The Many Facets of Giftedness: Understanding and Supporting Talented Children with Challenges

Under normal circumstances, development is a complicated process that unfolds in early childhood in sometimes contradictory ways. For example, a typical six-year-old may be highly attuned to people’s subtle changes in emotions, but only able to verbally describe people in the black and white terms of either a “good” or a “bad guy.”

When we talk about a child being “gifted”, we describe a child who has superior ability in a specific area of development. We measure the child’s cognitive ability, or what we call “intelligence,” and determine they are well above average. However, in addition to above average cognitive abilities, “gifted” children typically have other developmental areas in which they are not average. They often have sensitivities, or heightened awareness, in the realms of emotional and sensory processing that can also be considered forms of intelligence, and therefore “gifts,” if supported and encouraged.

Typically, if you say that a child is “gifted,” parents and educators will nod and smile knowingly, probably with the picture of a “bright”, creative, highly verbal child, perhaps a miniature adult coming to mind. Some might even think of the more eccentric version of this smart little person. The child version of Einstein we are all familiar with seeing comes to mind, tongue hanging out, hair askew, but with ideas in his head that are beyond most of our wildest imaginations. We laugh to ourselves, “Well, he certainly doesn’t need to worry about such mundane things as personal grooming when he has the workings of the universe on his mind.”

This miniature Einstein illustrates the complexities of development for a child with superior skills in one or more area of intelligence, of which there are actually nine (described below). The uneven development that results when a child is so far ahead in one or more areas of development is what can cause problems for this child. It often strikes parents and teachers as odd that such brilliant children can have such a hard time doing ordinary things like completing simple homework assignments or going to birthday parties.

While it seems wonderful that an 8-year-old can conceptualize advanced scientific theories at a college level, the expectations that this may place on a child who is still only 8-years-old emotionally (or less), and struggling with tasks of daily living create stress for both child and parents. Instead of smiling, parents probably end up shaking their fists and exclaiming, “How can my son/daughter understand the workings of the universe and not be able to get dressed in the morning!?!”

Interestingly, children with cognitive “gifts” tend to also be emotionally sensitive and to experience sensory information intensely. In addition to the traditional gifts of logical and linguistic intelligence focused on in school, these children often exhibit sensory, bodily and interpersonal sensitivities that adults can also help them see as potential strengths.

We seem to understand those children who are gifted artistically, musically, or physically as we can pinpoint very specific skills at which they excel. But, what about a child with a more general sensitivity to environmental sound, without an interest or aptitude for music? Is this heightened awareness and ability to hear and discriminate sounds not still a gift? Or, the child who is very emotionally attuned to others? Where is the place for these gifts to be recognized and encouraged in the early childhood years?

Clearly, in our modern, technology-driven society, we have come to increasingly value a very specific type of intelligence, the type that can be described as logical or scientific. But there are other types of intelligence described by psychological theorists and researchers that are equally important, and in fact, may be more relevant in other cultures than the logical (math and science) and linguistic (reading and writing) intelligence that we typically measure in classrooms.

According to developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, these multiple intelligences include; Naturalist Intelligence (“Nature Smart”), Musical Intelligence (“Musical Smart”), Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (“Number/Reasoning Smart”), Existential Intelligence, Interpersonal Intelligence (“People Smart”), Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (“Body Smart”), Linguistic Intelligence (“Word Smart”), Intra-personal Intelligence (“Self Smart”), and Spatial Intelligence (“Picture Smart”).

When the definition of intelligence is broadened, essentially, “giftedness” comes to mean that a child has heightened perception in one or more of the areas mentioned above. Heightened perception is “sensitivity,” so sensitivity is actually a gift. A gift fraught with challenges, but a gift nonetheless.

When heightened emotional and/or sensory awareness is combined with superior cognitive ability, children face a great deal of overwhelming information coming at them from every direction. They are sensing, feeling and thinking at such a high intensity that it can often be too much for someone of their young age to handle. Their uneven, or “out of sync” development, means that these children are at different age levels in terms of their intellectual, physical, and emotional development, instead of development progressing equally and relative to age. This can be frustrating and confusing for children, and bewildering for the adults around them. Following are some of the ways these children might struggle and some ways for adults to help them.

