Dr. Dale Stuart helps parents understand multi-potentiality in their gifted children and the process of making difficult choices when their child is interested in, or shows potential in many different areas.
Multi-potentiality may be manifested in several different ways in gifted individuals:
Gifted individuals with multiple areas where they feel a passionate interest or may have high potential or demonstrated competence may experience tremendous conflict and frustration when it comes to making choices about what to pursue. Choosing one direction and not another may leave a gifted person feeling distraught over having to abandon one passionate interest in favor of another, or guilty for not living up to expectations.
Problem 1: Wanting to do everything of interest at the same time
When children have a lot of interests, the challenge can be one of avoiding over-commitment and managing a reasonable load so that school or other high-priority activities (including the parents’ and child’s sanity!) don’t suffer. This brings the child up against practical limits of time (and parental energy) constraints, and having to set priorities. The idea of “let’s save that activity for next year” can be difficult for a child who wants immediate gratification for a curiosity or urge to pursue something.
It’s best to start as early as possible with the idea that “if you want to pursue this now, then something else has to wait until later. Only X number of activities fit into a day/week, so let’s pick your favorite ones. You can change your mind later and switch to something else, but you need to limit the total number to X.” It’s best to help children start early with tolerating the frustration of having to live their lives this way.
Problem 2: Being pushed to excel in an area of demonstrated potential
With children who show exceptional talent in any area, people outside the family (coaches, teachers, private instructors) may see the child purely in terms of that talent and push the child to excel in that area. Having a star protégé strokes the ego of a mentor, so the mentor’s own needs are certainly a part of this problem.
In this case, as the parent, you need to help the child challenge the belief that he has to excel in every area where he shows talent. You can communicate and instill healthier beliefs by saying things such as “just because others say they want you to pursue something doesn’t mean you have to let them make that choice for you. You can make your own choice about how far you want to go in this area. Any choice that you make is the right one for you, and you’re not a failure just because you didn’t go along with someone else’s choice.” The idea is to directly counter the belief that the child is expected to perform up to everyone else’s desires for him.
You must also communicate with the teacher/instructor/coach that your child is still experimenting with his/her interests, and just because your child shows potential doesn’t imply that this will end up being something the child truly wants to pursue. Pushing the child—if his heart is not really into it—may only sour the child on that activity. So it’s perfectly ok for you, as a parent, to intervene and communicate about what’s really best for the child.
Problem 3: Making choices that are “good” for the child
Parents often face the question of how much to push/encourage a child to pursue something that you believe is good for her (e.g. math, music, sports, etc.). This gets back to the question of “what is the role of a parent?” The answer that experts come back with most often is that parents should draw boundaries to keep children within an area where they can have the freedom to experiment and make decisions on their own, but the boundaries keep the children out of trouble or don’t allow them to make bad decisions. These boundaries are clearly going to vary with age and maturity level of the child.
When we apply this concept to gifted children and multi-potentiality, I would say that it’s your responsibility as parents to help your child make decisions that don’t foreclose on important future possibilities, but that within a safe territory, the rest of the decisions are up to the child. This means that you sometimes have to put your foot down (e.g. not let the child drop out of math or English too early just because they don’t like it), but give them freedom to pursue or not pursue “less critical” interests as much or as little as they like. The boundaries also imply not letting the child over-schedule herself and burn out before graduating!
Problem 4: Managing the frustration of making choices
As parents, we also have to be careful to keep our own anxieties and frustration separate from our child’s. If we see our child becoming frustrated or unhappy with something, it’s very tempting to do something that “takes away” this frustration, since we feel bad or feel anxious when our child gets frustrated. But learning frustration tolerance is one of the most important lessons for gifted children (especially when most things come so easily to them initially), and we’re not doing them any favors if we inadvertently teach them that frustration is something to be avoided.
So this raises the question, how do we teach our children to manage the frustration of making difficult decisions? Much of this comes from modeling a healthy decision-making process ourselves. The easy part is in demonstrating a process of gathering and objectively evaluating information about the alternatives. The harder part is dealing with the emotional elements associated with each alternative, tolerating the frustration, anxiety, or disappointment inherent in the limitations or reality that only one alternative can be chosen at a time. So how we model our process of dealing with these difficult feelings (and how we respond to them in the child) has a tremendous bearing on how the child is going to feel about making decisions himself.
Learning to manage and tolerate difficult feelings is the bedrock of healthy emotional development, and is at the core of eventually feeling confident in oneself, and confident that one can manage life’s little curves and speed bumps without becoming derailed or destroyed in the process.
