Tips for Parents: Gifted . . . and Teenagers, too
Delisle, J.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Jim Delisle. He addresses the issue that teens need their parents in their teen years just as much as they did in kindergarten, just in different ways. Several strategies are offered as to how to address common teenage issues.

Imagine your lanky, still-growing teenager trying to stay atop a thin, gymnastics balance beam. To keep from falling off, your teen needs a supreme amount of confidence, concentration and agility--three traits not always present in teens. Now, if this teenager of yours is gifted, you might think that this added intelligence would make the balancing act easier. Think again, for the balancing act often required by being both teenage and gifted is often as difficult off the beam as on.

Most gifted teenagers experience the same rites of passage as does any adolescent: an urge to be independent, a tendency towards moodiness, self-doubt about one's intellectual and social capabilities, and an obsession with anything electronic. When giftedness is added into the equation, though, some additional factors come into play:

    "What should I choose as a career when I'm interested and good at so many things?"

    "Why do I set such high standards for myself when I know that perfection can never be reached?"

    "If I'm as smart as adults say I am, how come I still have to complete the same lame school assignments as everyone else?"

    "No, I can't just 'chill out' because it would be easier for you. I'm intense--get over it."

    "Sometimes, I wish I was never gifted in the first place. Life would be easier if I was 'normal.'"

You might not think so, but if your gifted teen actually says these kinds of things to you, you're already taking the pathway to success and personal satisfaction. For as exhausting as it can be to be a parent of a gifted adolescent, it is at least as tiring to be a gifted teen. So, let's consider some parental do's and don'ts when it comes to living with your gifted adolescent.

Don't try to be a problem-solver, do try to be a good listener. When most teens (gifted and otherwise) bemoan something they think is unfair, wrong or stupid, what they need more than advice is simply a chance to vent. A comment like "you sound really upset about this" keeps the conversation going a lot longer than spouting off a laundry list of fixes.

Don't be the rescuer, do be the supporter. If your gifted teen thinks school is boring or a teacher or administrator is being unreasonable, the first parental response is often to take control and confront the offending adult. Don't do it. Instead, ask your teen, "What have you tried to do to resolve this?" The earlier your gifted teen becomes a self-advocate, the better.

Don't expect your gifted teen to choose a career path at 16, do encourage exploration of many options of interest. High school counselors are often rabid about having their most capable students select a college and/or career at an age when kids should be leaving all their options open. Don't buy into this "rabidity", but simply take a breath and let your gifted teen explore many options through exotic course electives, internships or shadowing experiences with awesome adults who love what they do. And remember: it's your child's career, not yours: respect and encourage their interests and passions.

Don't dwell so much on the future, and do wallow in the pleasure of the present. To many gifted teens, life seems to be a constant dress rehearsal for some distant play that never gets performed. Comments like "If you don't get straight A's in middle school, you'll never be able to take advanced courses in high school" or "You'll never get into College XYZ unless you buckle down and try harder" are totally deflating to the gifted teen whose main concern is that the newly-arrived zit won't disappear before the weekend. Of course, you can't ignore the future, but there is no one best way to prepare for it. Try to remember to stay in the moment, folks; you're gifted teen will appreciate it.

Just as there is no one best way to educate gifted teens, there is also no one best way to raise them. But if you focus on listening to their concerns, concentrating more on the now than the later, giving independence in increasingly large doses, and simply laughing behind closed doors as you think to yourself, "How can such a smart kid sometimes be so irresponsible?", the act of being both teenage and gifted need not be so tough to balance--for you or your gifted adolescent.

2012 Seminar

I’ve worked with gifted teenagers for more than three decades, which means that many of the adolescents I worked with in the early stages of my career are now on the cusp of raising teenagers themselves. And, for the most part, their stories are successful ones. For despite the surges of rebellion and discontent that seem to be landmarks of adolescence, most teens emerge from these years to become active, accomplished adults.

There are no sure-fire methods of guaranteeing calm waters and pleasant parent-child conversations during the teen years, but I have found that certain attitudes and behaviors work better than others. Here are some thoughts and ideas to make the turbulent teens less traumatic for everyone involved.

  1. Your teen may be intellectually gifted, but other areas of development might not be quite as advanced. This sounds so obvious, yet it is easy to forget that your precocious 14 year old who didn’t remember to text you about some important issue may have, in fact, forgotten to do so. Bite your tongue so you don’t say, “How can such a smart kid be so irresponsible?” Sometimes. They. Are. Or, when your brilliant 15 year-old son or daughter who attends college acts in an “immature” way emotionally, just pause before you say, “I didn’t expect that kind of reaction from a university student.” As a mom or dad, you’re probably aware of the negative impact these types of comments can have, but be alert to other adults who may not be as “gifted savvy” as you.

