Ask SENG: Parenting gifted teens
Multiple Authors
Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG)
April 2010

This article provides answers to some of parents of gifted adolescents' most frequently asked questions.

Answer 1: What are some questions parents should ask when looking for summer camps for their gifted children?

Answer by Dr. Daniel Peters and Dr. Susan Daniels:

Ideally, a summer camp experience provides opportunities and alternatives for children to be active, have fun, pursue interests, learn new skills, and spend time with like-minded peers in a variety of enriching environments and settings. In choosing a summer camp experience for your gifted, talented, and/or creative child, it is important to consider both the characteristics of your child and the characteristics of the summer camp program to make sure it is a good fit for your child. The following are some questions to consider when searching for a camp:

Program – What types of programs are offered? Are the program offerings primarily academic, project based, and/or activity based? Does the program have a clear social-emotional component? Does the program have a wide range of activities and/or does it offer the opportunity to focus in depth on specific interest areas? Is the program highly structured, or is it flexible?

Staff – Do the staff members have background in the unique development of gifted children? Does the staff understand the social and emotional dimensions of giftedness, including the intensities, sensitivities, and overexcitabilities that gifted youth often possess? Does the camp have gifted staff with expertise in and passion about their subject or interest areas?

Campers – Who will be attending the camp? Will your children have potential intellectual, academic, creative, and social peers? Will they be with other children who share their same passions? Is the camp program designed to be multi-age so that campers will potentially have older role models, mentors, or youth counselors?

Goals – What do you want your children to get out of a summer camp experience? Do you want them to focus on their academic strengths and/or weaknesses? Do you want them to engage in activities that are non-academic and that they enjoy? Do you want them to be with people like them? Do you want them to be in an environment that addresses their social and emotional needs?

Time and space – Is the camp a residential or day camp? Has your child experienced a residential camp before? Is he or she ready for and interested in a residential experience, or is a day camp a better option? What is the length of the camp program? How structured is the daily schedule? Is there a balance of planned activities, choice activities, and unstructured time during which the campers can relax quietly or visit with one or two others to regroup and refuel their energies?

Physical space and exploratory activities - Does the camp provide a range of outdoor activities that will engage a variety of skill and interest levels? Is the natural environment accessible and aesthetically engaging? Are there physical activities that will engage and stretch campers who may or may not have strong athletic abilities?

Personal and creative explorations – Does the camp offer expressive or creative arts activities? Are campers encouraged to be active participants in shaping their time at camp while making personal choices? Are there talent shows, art studio space, musical experiences, creative drama, or other outlets for personal and creative expression?

Camp traditions – Are there distinct and unique features of the camp that provide for memorable reflection long after the camp itself is over? Are there camp traditions such as campfires, story telling, sing-a-longs, etc.? Are there camp reunions or weekend retreats throughout the year through which campers can reconnect and sustain camp friendships?

Fit - The fit between your child and the camp is essential. No one knows your children better than you. Do they thrive in academic environments and want to be immersed in an accelerated academic program, or do they want to spend time in a setting that is a contrast to their school experience? Or do they dislike school and love learning about their interest areas in more informal or exploratory setting? Do they do well in mainstream settings, or do they require a community that understands the complex nature of a gifted child? Do they navigate the social world well, or do they need help interpreting the actions of others and communicating their ideas?

We feel these questions provide an essential starting point for finding an appropriate summer program for your gifted child. Summer camp is an opportunity for children to have different and enriched experiences that they often do not get to experience during the school year. Teasing out the unique features that are the best match for your child will ensure the most gratifying and personally meaningful camp experience for your child.

In our years of providing summer camp and academic summer enrichment programs, we have seen time and again how gathering with other campers with similar interests can result in enhanced learning and create opportunities for developing rich and meaningful new friendships. It is not uncommon for campers to stay in touch for months – until the next year’s program – or even years after an enriching and satisfying camp experience.

One last, and important, recommendation we have is that, to the extent possible, include your child in the exploration of summer options. This process will often build excitement and anticipation for the children as the summer months approach, and sharing the exploration process will help make the search for the right camp all the more personal and informative for parents and children alike. We wish you well in your search!