Some social and emotional difficulties experienced by children with advanced abilities:
1. Children may feel frequently frustrated due to their inability to physically do the things they are able to come up with cognitively or creatively. (“I want to build a spaceship. No, an actual spaceship!”) They may be likely to put the pressure of perfect performance on themselves regardless of what parents say.

2. Children’s high expectations for themselves may actually paralyze them with the fear of failure, or worse, the fear of mediocrity. A child may refuse to do something he or she fears he/ she will not do well.

3. Children’s advanced thinking and reasoning skills, and ability to see many sides of an issue may make it hard for them to make decisions that seem clear cut to parents, causing them anxiety and problems with feelings of competence and self-esteem.

4. Children may begin to use their advanced verbal skills to argue with parents (or teachers) about the specifics of rules and requirements, questioning anything and everything, causing constant conflict and inconsistent boundaries.

5. Children may have social difficulties or anxiety due to feeling left out, weird, or misunderstood as a result of their intellectual differences from peers, and become socially uncomfortable and withdrawn from peer interaction.

6. Children may become emotionally overwhelmed and preoccupied with concepts that they can conceptually understand and think about, but cannot cope with yet, such as war, death, world hunger, inequality, etc., leading to symptoms of withdrawal, depression and anxiety.

7. Children’s heightened ability to process all forms of social and sensory information, and need to know all of the information before entering a new situation may make it overwhelming for them to try new things.

8. Children’s often intense emotional awareness, or “sensitivity”, may make them avoidant of competitive situations as they are often devastated by criticism and sensitive to any anger around them, often interpreting other’s negative emotions as directed towards them personally.

Strategies that parents/teachers can use to help children with advanced abilities cope with the challenges they face:

1. Always remember that there will be times when your child will surprise you with his or her independence, and other times when he/ she will need more support than you may have expected.

Gifted children are ahead intellectually, but may be at age-level or behind emotionally or physically, which can be frustrating for both of you. Try to be patient and remember to see the child behind the big IQ. Reviewing expected social and emotional developmental milestones for your child’s age may help to put things in perspective and remind you that your child still really needs your help.

Try to stay calm and support your child’s growth without putting down his/her need for help. Instead of saying, “You should be able to do this by now,” you could say, “Remember last week when you did this so well, that was great, now let’s try to remember together how you did that .”

2. Listen to your child and validate his/her feelings. Validate hurt or negative feelings, and listen to your child’s let-downs, but then help your child learn to think optimistically. If your child struggles to see the positive in a situation, challenge him/her to come up with one good thing that could happen as a result of the let down and make this an ongoing family game.

Help your child put his or her experiences into context by rating them on a scale of one to ten, where one is a very minor negative experience your child has had and ten is one that they imagine to be the worst thing that could ever happen. Create a visual chart with numbers and pictures. Also do this with feelings, helping your child label the emotion they are experiencing and the intensity of that emotion. A “feelings chart” that shows different faces, and having your child label his/her feeling “cool”, “medium” or “hot” can be helpful.

3. Talk cooperatively with your child, but be careful not to engage in debates or discussions about household or school rules that are already determined, or to argue for argument’s sake. As the parent, remember that you have the right to stop the discussion, and that usually, unless you are talking about feelings, fewer words are better. Always make clear rules and enforce clear consequences when they are broken, regardless of the quality of the child’s argument! Children feel more secure when parents are in control, and this is exactly what gifted children need.

4. You can help your child feel less stressed by listening to your child’s ideas and thoughts without interference, teaching or correcting, and by praising your child for his or her ideas rather than their outcome or successes. Unrealistic or even unclear parental expectations put pressure on gifted children (“You mean you don’t expect me to cure cancer!?!), so make sure to tell your child exactly what you expect, and help guide them to make decisions that are theirs to make in a realistic manner.

5. Help your child feel appreciated by valuing his/her other “non-gifted” character traits and special skills, especially those that are age-appropriate and fit in with the child’s peer group to encourage rewarding social interactions, i.e. silliness or sense of humor, scary face-making ability, jump-roping, cupcake baking skills, and so on.

6. Allow your gifted child to act like a child. Remind your child that you are the parent and that your only expectation is that your child will learn from you to be a happy, good person. Give ample hugs and liberal special play time with your child. Also, allow your family some free time every day and some time on weekends to truly relax and do “whatever” they think is fun, no education and no expectations!

7. Enjoy your child’s unique combination or strengths and challenges, and continue to foster the gifts of giftedness!