  2. Expect your gifted teen to want more freedom and independence than you are prepared to give. It’s not uncommon for gifted teens to be in the company of people who are chronologically older than they are. So, when your 16 year old balks at an 10:00 p.m. weekend curfew, and when your 14 year old let’s you know that “I’m taking senior-level classes so I don’t appreciate you treating me like a kid”, take a few deep breaths before you respond. Although there is no set-in-stone timeline for what social freedoms you should give when, use your teen’s past performance as a gauge for future freedoms. Start slowly, with one or two small concessions (such as a later curfew) and let your teen know that responsibilities are not merely given, they are earned…and rewarded, if all goes well.

  3. Promote self-advocacy. When our gifted kids are young, it is mom and dad who come to their rescue when things need fixing. We go to the parent-teacher conferences; we approach school personnel when a problem exists; we take the lead in setting up playgroups and other social events. However, gifted teens need to become their own advocates as soon as they are able to articulate clearly what the problem is and what solutions to the dilemma exist. By asking our teen, “What ways have you considered to improve this situation? or “What steps have you taken already to address this?” you are turning over essential responsibilities to your teen at a time when they clamor for independence. Help them to become their own best advocate by discussing ways that they, not you, can address an issue important to them.

  4. Walk away from incivility. Despite your best efforts, there will likely be times when your child’s disposition is toxic to honest communication. When nothing you say is right and everything you suggest is “lame”, it’s time for you to exit the scene temporarily. Say something like, “I don’t believe we’re accomplishing much right now. We’ll discuss this at another time.” Frustration seldom leads to workable results, so don’t fight your gifted teen when nothing worthwhile is being accomplished.

It’s often hard to determine unequivocally which of your teens more aberrant behaviors are due to their adolescence, their giftedness, or the juncture of the two. But, to be honest, I’m not sure it’s worth your mental energy to figure it out! Instead, if you support your teens when they are being mature and rationale, and let them know, specifically yet kindly, when they are being silly and unreasonable, all will work out in the end. In fact, if you are both skilled and patient, adolescence will be a time that you actually enjoy, rather than endure, with your gifted teen.

2010 Seminar

Even though we’ve all been teenagers, we sometimes forget what it was like to maneuver through those years as we raise our own adolescents. As much as times have changed and technology greatly enhanced since the days when we were 15 years old, some things remain true for the gifted teens in our care. Things like this:

1. Gifted teens need more alone time than you think they do. We often think of the teen years as being filled with good times with good friends, lots of parties and noisy sleepovers, and endless conversations, in person or electronically. For many gifted teens, this is the case. But for many others, the chance to be alone with one’s thoughts, to mull over life’s mysteries in the quiet of their room, or to take a walk in the woods and lose track of time are just as elemental to them as breathing. Let your adolescent savor these necessary respites from the excesses of teenage social indulgence. Introspection is the heart and soul of many a gifted teen.

2. There’s a reason your gifted teen has older friends—or wants them. Water seeks its own level . . .and so does intellect. Gifted teens often find that they have more in common with other teens slightly older than themselves and thus, they seek out their company. Seldom is this harmful, and more often than not, it can actually help your teen mature in beneficial ways, as older youth will let the younger ones know when they are acting “like kids”. Social modeling is frequently a positive result when younger gifted teens spend time with their older counterparts.

3. Listening helps more than you think it does. As one able adolescent said to his mother who was “nagging” him: “A few words are better than a dissertation.” Listen to this young man’s advice, for it is right on target. The longer we talk and the louder we get, the less our teens will listen. If you have a request, state it in one sentence. If you need to talk about something important, “make a date” with your teen so you’re not just catching each other on the run. And above all else, listen twice as much as you talk.

4. “Moodiness doesn’t have a logical base.” Spoken by the mom of a highly gifted teen, this piece of homespun truth is one that parents must always remember. Your teen has the right to be moody, but when the moodiness starts affecting the rest of the family, it’s gone too far. Ask your son/daughter to H.A.L.T. when they are feeling especially foul. And, if they are (H)ungry, (A)ngry, (L)onely and/or (T)ired, ask that they take care of those needs before proceeding any further with their day. Not surprisingly, when they do, the moodiness often goes away.

5. A gifted teen’s greatest enemy is lack of sleep. When you have a mind that is always in overdrive, and when the technological world offers you 24/7/365 access to anyplace your brain wants to go, sleep is often not considered a priority for gifted adolescents. The resultant crankiness, listlessness and general “unattractiveness” of their attitudes are a direct result of this lack of shut-eye. Find methods of relaxation that work for your teens—yoga, deep breathing, a daily exercise routine, reading a boring book—in an effort to help them get the 8+ hours of sleep per night that is sadly lacking for most of them. Also, be a good role model for this—if you are constantly sleep-deprived, even if for very good ‘adult’ reasons, this sends a message to your teen—the wrong message.