    Susan Daniels, Ph.D. and Dan Peters, Ph.D. are Co-Founders of Summit Center, specializing in gifted, talented, and creative children, adolescents, and their families, and Camp Summit for the Gifted, Talented, and Creative, a residential summer camp located in Northern California. Dr. Daniels is a Professor of Educational Psychology and Counseling at California State University San Bernardino, where she also directs the University's Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Graduate Certificate Program. She is a co-editor and author of Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents and Adults. Dr. Peters, a licensed psychologist, serves on the SENG Editorial Board and speaks at state and national conferences on a variety of gifted topics. His clinical interests include overcoming anxiety, the mis-diagnosis of gifted and twice-exceptional individuals, and helping individuals achieve their developmental potentials.

Answer 2: My child is sensitive and at times feels socially awkward. What are some things I can do as a parent to improve his self-confidence and social skills without making my child feel more self-conscious?

Answer first appeared in the March 2010 SENG Update as provided by Katharine Beals:

The first step in helping children to improve self-confidence and social skills is to encourage them to open up with you, enough to share his concerns and hear your advice. But the more unsocial they are, the more reluctant they may be to do so. "How was recess today?" "You seem unhappy; do you want to talk about it?" Sometimes our overtures appear only to make children withdraw even further.

At stake, of course, is more than just the quality of our relationship; it’s through this relationship that we can best know our children, and, in knowing them, help them to process emotions and practice social skills. When direct conversation remains impersonal or one-sided, we must find other channels. Many of our children, if we look closely, turn out to be expressing emotions and enacting social dynamics in other ways.

Some do so in imaginative play with dolls, cars, animals, LEGOs®, and other plastic objects. We should try, therefore, discretely listening to what our children are acting out. See what we can learn about their social and emotional fixations. Feel out whether they’ll let us join in. Without taking over the scene our children have created, we should gently insert ourselves as one of the characters. Figure out which one they are personally identifying with and try playing someone who interacts with it—a surrogate “you” to their surrogate “me.” See if our surrogates can bond in some way. Perhaps our child has all the other dolls making fun of the protagonist doll; perhaps our doll can encourage this doll to talk things through, and then offer some reassurance and useful advice.

Other children process emotions through drawing and painting. Here, too, we may find ways to join in. We might see if we can start a collaborative art project—perhaps a series of pictures with interacting characters; perhaps a cartoon with dialogue-filled balloons. Again, we can locate the surrogate “you” and “me,” and find opportunities for role play through drawing and dialogue.

Some children are hikers. Side-by-side hiking, of all joint activities, may be most conducive to extended, unpressured, spontaneous discourse—one in which frequent silences are natural instead of awkward, where eye contact is naturally and comfortably avoided, and where conversational ice breakers far removed from personal feelings keep turning up. Hollow trees, tempting berries, rock formations, animal tracks: we can try gradually making these topics more personal, inviting our child to share interests. Perhaps we can eventually get him or her talking about science class at school, and then school in general, and classmates, and friendships.

All this can substitute for the direct, face-to-face emotion processing that our children may find too intimidating to engage in. It may also gradually put them at greater ease with us, and so shade into something more personal. It may improve both our mutual relationship and their nascent social skills, as well as teaching us more about what bugs, frightens, confuses, or delights them. It may help us accumulate a repertoire of subjects which we can return to and build upon each time we converse with our child, or bring up in drawing others into conversations with him or her. With the more emotionally detached, analytical children, these activities may take us only so far. For this kind of child, the most promising venues for building relationships may be found, instead, in highly structured activities like board games, ball games, or cards.

These options can help open our child up to others as well as to ourselves. The more portable, interactive games can follow us to social events outside the house where our child might otherwise retreat to the sidelines, serving as springboards for increasingly social exchanges over time. Well beyond games, there is a host of joint activities—puzzles, projects, experiments—that our children can engage in with others: occasions for them to share, if not their personal feelings, then at least their intellect.

At least. Here is where we should consider standing all the popular advice on its head. The more emotionally withdrawn a child is, the more we might use the brain, rather than the heart, as the starting point, and structured, intellectual activities, rather than free-form, social ones, as the vehicles for interpersonal connection--construction projects, science experiments, questions to research on the Web, even lessons that we or others can teach them about topics of special interest, or that they themselves can teach to us and others. Many unsocial children who shy away from casual conversation are comfortable playing well-defined, scripted roles like that of teacher. Whenever and wherever emotional bonding seems out of reach, these offer opportunities for intellectual bonds.

We can appeal to the intellect, as well, in helping our children develop social skills. Two books that do an especially good job of breaking down the rules of social interaction are Culturally Speaking (by Rhona B. Genzel and Martha Graves Cummings, Heinle & Heinle, 2009) and Speaking Naturally (by Bruce Tillitt and Mary Newton Bruder, Cambridge, 1985). They offer rules for everything from small talk to friendships, along with myriad written exercises. Aimed at people coming to America from other cultures, their advice can also help unsocial Americans.

