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Anxiety, Sensitivities and Social Struggles among Profoundly Gifted Kids

Social and Emotional Resources

This Tips for Parents article is authored by Megan Foley Nicpon and is based on a seminar she hosted for Young Scholar families in which she discusses how the concepts of anxieties, sensitivities, and social struggles can manifest within profoundly gifted kids and identifies ways to positively intervene.

Dealing with anxiety, sensitivities and social difficulties is a pertinent topic for many parents whose profoundly gifted children have struggled with these issues at various times in their development. Oftentimes, these challenges influence each other, making potential solutions complex. In this article, I will summarize some of the ways anxiety, sensitivity, and social problems can manifest in profoundly gifted children and provide suggestions about how to help them (and you!) cope.

Among profoundly gifted children, anxiety can manifest in multiple ways. For example, students may have fears about being away from their parents that decreases participation in extracurricular activities and social events. Given their propensity for perfectionism, profoundly gifted children can manifest fears of failure and go to unrealistic lengths to have their products be free of errors. If given corrective feedback, they may have trouble “turning off” these messages and begin to believe there is something “wrong” with them. Other profoundly gifted children may have fears of being in public or in large groups and avoid such situations. In some cases, the children’s fear response can be quite intense, overwhelming, and scary. Finally, profoundly gifted children can experience uncontrollable worry about issues outside their control, such as global warming or poverty in urban areas. These worries can lead to feelings of irritability, frustration, and hopelessness.

The term “sensitivities” is a little less concrete; there is no mental health diagnosis corresponding to being “sensitive” and it is important not to pathologize children’s variable responses to environmental triggers. Some profoundly gifted children, however, can experience heightened sensory sensitivities, such as discomfort with tags touching their skin, dislike for wearing certain clothing, or heightened reactions to florescent lights, or loud sounds. Other children may be sensitive to word events or others’ feelings to the point that it causes them extreme distress. I believe it is important to normalize some of these feelings and be understanding of children’s concerns, but seek professional services if their sensitivities are causing significant distress or impairing their functioning.

The term “social struggles” is also quite broad. Some profoundly gifted children have social struggles because they cannot find cognitively similar peers. Research and lived experience shows that we seek relationships with people who have similar life experiences; if your child’s ability occurs in less than 1 in 1000 children, it may be quite challenging to find like-minded peers. Seeking social opportunities through the Davidson Institute is an excellent way for profoundly gifted children to connect with others who are like them. At the same time, learning to interact with and finding value in relationships with people NOT like us is a life skill we all benefit from learning.

If your profoundly gifted child is experiencing one or more of these difficulties, there are ways you can help. Here are some suggestions, and I would encourage you to read my original article for more ideas:

1. Talk to your child. Often, children who worry benefit from one-on-one time with a parent who is willing and able to listen to their concerns without judgment or interpretation.

2. Schedule special time with your child. Families today have busy schedules and it quickly becomes nearly impossible to have alone time with your child. Schedule a “date” with your child where you plan something purely fun. Try to focus your energies on enjoying each other’s company rather than discussing stressful topics.

3. Recognize the benefits of getting professional help. In our society, there still exists a stigma around mental health services, yet ample evidence points to the benefits of therapeutic intervention for anxiety and social concerns. Normalizing what it means to see a therapist or counselor can dispel any misconceptions your child may hold about what it means to seek help.

4. Accept that sensitivities are outside your child’s control. When my daughter was younger, she screamed every time we had to use a public restroom because the sounds of the toilets flushing and dryers running were overwhelming. At first I was incredibly embarrassed (especially when her dad could hear her loud and clear from far outside the bathroom!), but then I learned to accept that the noise bothered her so much, it made her scream. Once I settled down about it, she settled down, too. I changed my behavior; I reassured her when she was scared, I only flushed the toilet once she was out of the stall, and I always exited with wet hands! This helped tremendously and now, at age 4, she no longer screams. Many children outgrow sensitivities and others learn better ways to cope (other than screaming!).

5. Expose your child to various social settings and talk about the experience. For example, a child may dislike going to his school’s football games because of all the noise and crowds but enjoy attending soccer games because of slight differences in the setting.

6. Increase opportunities to interact with peers with similar interests and experiences. Events, such as the Davidson Young Scholars Summits, can be life changing for young scholars who commonly feel there is “no one like them.” I have interacted with numerous families in the past who have indicated attending these events have made profound differences in their children’s lives.

7. Model social interactions and praise attempts at social interactions. If someone feels he or she is not good at something, it is becomes harder and harder to engage in that behavior. Positively reinforcing social attempts and pro-social behaviors can build confidence and willingness to broaden one’s social experiences.

8. Praise students when they take educational risks. When your profoundly gifted student decides to take a more challenging class at the risk of not getting a “perfect” grade, it should be celebrated. While society continues to place emphasis on outcomes, we as parents can also emphasize process and the joy of learning, instead of the need to get an A.

9. Model letting go and facing fears. Children benefit from watching their parents face their own fears, be it social, behavioral, or environmental. The next time you are scared to try something (like ride that really big rollercoaster or attend that new social event) give it a try and share with your child what it was like for you.

10. Take care of yourself. Raising children is extremely stressful. You are going to make mistakes – you are human! Schedule time for activities you enjoy so that you get a break from stress and life’s demands. You’re a parent – you deserve it.

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