Tips for Parents: Mendel, Escher Bach - Giftedness and Family Dynamics
Yermish, A.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Dr. Aimee Yermish, who facilitated an online seminar on how giftedness and family dynamics can intertwine. This is an area where there are no easy answers; she advocates a thoughtful approach to building awareness of how one’s own family and its stories have developed over multiple generations.

In our seminar, we learned to draw genograms. A genogram, unlike a pedigree or a genealogy, is focused less on precise historical accuracy and more on reflecting how relationships within the family are perceived, often at a specific moment in time. Genograms can include not just biologically-related or legally-related individuals, but can include members of a family’s larger social network, and even institutions or abstract concepts which are important to members of the family (for example, a religious organization, a family tradition, or “the arts”). Ancestors you never knew and don’t know anything about are less important than the family pets and your best friend since college. Traditionally, you draw two generations back from your own, plus any generations below, so in this seminar, most of the participants drew four generations (their grandparents, their parents, themselves, and their children).

It helps to draw a genogram on large paper, in pencil, and it usually takes several drafts. There is software to help, but, frankly, it tends to take up more time than it saves.

After drawing in the underlying family structure, we can think about creating a series of overlays (try using words, color codes, or symbols, and either use transparencies or make photocopies of the original, because this will get very messy very fast!), showing which members of the family had some personal characteristic. For example, education level, profession, social class, country or state of origin, and the like, are often indicated on genograms. However, there are no rules -- anything which might be relevant is fair game. For example, when looking at a family with many gifted members, we might map out the various ways in which high intelligence manifested in the family or affected it, such as areas of proficiency or interest, temperamental characteristics, choices of educational strategy, and the like.

When we look at these overlays, we can often get important information about what a family values, how it defines things (such as “What’s a good education?”), and what some of the assumptions and family stories are. I often say that “Fish don’t write dissertations on water” -- we’re often unaware of our family’s culture, what almost everyone simply takes to be true. Family conflicts can arise when someone acts in a different way from the family norm, or when marriage brings together two families with very different histories and assumptions. For example, when one spouse’s family tends to assume that a gifted child should be strongly encouraged to develop their passions and should be openly advocated for, while the other spouse’s family tends to assume that nails that stick up tend to get hammered down, that can create a great deal of distress.

We also look at roles or niches within the family. It is common for birth order and age differences within a sibling group to affect the roles each child takes on within the immediate family. However, high intelligence can potentiate children taking on adultlike roles at younger ages than normal, which can be both a source of self-efficacy and a source of stress. It is also common for members of the family, particularly siblings, to each establish a “niche” or role of their own (for example, “the good student,” “the math whiz,” “the musician”); this is particularly common when a child manifests precocity in some domain. Niche-picking can reduce competition within the family, but can also close off areas of exploration, particularly for children. Look also at roles within an extended family -- the matriarch, the crazy uncle, etc.

Genograms also indicate lines of relationship, such as who is close with whom, who fights a lot with whom, who avoids interacting with whom, who has hurt whom, where there are secrets, and so on. Those relationships can show a great deal about the underlying dynamics of the family.

Relationship lines often organize themselves into triangles, where two people ally with each other against a third, or where a small knot of people tie themselves into a very close relationship against some outside force. For example, in a family with one child who is gifted according to the usual ways that family defines it, and another child who is twice-exceptional or otherwise not rising to expectations, a parent might draw close to the satisfying child while pushing the other one away. Alternatively, the parents might organize around rescuing the twice-exceptional child, who is seen as the victim of outsiders who do not understand them. A very large number of different triangulations are possible, often spanning multiple generations.

One of the most important things to look for in a genogram is how things replicate themselves over time. Frequently, a significant event or relational structure that occurs in one generation is repeated one or two generations below, often many times. The mere fact of something having happened can create a model for its happening again. Sometimes these patterns become the basis for family legends. Alternatively, sometimes these things can be reflected in mirror image, as a family member struggles to undo a painful experience. Recognizing these patterns can go a long way towards supporting the patterns that are helpful to people within the family, and defusing the harmful patterns.

In the end, the more aware you can become of your family’s history, culture, and relational patterns, the more intentional you can be in your decision-making and the more effective you can be in communicating and collaborating with others in the family.

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