Perhaps our child is old enough to read one of these books on his or her own; perhaps it’s something we can read along together. “Here’s an interesting book,” we might say, as matter-of-factly as possible. “It has lots of advice I would have found helpful when I was a kid, and I think you might find it helpful as well.”

Answer 3: I seem to be in a constant battle with my gifted teenager. Nothing I say or do seems to make a difference. What am I doing wrong?

Answer first appeared in the February 2010 SENG Update as provided by Nadia Webb:

Sometimes the gift we give our children is being willing to ask for help in parenting. It is the single most difficult job, and yet it is one that we feel we are supposed to “know” how to do. Having a child is like having your heart extracted from your body and allowed to walk around all by itself; every choice seems fraught and the right decisions are only clear in hindsight.

Parenting styles tend to shape the kinds of battles we have. As Anna Cavany phrases it, parenting strategies as a continuum between “hot housing” and “thrown to the wolves.” At the extreme, they border on caricature, although we do encounter caricature in clinical practice. It is generally easy to see which pole seems more comfortable and more familiar.

The hothouse parents are aware of their child’s delicacy and vulnerability, trying to shield them from possible misfortune in all of its varieties. They almost have an adversarial relationship with the world at large, viewing teachers as potential stiflers of creativity, potentially under qualified or even malevolent. These parents try to cocoon their children within the best schools or the best teachers, keeping their children tightly supervised, vetting friends, filling after school hours productively, and shifting through various diets (Feingold or modified Feingold?) Adolescence is seen as a particularly precarious time in which unproductive free time is a threat and no opportunity for growth should be missed, barring scheduling conflicts. In some ways, this approach could be seen as a particularly Eastern perspective on childrearing. In Japan, children are viewed as wild beasts that must be brought into the human community through community support and force of parental will.

The thrown to the wolves approach is the practice of Rousseau’s idea of the perfection of natural child. It is a style driven by optimism or preoccupation. Children are fundamentally good in a fundamentally good world; when left to their own devices, they will become creative, productive charming people. Their innate goodness will lead them towards good decisions, with minor mishaps along the way usually caused by the interference of others. Often these parents will reminisce about afternoons playing in creeks with neighbor kids, building forts with scrap wood, or having the house to themselves after school. They point out the competencies they developed at an early age, making meals, running after-school lawn mowing or paper routes for extra money, and learning how to suss out the trustworthiness of others. These are the latchkey kids who were often very aware that they were the actors rather than audience members to their own lives.

At its worst, these children are essentially raising themselves while learning not to seek out adult counsel. If parents have mental illness, substance abuse problems, or other serious life crises, they may simply be unavailable to their children, or available in such a chaotic and unpredictable way that children learn to shunt parents off to the side as rapidly as possible simple to preserve some continuity to their days. It becomes too heartbreaking to think “this time it might be different.”

Giving up hope of outside aid from parents can be an adaptive choice; however, because teenagers are prone to over generalizing, they tend to exclude larger swaths of adults than just family members. They learn from what they know, and it frankly may not occur to them to think of adults as a source of help. Adults are either the problem or the people they are lying to about Mom’s mental illness or Dad’s drinking problem. They become de facto orphans. The story of the little match girl is the story of the little girl who looks in the window to see a warm happy family; She has enough memory of what it was like and seeks it out. Children who are truly raising themselves may never think to look in the window. They assume that happy families are an illusion or are closed to “people like them.”

Asking for help is often the best way to model to children that none of us are experts at everything (despite that spiffy IQ). Ask for parenting “recipes” from other parents of gifted children, including checking for a local SENG model parent group. Consult a family therapist or consider a little reading and compassionate self-examination. The American Academy of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) and the American Psychological Association both offer referral services, as do most state mental health organizations. One of my favorite (and classic) books on power struggles is Rudolf Dreikur’s Children: The Challenge, or you might enjoy Martin Seligman’s The Optimistic Child if you have the intense child who tends to be overwhelmed by life’s little bumps. Build your own personal board of directors of wise people who can listen, cheer, and challenge you as a parent. And know that we are all rooting for you.

Answer 4: How can parents and teachers encourage perfectionists to take creative risks?

Answer first appeared in the January 2010 SENG Update as provided by Joyce Juntune:

Two simple ways that adults can help perfectionists to think more creatively and accept failure are to encourage what I call "rough draft thinking" and to give them excuses for not being perfect. We can do this simply by changing the way we talk to our children and students.

