Straight Talk: Helping Bright Teens Through Tough Times
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This article is an effort to assist you in helping your teen(s) through difficult times. Professionals with experience and expertise in the gifted population share these practical suggestions as a guide for implementing strategies that work for your family. Parents often struggle with knowing what to say, what to do, and how to act when their son or daughter experiences a rough time in his/her life. In this article, professionals share their thoughts on communication, finding purpose, parenting, suicide, and risk factors. Also included are resources on adolescence, grief, depression and suicide.

Let's face it - raising a child is difficult. Add to this fact all the characteristics of exceptionally bright young people that make this population unique. As they get older, they begin to move through adolescence, puberty, and teenage years. On any given day, it's likely that you already have a lot on your plate in terms of parenting your highly gifted adolescent. Then, your son or daughter experiences a bump in the road, perhaps even a sinkhole. How can you help your child in dealing with a difficult time, such as the death of a loved one or friend, existential depression, peer pressure, general disappointments and "life lessons"?

We asked some professionals with experience and expertise in nurturing gifted children to assist parents by sharing ideas for helping gifted teens through challenging times. Below, we've summarized their thoughts and suggestions.

Jim Delisle, Ph.D.
Deborah Ruf, Ph.D.
Esther Sinclair, Ph.D.
James Webb, Ph.D.
Nadia Webb, PsyD

What you can do:

Open communication by asking if your teen has any questions or thoughts on the subject at hand. If they don't volunteer any, share your own to get things rolling. (Nadia Webb)

Make "special time" for each of your children, even if you have to make a weekly date to do it. You can take trips together, go camping, or in some way break out of daily routines that so often become barriers to communication. (Jim Webb)

One indicator of an open and strong relationship is if your child can tell you things that others might find "shocking," or at least very non-traditional, without fear of being severely chastised. Some parents have found they are able to create a climate where they can openly talk about how angry they are at "the world" or at "society" and how helpless they feel. Young people then get a chance to see that (a) they are not the only ones to feel this way and (b) that it is an okay topic to talk about within the family. (Jim Webb)

Write a note and leave it for your son or daughter to read. Simply state that you know this is a rough time and the topic is difficult to discuss, but that you are willing to listen and answer any questions. This may open up the doors for communication now or later on. In their own ways, youngsters dealing with difficult situations are trying to figure out what we are trying to figure out; silence, at least temporarily, is a natural reaction. (Jim Delisle)

Allow your child room to experience their feelings, including anger, when coping with a great loss or tragedy. Be open to listening to your child talk and rant and rave, or find someone else for your child to talk with. (Deborah Ruf)

Generally, when an adult brings up a "taboo" topic (whatever it may be), it is often a relief to the teen that an adult raised the issue first. (Jim Delisle)

Stress how important your child is to you -- not for their achievements; but simply because of who they are. Fred Rogers had it right, "I like you just because you're you!" (Jim Webb)

Fundamentally, these kids are a minority, and they will have all of the problems that any minority group member has, plus they are more intense and sensitive. Fortunately, they are also resilient and very often have parents who care a lot about them. Let your child know how much you care for him or her. (Jim Webb)

Give your kids a hug each day - it is a small, yet powerful, practical technique. I know, I know! They are teens, and they will say, "Aw Mom!" or "Aw Dad!" Tell them, "I'm your parent. I know you don't need a hug, but I need a hug. Just cope!" There is something about physical touch that helps us feel connected with one another, and it helps with resilience and with lessening feelings of aloneness. (Jim Webb)

Encourage tolerance and acceptance of different styles, as this can be very difficult for these kids. It is very important in the family to talk about individual differences, particularly with kids who are looking for "truth" or "the right answer" or the "right way to live their lives." (Jim Webb)

Share your own experiences of peer pressure; it can be a profitable topic of conversation in the family. (Jim Webb)

Practice "role-stripping." First practice the exercise with yourself, then share the activity with your family. Think about the five most central roles in your life -- mother, daughter, wife, father, and accountant, etc. Write each of these roles down on a slip of paper and rank them from "1" (most important) to "5" (least central in your life). Take the role marked "5" and crumple it up and throw it away. Imagine what your life would be like without that role. Then do the next for "4" and so on, until you have only one role left. Now throw that away. What do you have left? Who are you behind your roles? (Jim Webb)

Finding "purpose"
Within earshot of your teen, discuss that people are multi-potential, rather than having only one "correct" course. For example, it's estimated that the average U.S. person will have four to six different careers during their lifetime. Frankly, some of these kids will need that change. (Jim Webb)

Discuss the difference between talents and passions. Sometimes their paths cross; other times they don't. Down the line, you may regret not pursuing your passions, but it may not matter if you let some of your talents fall by the wayside. (Jim Delisle)

Encourage your child to become involved with a "cause" by modeling an example and assisting your child in the process. When you are involved in a cause, whether it be civil rights, environment, or church, you are connecting with other idealists. As a result, you are likely to find peers and feel empowered, rather than feeling alone and helpless. The type of cause doesn't seem to matter and often these gifted children and adults become "cause-jumpers" who jump from cause to cause to cause over the years. (Jim Webb)

Help your child identify ways to help others, initially on a small scale. Part of what gives us purpose in our lives is the feeling that we can make a difference. (Deborah Ruf)

Get a pet! They can be a source of support for adults and children. Children often feel valued and not judged by animals. (Nadia Webb)

As described in Sylvia Rimm's "V" of love, set more limits when the child is younger and gradually expand these as the child gets older and demonstrates the ability to handle some freedom. There is a big difference between intelligence and wisdom. Maturity comes with age and youngsters need guidance. (Jim Webb)

