Based on my experience facilitating the parent seminar entitled The Gifted Child in the Family Context, I would like to suggest a few strategies that parents of Davidson Young Scholars and other gifted students can use to enhance family functioning:
1. Engage in self-care. You might wonder why this is the first strategy listed. The answer is simple. If you don’t take care of yourself, you are not going to have the energy and patience to deal with all of the demands on your plate. To meet the challenges that you are likely to face as the parent of at least one exceptionally able child, self-care needs to become a part of your routine. Think about an activity that you can do for yourself that will feed your soul. This may be something as simple as exercising for 30 minutes every day, volunteering at the local library, or joining a book club. Carve out some time to focus on something other than your kids.
2. Ensure that all family members feel valued and important. Problems can result and resentment can ensue when certain family members are made to feel more valuable than others. While this statement may seem obvious, I’m guessing that most parents find it challenging, if not impossible, to make sure that every family member receives equal treatment at all times. In reality, each family member has unique talents and needs and may require more attention at times and less attention at other times. If you feel a closer bond with one of your children because of a particular passion that you share (e.g., talking about nanotechnology), be sensitive to the feelings of your other children and find ways to connect with them, too. One way is to schedule regular family time and take turns choosing activities. If you notice that certain members are withdrawing, ask them for their ideas about how to restore balance in the family. Listening goes a long way in reducing tension and letting members know that they are an important part of the family. When family members know that their concerns are heard, they may feel a greater sense of equity and be more invested in making the family a stronger unit.
3. Make sure that power is distributed appropriately within the family unit. Everyone needs to feel a sense of personal power and self-control. As in the case of social groups and organizations, if some members gain too much control or power, the family is likely to malfunction. If certain members misuse their power (even unintentionally), the rest of the family tends to suffer. Suppose that the parents of an emotionally intense gifted girl instruct their other children to give their sister only positive feedback. While their intent may be to keep peace within the family and prevent emotional meltdowns, these parents may be conveying the message to all of their children that the profoundly gifted child’s needs eclipse everyone else’s needs. Sometimes, a maladaptive behavior can spiral out of control because it is given too much power. Don’t allow problematic behaviors to hold everyone hostage. I should clarify that I do not view emotional intensity as a flaw or problem (intensity can be a great asset); however, like other behaviors or qualities, if it is allowed to get out of hand and begins to impair a person’s ability to function or interferes with other family members’ sense of well-being, it has too much power.
4. Use modeling as a teaching tool. The common saying “actions speak louder than words” is applicable to parenting. For example, your efforts to reassure your child that nobody is perfect may be unsuccessful if you hold yourself to unrealistic standards. Learning to embrace your own imperfections will send a positive message to your children about the importance of accepting their own limitations. Children of all ability levels need to see that being imperfect is not the end of the world and that learning from mistakes can truly help them to grow. This suggestion also applies to other behaviors. If your child has difficulty turning down opportunities and tends to juggle too many responsibilities, you might show your child how you prioritize activities and decline opportunities when there is too much on your plate. Sharing your own experiences with perfectionism, being overcommitted, or any other behavior that your children have difficulty managing can help them to talk more freely with you about their struggles.
5. Challenge your child’s faulty assumptions. Sometimes, children and young teens develop faulty assumptions that need to be challenged. One faulty assumption that some children make is that the accomplishments of their siblings (or others) somehow diminish their own intelligence, worth, or standing in the family. Thinking in a polarized way, they believe that if one wins, the other one must lose. Naturally, this mindset is bound to create tension among siblings. As a parent, it is important to help your children modify their self-defeating and mistaken beliefs. It is also important to attend to the affective or emotional reaction they have when these negative thoughts cross their mind. Your children will feel better about themselves if they can appraise themselves on the basis of their own abilities and accomplishments, not on the basis of others’ abilities and accomplishments.
6. Reach out for support. Guiding the personal, social, and academic development of an intellectually precocious child is uncharted territory for most parents and is a weighty responsibility. As your child’s primary advocate, you may sometimes feel that you are fighting an uphill battle. You may gain confidence in this role by speaking with other DYS parents and others in the gifted education community and seeking out their support.
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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