The basic approach to helping a child deal with difficult feelings is (a) to help them build the capability to observe themselves while they're in the midst of experiencing the feeling, (b) to help them form a story or narrative about their experience of the feeling and the situation, and then (c) to help them make conscious choices about their behavior and ways they express their feelings (if they have a tendency to act out, give up, or withdraw).
As obvious or common-sense as this sounds, I know it's not so obvious how to actually teach a child to do these things. The starting point is to validate a child's feelings—whatever they might be—and acknowledge and accept that the feelings are there (you can accept the feeling without having to accept the means of expression of the feeling). You don't want to try to change, deny, dismiss, excuse, rationalize, judge, or react to the existence of the feeling. The child is already experiencing it, and you want to help the child accept it and become able to observe it himself. Use words and language that are appropriate to your child's verbal and emotional maturity.
You can validate the feelings with comments like, "I know you’re frustrated; you want to do both of these activities, and it doesn't make sense to you that you can only do one at a time and it makes you frustrated and angry." Or, "so many people tell you you’re so good in this area, they tell you they think you should try to do it full time, but you’re not so sure, or you have other things you’re also interested in, and you’re afraid of making them feel disappointed in you and letting them down. You’ve ended up feeling confused and torn about what to do."
Notice that you're not trying to "take away" the child's feelings, you're not trying to "make it better," and you're not interjecting your own reactions or discomfort with your child's feelings. You need to communicate that the child's feelings are understandable and natural, under the circumstances, and for the way that your child sees the world.
In the process of validating your child's feelings, you're also modeling the position of being an observer, so it's important to be neutral and to be taking the stance of being a reporter and not a coach or director (that comes later, if you need to guide the child to appropriate expressions of the feelings). You want to simply be offering an empathic narrative about what may be going on in the child's mind and the connection between the trigger event, the interpretation or meaning it had for the child, and the resulting feelings that arose in the child.
Problem 5: Defining meaningful boundaries
The boundaries around choices of activities to pursue may involve things like financial constraints, requirements for making core academic subjects a priority over extracurricular pursuits, issues of safety or health, limitations of your own time and energy, or your own values (moral, religious, ethical or otherwise) that you wish to uphold in your house.
When children come up against such a boundary, they will naturally resist it or test it. It’s their job, developmentally, to do so! A child must test the rules (that are designed to keep her “safe”) and challenge the people who enforce the rules in order to develop a sense of trust in the world. The child must be able to learn that someone who cares about her will not let her get into danger, and she must learn that this person can survive her protests and struggles against the boundaries. She must learn that she will still be loved even after challenging a caregiver. This is important in helping the child develop a healthy sense of self—she must learn that she can have a different “opinion” that is listened to and understood by a caregiver, but that the caregiver can model a strong enough sense of self to not be destroyed or overcome by the challenge from another self (hers).
Imagine the boundary (that the child is protesting) to be like a guardrail at the edge of a cliff. It may be exciting and enticing for the child to get closer to the edge and look over into the abyss, and the child may beg and plead to be allowed to climb over the railing to do so. But the rail signifies a boundary that the parent has set based on knowledge, judgement and an assessment of risk that the child’s brain is not yet capable of arriving at by itself. When it’s this clear-cut, and the risk so clear, it’s easy to enforce the boundary no matter how intense the protest.
The problem arises when we, as parents, suffer so much distress or anxiety or guilt at seeing our child protest, that we change the boundaries in order to alleviate our own distressing feelings. This hurts the child in several ways. It weakens the child’s trust in us (not to mention respect, in the case of an older child), and it exposes the child to the very “danger” the boundary was originally designed to protect against. It teaches the child that she cannot depend on a caregiver to keep her out of trouble, and ultimately increases her anxiety since she (her brain) is not yet developed enough to face all the variables and complexities of adult life.
As parents, our job is to set careful and consistent boundaries and rules, and to clearly communicate our expectations about them to our children. The boundaries and rules may span the gamut from household chores, priorities on academic work, respectful behavior toward others, hygiene and health behavior, as well as choices or priorities about what to pursue among multiple interests. Remember, inside the boundaries, the child gets to choose, but outside them, you set the rules.
Then, the child’s job is to explore all the territory available to her, and to test and challenge the boundaries. If, as a parent, we take the approach that we expect and welcome such challenges, our own anxiety or potential guilt about enforcing them will diminish.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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