Tips for Parents: Inner Experience of Gifted Children, Adolescents and Young Adults
Grobman, J.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Dr. Jerald Grobman, who provides a clear understanding of the developmental process of gifted children, adolescents and young adults.

Parents are often as frustrated and exasperated in their efforts to support and encourage gifted development in their children as their children are in attempting to embrace it.

Understanding the elements of gifted endowment and the common psychological responses to how they develop can help gifted young people feel less isolated.

This same knowledge can help parents maintain their empathy for their gifted children as they grapple with these complex developmental challenges. Thinking more clearly about the powerful cross-currents in the gifted developmental process can help parents make better decisions in their efforts to encourage and support it.

Tips about gifted development:

Each stage of gifted development is often accompanied by enhancing as well as distressing experiences:

  • Enhancing experiences:
    • Intense drives to learn, explore and master
    • Unusual sensitivities/sensibilities
    • Visions of great possibilities and of a grand destiny
    • Possession of special energy that others describe as charismatic
  • Distressing experiences:
    • Fear of isolation
    • Fear of advancing too fast
    • Fear of being controlled by the forces of giftedness
    • Fear of being envied or admired
    • Fear of being defective or of failing
    • Guilt

Although giftedness may exist in many domains it rarely extends into the psychological. Consequently, gifted young people’s methods for coping with conflict and anxiety are not precociously developed but are only age appropriate. That means their methods are similar to their peers in that they are primitive and maladaptive.

These coping mechanisms—denial, avoidance, procrastination, obsessive perfectionism, provocative acting out and self-destructive behavior—are actually attempts to eliminate conflict and anxiety rather than efforts to acknowledge, learn more about them and use them more creatively.

Underachievement, odd though it may seem, can be developmentally constructive: it holds back accelerating gifted development so that other time sensitive developmental tasks of solidifying gender identity, sexual experimentation and first tries at intimacy can be mastered.

At any age, maladaptive coping mechanisms may result in behavior that mimics the disruptive pathology of a psychiatric disorder ( of course when functioning is seriously compromised by any form of depression or anxiety, it should be assessed and treated by a clinician knowledgeable in diagnosis as well as gifted dynamics and development)

Mature adaptive coping mechanisms ( supression, sublimation, humor, anticipation, self observation, self assertion and altruism) develop slowly after the hormonal pressures of mid-adolescence subside. As young adulthood approaches, the raw elements of gifted endowment can be employed with more frustration tolerance, a better capacity to endure conflict and anxiety and a more sophisticated ability to conceptualize: gifted young adults can begin to think more effectively about what is happening to them.

Yet well into young adulthood, gifted young people may need their parent’s help in fighting back efforts to disavow, deny and avoid their gifted identity. They also need their parents to rescue them from damaging forms of underachievement and self-destructive behavior.

When parent’s best efforts in this regard are rejected by accusations of “you only care about how smart I am, you don’t care about who I really am”, passive/aggressive behavior or open hostility, they are often left grasping for psychological explanations and management advice. Under these circumstances, attempts at engaging their children in meaningful dialogue: listening carefully and respectfully to their opinions often fail. Parents may need to resort to methods that appear unreasonable, old fashioned, crude and in violation of their philosophy of informed gentle child rearing.

Extreme circumstances require extreme methods. Allowing a gifted young person to learn from their mistakes is always an important part of growing up. However, some mistakes can have irreversible negative consequences. Under certain circumstances, despite howls of protest, parents may need save their gifted child from themselves by taking charge of important decisions. Acts of physically self-destructive behavior of course can be dangerous. Ongoing self-denigrating attitudes can become permanent and have negative long – term effects on self-esteem. Abandoning one’s giftedness in the short term may bring a sense of relief and a superficial sense of belonging but later in life can result in deep regret and a different kind of existential depression.

These techniques taken together and familiar to generations of parents appear to be inconsistent and contradictory. On the one hand are the rewards, indulgences, bribes and a range of “deals”. On the other hand, there are exhortations, inspirational speeches, admonitions, limit setting, threats and punishments. Most parents have their biggest disagreements about how to use these techniques: they seem so ugly and undignified and worse appear to threaten the positive energy in the family.

Avoiding confrontation always seems like a worthy goal but when unacceptable or dangerous behavior exists, parents may not have many choices. In fact highly emotional exchanges can sometimes be more than painful interactions: the process may relieve a gifted young person from irresolvable inner tension. Blaming parents, vehement unwarranted criticism of them may help a gifted young person avoid turning anger on h/h self , disrupt the productive use of gifted energy and ruin important mentoring relationships. Just as underachievement can be adaptive, these unpleasant explosive interactions may have an important developmental function: they disrupt parent/child intimacy and become part of the separation process.

Parents will struggle to find their own formula. An important part of their developmental process is to find a way to function as a team even though they haven’t been able to resolve all their differences. A guiding principal might be “ be as soft as you can but as hard as you need to be” ( from the Tao Te Ching—the Chinese book of life – 6th century attributed to Lao Tsu )

Neither parents of gifted young people or gifted young people themselves need to endure these developmental traumas alone. Seeking professional help before a crisis develops is always a good strategy.

  • Psychotherapy with a clinician who understands the psychology of giftedness and its developmental dynamics can provide support, encouragement, psychologically informed mentoring and a chance to work out basic conflicts and anxieties in what can become a gifted young person’s first truly collaborative relationship.
  • Parent guidance—alone or along with a child’s psychotherapy –can often be valuable. Brief but intensive sessions at key points in a gifted child’s development can help parents understand the basic elements of gifted endowment and the milestones of their development. These sessions help parents formulate their child’s central developmental conflicts, coping styles and then work out a more effective parenting approach. Parent guidance sessions can also establish a safe environment for resolving differences.


As parents you are the unsung heros and heroines of your gifted child’s development- a daunting task requiring sacrifices too numerous to catalogue and appreciated only by other parents of the gifted and those who try to help them. Resist the temptation to abandon your role so that you can witness the special satisfaction your child feels when h/s begins to incorporate the elements of giftedness into a core identity that can comfortably be used in relationships and work. Along the way, you may also feel a special sense of pride knowing that you had a crucial hand in making all this happen.


Contributed by: Parent on 12/28/2012
My daughter who is now a young adult is gifted, but not profoundly gifted. Perhaps because she was an only child, she was always mature for her age in more ways than just intellectually. Of course we did have some of the usual problems when she was growing up, but nothing extreme. The biggest problem that I had with her was "the mouth" from between about 13 and 17. In most ways her intelligence made her easier to bring up, because she would always listen to reason and if a rule made sense, she would follow it, no problem. She developed pretty evenly and that helped a lot. I am surprised when I read about how far behind many gifted children's development is from their intellectual development. While they are mostly their physical age emotionally, at least in my daughter's case, her advanced brain made her more mature because she was capable of understanding the world around her in a way that was extremely advanced for her age. Although my daughter was truly mature for her age, she was not nearly as advanced emotionally as intellectually.

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