Parenting gifted children socially and emotionally presents a challenge and causes sane and balanced adults to squirm, wonder, pace, and otherwise exhibit anxiety. No one tells unsuspecting parents of gifted children that in order to raise their children there is an unwritten requirement that they function at a totally honest and authentic level of self-awareness. Our gifted offspring stretch us, the adults in the family, to look at aspects of ourselves that we’d prefer to keep hidden. This is an uncomfortable fringe benefit of being their parents. Parents of gifted children must continually reflect on their actions and be sure that they are parenting with regard to the child’s needs not their own.
Parents of gifted children tend to have a propensity for overprotection.
One particular pattern of parenting—overprotective parenting—leaps out when observing parents with their gifted children. Parents of gifted children tend to have a propensity for overprotection. After all, a parent’s primary role and responsibility is to protect the child from physical, social, emotional, or any other harm. So, how do well-meaning parents mess up the equation and skew the social emotional development of their child?
The Nature of the Gifted Child
The intense and sensitive nature of gifted children is well documented and these characteristic traits are at the root of the posturing of parents in overprotection mode. Barbara Clark lists the following affective traits of children with advanced abilities:
- “unusual sensitivity to the expectations and feelings of others,
- a heightened self-awareness is accompanied by feelings of being different,
- idealism and a sense of justice is developed at an early age along with
- an earlier development of inner locus of control and satisfaction,
- advanced levels of moral judgment, and
- high expectations of self and others. (These high expectation can often leads to high levels of frustration with self, others, and situations.)
- an unusual emotional depth and intensity and sensitivity to inconsistency between ideals and behaviors.”
Parents can find it difficult to watch these bright, sensitive, and aware individuals striving so hard at a very young age to realize their potential and struggling with these traits.
Quite understandably parents of children with the traits listed above, who are so quickly and deeply wounded, would need to automatically and unconsciously step in to relieve the pressures, discomfort, and hurt of their children, especially because these children readily turn their highly developed critical thinking abilities (resulting from high levels of intelligence) inward upon themselves without much prompting.
Intensity Plus Sensitivity
The intense nature of gifted children is explained by Linda Silverman in terms of overexciteabilities, and she claims that these children “come equipped with supersensitive nervous systems which enable them to assimilate extraordinary amounts of sensory stimuli.” Creatively gifted children perceive more details in situations, others, and themselves. These traits predispose them to interact with passion and compassion which may lead to forming deep attachments and intense commitments to people or ideas; these feelings bring with them a level of persistence that can result in gifted children being hurt repeatedly.
Parents of gifted children witness their deeply committed, highly empathic children repeatedly taking risks and being raked over the coals often with extreme emotional reaction and upset. Parents might jump in and fix the situation based upon their own needs not their child’s. This most harmful unconscious reaction of overprotection is the exact opposite of what needs to happen.
Highly empathic gifted children seem to know what others feel and to actually experience the feelings within themselves; unfortunately, this is especially true of intensely negative feelings. This may lead to these children to be unable to set interpersonal boundaries and cope by either withdrawing or trying to make other people happy. Both of these responses can lead them to disassociate from themselves or withdraw from others.
These two traits, intensity and sensitivity, which provide the gifted child with the ability to experience life deeply and genuinely, also can become twisted and distorted when combined with inadequate adult guidance.
Michaal Thomas and W. Peter Metz discuss two types of overprotective parents—the indulgent parent and the controlling parent. The indulgent parent-child relationship is characterized by a guilty, anxious parental attachment to the child. As the child becomes more independent, setting limits becomes more difficult for the anxious parent who has unresolved feelings of guilt or grief that continue to resurface. Parental guilt can then be overtaken by anger. The parent suddenly becomes punitive toward the child, with a shift from overly indulgent to overly controlling and demeaning behaviors. This shifting behavior is terribly confusing to the child. Parents need to understand how their own unresolved anxiety over limit- setting impacts their children. It is vital that parents get help to develop consistent and effective behavioral strategies to use with their children.
The controlling parent-child relationship is characterized by a parent who is highly supervising and vigilant, who has difficulties with separation from the child, and who discourages independent behavior. Sometimes it is the child’s traits that cause negative interactions to occur. The child’s role in either initiating and or maintaining an overprotective relationship may consist of an inherent temperamental vulnerability, such as excessive shyness or a heightened emotional response to the environment which elicits increased vigilance from the parent. Or the child may respond to the anxious, controlling parent in a submissive manner, with depression and anxiety disorders emerging later in life, when the parent is no longer immediately available. Other children may respond to overprotection with defiant behavior which results in the parents redoubling their efforts to control.
The parent contribution to this equation involves overprotective behaviors that may be in response to previous unresolved traumas in the parent’s life—leaving the parent with a view of the world as an unsafe place. When parents are not fully conscious and aware of their own anxiety and unresolved social-emotional issues they may respond with overregulation of their children’s lives and activities or a guilt-laden anger or a hostile attachment to their child. Any of these may interfere with the parent’s ability to recognize the child’s separateness and can cause social-emotional disaster for the gifted child.
Another scenario includes the family system perspective. Usually a history of a distant, uninvolved spouse is discovered when evaluating families in which one parent is overprotective toward the child. Often (but not always) this is the father, who has minimal direct interaction with the growing child, leaving the mother to address the issues of separation and individuation. The work of parenting is shouldered by one individual, whose energy and tolerance for daily stresses are depleted, setting the state for anger and hostility toward the child. Once again unresolved aspects of previous relationships (between the parents) are repeated within the parent-child relationship instead of between the child’s parents or caregivers.
Parents must be able to modify their protective behaviors based on the environment and the child’s developmental level. The environment can contribute to the development of an overprotective parenting style, too. Detrimental school environments can be disastrous for the gifted child. If parents have to go to extremes to get the required, appropriate educational services for their gifted child with over-the-top advocacy, an unnatural situation results, which the gifted child’s radar is primed to absorb. When the gifted child witnesses and overhears parents pointing out errors made by teachers, principals, and school districts this provides too much power to that child as the natural order or balance of roles is askew. Parents must be careful to modify their protective behaviors resulting from their advocacy efforts. Such flexibility can be difficult for a highly anxious parent responding to internal danger cues.
Avoiding Social-Emotional Disaster
Intuitive children pick up on more of the hidden social-emotional states of their parents.” Many gifted children, who are intuitive, introverted, and intellectual, are at risk when parented inappropriately by overindulgent or over-controlling parents who rescue them at every turn and fail to allow them the opportunities to learn from their own mistakes in a safe supportive environment. Parents and teachers need to understand the fears and anxieties surrounding issues of safety for both parents and children and to promote age-appropriate autonomy and independence for the children.
Protection of your gifted child is essential. But be sure that the protection you are offering is based upon their needs and developmental level not your own unresolved emotional issues. Are you, as a parent of a gifted child, meeting your own needs or the needs of your child, if you continually rescue or remove him or her from negative social emotional consequences or involve your child in the projections arising from your own personal fears and worries? If you recognize your parenting style described herein, guidance and help are available. Many books have been published which provide insight into parenting sensitive and intense children. Major issues or concerns are best left to professional counselors and therapists. They can provide assistance if the impact of negative parenting styles has reached harmful levels and can help your family develop healthy parent-child interactions.
—Debra A. Troxclair, PhD
Debra Troxclair is assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
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