Part of what perfectionists deal with is that they look at everything as being a final draft. That's why I like to call ideas "rough drafts": When we first get ideas, they are rough drafts. I might say, "Let's do rough draft thinking," or "This may not be the best final idea to go with, but what is the boldest idea for now?" So one thing we can do is to remove the criterion that the first idea is always the final one.

Another thing about perfectionists is that they want to put a lot of time into everything. So I might say something like, "I want the boldest idea you have in two minutes. I know you get better ideas if you have two hours, but I'm giving you two minutes."

You have to give perfectionists the excuse for something's not being perfect, because if you don't put that excuse in, they live under the belief that their work and ideas must be the best, the most wonderful, and so on. So I immediately put in an excuse for why their work is not going to be the best. The way I do this is by saying things like "Let's just do this for two minutes" and "Let's find your boldest idea." I also don't have them always use all their ideas. I say, "Let's just find bold ideas. Let's just play with ideas."

You will see that this new way of thinking seeps into the other things that they do. I find that when students first come into my creativity class, they are not very brave on the first things they do. Even though they may have creative ideas, they tend go back to the tried and true, their old way of safe, perfectionistic thinking. However, I don't make a big deal about it. I just say, "Give me three of your bold ideas, even if you don't use them. I just want to know what they are." That encourages them for the next time they try a creative risk that's a little bit bigger.

In short, you have to go along without making a big deal about perfectionistic behavior. Just have fun with ideas, and say, "If you don't want to use some of the bold ideas, it's fine." Give them excuses for not being perfect by putting time limits on the amount of time they can spend on a project. Teachers and parent too often say, "Do a good job. I want your best work." This plays right into the perfectionist behaviors. That is why teachers need to include time guidelines with projects, for example, "I only want you to spend two hours on this project. I know you could do a great job if you had all year, but I am only looking for what you can do in the two hours you are to spend on this project."

Answer 5: My daughter is in a gifted second grade class, and she has been saying she is "no good at school anymore." She says the students are rushed from one thing to the next. I've noticed that half of the days this month on our school's calendar include some kind of assessment testing. My daughter is not a very good test taker. Of course, school officials say the gifted kids will still get enrichment, but I don't see how. The day is not long enough. How do we help our gifted students continue their love of learning in this era of micro-managed scheduling and increased testing?

Answer first appeared in the December 2009 SENG Update as provided by Arlene DeVries:

Unfortunately, we are in an era where increased testing in the schools is the norm. However, there are things parents can do to encourage the love of learning. Parents who have developed a positive relationship with the school can advocate for their child's needs. An independent study in an area of the child's interest might allow her to omit content she already knows and spend longer periods of time on a project of her choosing---perhaps working with a volunteer mentor. If the child is advanced in a content area, a parent might request that the grade level assessments be omitted and she be tested only at the level at which she is performing.

There are various forms of assessment beyond testing. Authentic assessment relies less on paper and pencil tests, but instead allows the student to demonstrate what he or she knows in real world situations. For example, a portfolio of original art work or poems could be presented to the teacher. Rather than a test covering correct grammar and punctuation, a student could demonstrate that knowledge by writing a fairy tale. A replacement for a book report could be a play dramatizing the basic themes of the story.

If there is not time for "enrichment" activities, perhaps accelerated content, or tiered assignments can be used to meet student curricular needs. If a student shows they understand the concept in a given unit of study, they are allowed to move on to the next level. The content they have already mastered can be eliminated. In tiered assignments, the more advanced students study topics more in-depth, explore ideas at a level that builds on their prior knowledge, and prompts continued growth. Students work on different levels of activities, all with the same essential understanding or goal in mind. However the gifted students' assignments have more rigor and complexity.

The good news is that only part of a child's overall education happens during the school day. There are afternoons, evenings, weekends, and vacations where parents can provide educational opportunities. Families can read, play games, or go for walks together. Interesting discussions can occur at the family dinner table. Families can participate in libraries, museums, zoos, art centers, science centers, plays, musical programs, or nature centers, many offered at little or no cost. A sense of personal identity develops when families volunteer in humanitarian causes. Positive learning experiences outside the classroom can lessen the feeling of "being no good at school anymore." As the child experiences success and enjoyable learning activities leading to increased knowledge and skills, her self-esteem will increase. When parents model the joy of life-long learning, students too understand the importance of learning. Learning is finally a cooperative effort between home and school. Enduring values and traditions can most effectively be taught at home.

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