6. Time management and organizational skills can’t be taught until they are needed. Many gifted teens who never had to study in their younger years discover that they don’t know how to study when they finally need those skills. And if managing time was never an issue—everything always got done, even if it was the last minute—than you can’t convince a teen on the benefits of setting timelines and priorities. That’s just how it is. When your teen finally reaches the point of frustration and seeks help (or needs it, from your perspective), the best person to teach these skills is often another teen who already has them mastered. Their advice might be the same as yours, but it will mean more coming from someone who, unlike you, is a creature of this millennium!

The good thing about the teenage years is that they can be filled with great conversations, forward-focused dreams, and lots of fun with a young adult who will soon realize (in ten years or so) just how brilliant his/her parents really are. Enjoy the ride!

2004 Seminar

Although parents of gifted children remain concerned about meeting their kids' intellectual, emotional and social needs throughout their lives, it's probably safe to say that as gifted children become teenagers, most parents loosen the strings of concern just a little bit. Hey, it's natural: as our children become young adults, we trust them to make some choices independently that, earlier, they needed our guidance to decide. We want that freedom for them; they need that freedom to enhance their full development.

Still, it is the errant parent who is not tethered to their gifted teen at least loosely throughout high school, and beyond. Although our kids may be loathe to admit it, they need us as much as they did in kindergarten; they simply need us in different ways.

For example, who better than a respectful and responsive mom or dad to help teens decipher their increasingly complex worlds? Whether the issue relates to "multipotential", which involves having so many talents and interests that choosing a college major and career focus becomes difficult, or the social tiptoeing one must do when everyone else in the class is 17 years old and you are 14, parents of gifted children have a part in helping their teens be fulfilled and successful.

I've listed below several strategies gleaned from parents of highly gifted kids as to how they addressed issues that arose at home, in school and with friends. Their collective experiences represent how we can help when are kids are gifted . . .and teenage, too.

  • Accept that wanting to be perceived as "normal" is . . . normal! There are times in one's life when it's easy to be the "smart kid", and other times when that moniker is best downplayed. The middle school years may be a time when a child wants to be known for fitting in rather than sticking out, so don't overstress if your young teen seems to put the academic talents on hold temporarily. The vast majority of the time, this is a temporary port in the emotional sea of early adolesence. Once high school arrives, you'll recognize your gifted son or daughter once again.

  • The greater the force, the stronger the resistance. OK . . .let's be honest: you cannot force a reluctant teenager to do anything, at least not for long. Whether it's to do more homework (or to not obsess about its completion); to begin to become more social (or to cut back on the dating circuit); or to start planning for one's college future (or to forget thinking of Harvard in 8th grade), teens have their own personal agendas, many of which tie into their newly found senses of power and independence. Punishments and contracts seldom work with gifted teenagers--coercion never does!--but honest discussions about the importance of balance in one's life is a great place to begin planting the seeds of personal responsibility. A weekly time with your teen--one-on-one for 20 minutes--may help you connect in ways that are purposeful and fun. Don't use the reason (excuse?) that neither of you has time for this--find the time. In the end, this weekly communication will bolster the parent-child relationship in meaningful ways.

  • Allow natural consequences. OK . . . so your child didn't turn in homework for three weeks and is now frantically completing it two days before the semester ends. You could call the teachers or counselor and explain about the hectic pace of your teen's life that prevented on-time completion of work . . . but don't do it. This "rescue" ultimately hurts teens more than it helps, as it makes them dependent on you in ways that both you and they thought they'd outgrown. Instead, let this situation be a reminder of the importance of organization, scheduling and prioritizing. Natural consequences are remembered long after the relief of a parental "rescue" has subsided.

  • Continue to be a parent. Even the brightest teens need guidance when it comes to issues they may not have addressed before. For example, if your kids are eligible to be grade skipped or to take college courses at 15 years old, don't let them be the only judges as to the appropriateness of this. Or, when it comes time to register for high school classes, discuss with your teens both the pros and cons of loading up on so many AP courses that they'll have little time left for anything but schoolwork. And, when it comes to all of those topics parents and teens are often uncomfortable to address honestly--sex and drugs, to name two--don't talk yourself into believing that "my smart kid will make the right decisions." Without your guidance, that's no more likely than it is for any other teenager. Don't assume that intellectual maturity guarantees good decision making in the heat of a social situation.

Are there secrets to raising gifted teenagers to become responsible adults? Sure there are. . . in fact, there are probably as many secrets as there are parents and teens! The real secret is no secret at all: open communication that is undergirded with a true respect for the individual your teenager is today, and the adults they are becoming all-too-soon.

Jim Delisle is a professor of education at Kent State University and a part-time teacher of gifted middle school students in Twinsburg, Ohio. His latest book (with Judy Galbraith) is When gifted kids don't have all the answers (Free Spirit Publishing).


Contributed by: Parent on 4/25/2014
Great article and tips, just what I needed right now! The article related to what I'm experiencing and feeling right now and was right on.

Contributed by: Parent on 6/26/2005
Excellent article - I found it to be precise and very helpful!

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