meetings to inform us that our kids “aren’t meeting their potential.” And we’re left wondering what happened.
A bazillion and one reasons could be the culprit under these school struggles. And we adults often try to figure it out ourselves and try to solve the problem ourselves. We negotiate. We setup reward systems. We make threats. We handout punishments. We tediously explain why our kids just need to get the homework in. We try to empathize and explain that we understand the work might be too simple, but we tell them we often have to do things we don’t want to do, too, and they just need to suck it up buttercup and git ‘r done. And all of these approaches tend to fail. Or they work for a minute or two and then they fail.
Why do they fail? First of all, we’re trying to solve a problem without one of the key stakeholders. We need to get the child’s input to figure out what the problem actually is. This will take curiousity and exploration on our part. We need to question and probe deeper to get at the root of the problem, and listen without judgment. If they say “I just don’t wanna do it.” With open curiousity ask, “What about it don’t you want to do?” or “Why don’t you want to do it?” They say, “Because it’s stupid!” We say, “What makes it stupid?” They say, “Because there’s no point to it. I already know how to multiply, why do I have to do more worksheets on what I already know?” Or they say, “I don’t see why I’ll ever need to know the chemical composition of table salt to survive as an adult.” Or they say, “Because I have the story ideas in my head and it’s just hard to get it out on paper.” And here we thought they just were being lazy or defiant.
Secondly, we need to validate their concerns. Truly validate them. We often minimize what our kids tell us. We briefly agree with them (“yes, Billy, I know you know how to multiply”), but then quickly brush it aside (“but, it’s just what you have to do to get through 3rd grade”). How disempowering. Instead, what if we offer to problem solve with them? What if we brainstorm alternate solutions? What if we agree to go in to school with our student and discuss it with the teacher? What if we explore alternate education options?
Kids do the best they can. They genuinely want to please the adults in their lives. If they aren’t, it’s a sign that something bigger is going on. Help them learn how to express it clearly and be solution-finders. Be willing to show them how to advocate and to advocate alongside of them. Just knowing that you’re on their side and understand their perspective can do wonders.
Gifted @ Home
Heather Boorman, MSW, LCSW