Allow opportunities to practice independence and making choices. It is like a life-training program. (Esther Sinclair)

Teens need risk in order to grow; they need parental support in order to take those risks. If the risk taking becomes dangerous, parents must act. (Esther Sinclair)

You can never keep too close an eye on teens. Many engage in risk-taking behavior. While it's not possible to stop them entirely, you can moderate what they do. (Esther Sinclair)

Different parenting skills are required to care for adolescents than for younger children, and parents must also operate from a different knowledge base. (Esther Sinclair)

Understand that adolescents fight with their parents. It is not meant as a personal attack on you, but rather signals a desire for greater independence -- but not total autonomy. (Esther Sinclair)

Laugh a lot - especially whenever something dumb happens that makes the world not as serious a place as it always seems to be. (Jim Delisle)

Point out your teen's bravery and encourage positive self-talk. Sometimes courage is found in carrying out the day-to-day tasks one interprets as challenging. Domestic courage shouldn't be undervalued, such as confronting disabilities and other areas of weakness. (Nadia Webb)

Have your son or daughter make a "contract" with you that they would tell you before acting on their suicidal feelings. It opens the door to talking about suicidal feelings in the future, even if they give you grief about humoring a "nutty" parent request. (Nadia Webb)

Normalize asking for guidance and help from a mental health professional. (Nadia Webb)

Listen to your child. Often preventing suicide means creating a climate in which kids know that they don't have to manage it all on their own and they can talk about difficult issues. Open up communication before there is a problem; if the channel is already established, there is a less of a barrier. (Nadia Webb)

Exercise! It's a great antidepressant and holds its own with many of the medications available. Keep an eye out to make sure that it isn't part of a self-critical and harsh response to weight/shape issues. (Nadia Webb)

Recognize that there is a difference between "wanting to die" and "not wanting to live anymore." It sounds odd, but the majority of teens fit the latter category. Because teen years are so present tense oriented, they believe that today's reality will be reality forever. While telling your teen that "things will get better in time" is not effective, pointing out this fine-line distinction can be revealing for a child in pain. (Jim Delisle)

Ask your child direct questions. If you are concerned that your child is considering suicide, this is one case where overreacting is acceptable. Say to them, "Some people who feel this bad about life think about harming themselves through suicide. Has this thought ever crossed your mind?" (Jim Delisle)

Help your child identify trusted adults they can turn to. Develop a list of names and phone numbers of these adults. (Jim Delisle)

It is vital to talk about a suicide or sudden, accidental deaths, as it keeps you in tune as best you can be with what is going on in your child's mind and life. In a very odd way, one suicide often gives "permission" for another to attempt the act. What I have found is that it is not the mere mention of suicide that prompts its occurrence, but the manner in which it is raised. As emotional a topic as this is, it is better to deal with it "clinically", in a matter-of-fact manner that says, "This is a wrong behavior." (Jim Delisle)

What to watch out for:

Gifted children often feel like they "should" be able to have an impact on tragedies. When they can't, they often are shocked, even depressed, and feel powerless. (Jim Webb)

Unfortunately, many highly gifted kids have very few (if any) peers that they can talk to. It can be lonely. But then, many parents can recall how they feel lonely and misunderstood at work or in the neighborhood, or even in the family. It's important for parents to discuss out loud (where the kids can hear) how you, yourselves, struggle with issues of peer relations. (Jim Webb)

It's important for our youngsters to see that they are more than just their talents. Some of these children become achievement addicts, and - as the Presidential Scholars research has shown - can experience some withdrawal (and accompanying sense of grief and loss) when they get into college or into the job force and no longer are receiving the kudos that they previously received so frequently. (Jim Webb)

Remember that gifted kids are incredibly intense. Adolescents are also pretty well known for overreactions and for not having a long-term view of situations, goals, or life in general. When you add these together, it can be a bad combination, particularly if the child feels alone and believes that he or she would not be understood by others if he or she opened up. (Jim Webb)

"People pleasers" are at risk for perfectionism and depression and are not likely to share their depression because it might appear to be a "weakness" or an "imperfection." In particular, this is a problem if you have child who feels valued for what he or she does, rather than just for being a human. (Jim Webb)

There are some factors that put GT kids at greater risk for depression and suicide, such as a sense of isolation and the ability to grasp ideas intellectually that they aren't emotionally mature enough to handle. They may feel overwhelmed by the amount of damage in the world and their powerlessness in tackling the world's problems. Gifted children often process their existential crisis in elementary school instead of college, which can feel even more isolating. Once again, they don't have age peers wrestling with the same issues. (Nadia Webb)

On a positive note, gifted kids generally have better mental health than average. (Nadia Webb)

Some teens with underlying depression start to sleep longer hours than usual. They avoid going out with their friends. They either overeat to literally fill the body or starve themselves to punish the body. (Esther Sinclair)

Kids expect their parents to keep them safe, and when they learn that parents aren't always able to do so, it can be frightening. (Esther Sinclair)




Books on Grief for Young Adults

Depression and Suicide

Permission Statement


Contributed by: Professional on 4/21/2005
This is an informative article that provides some great quotes from professionals in the field of gifted and talented (Jim Delisle, Deborah Ruf, Esther Sinclair, James Webb and Nadia Webb). The article highlights some very serious topics including depression and suicide. I am glad I found this article, and I am sure it will be useful to other professionals in the GT field as well as families and educators of GT children.

The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.

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