by Arlene DeVries
That bright enthusiastic parent who reaches out to you with a warm, “Hello,” seems to have everything going for him or her. Who would guess under that façade is one who may be experiencing feelings of frustration, alienation, and confusion about the world of giftedness? Like their children, they wear masks to conceal their inner feelings. Just as their children frequently “dumb down” in the classroom to conceal what they know, these parents are reluctant to admit they have a gifted child. In conversations with neighbors or relatives, they fail to mention their child’s high SAT or ACT score, or that their child won the spelling bee (again,) or that they are seeking professional help to address depression experienced by their intense, sensitive gifted child. My experience working with parents of gifted children for the past 25 years has led me to the following understandings.
Parents desire effective communication with children.
Parents try to understand their child’s needs from infancy through their cries, babblings, or behaviors. As children grow, communication changes as relationships develop. Listening to the child’s words and body messages gives clues to how your child is feeling. Parents who role model the sharing of feelings enable children to comfortably communicate their inner feelings. Using emotional temperature readings opens the door to insights about the child. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being absolute joy and happiness, what is your temperature reading? Effective communication can develop when parents avoid communication blocks such as: giving commands; using sarcasm; over analyzing the feelings; using diversions to avoid communicating feelings; denying feelings (“You shouldn’t feel that way.”); or saying, “I know exactly how you feel.” Reflective listening lets the child know you understand how he feels. You don’t have to say much. Simply listen, paraphrase what the child says, and reflect the feelings behind the words. Some children respond to written messages . . . a sticky note on the pillow or in the lunch box, or maybe a notebook in which the parent and child write back and forth to one another. Parents who exhibit anger and physical aggression create barriers with their children. As we say to our children, “Use your words to tell me how you feel,” we adults must also share feelings with words delivered in a calm, consistent manner. Listening to your children and reflecting their feelings models, “It’s okay to have feelings!” A home atmosphere of love and acceptance allows for open communication.
Parents have a social conscience to share with children.
I’ve learned that parents, like their children, have a compelling sense of social justice and empathy for those less fortunate. Parents strengthen relationships with their children and pass along value systems when, as a family, they reach out to others in the community (or the world!) Many families walk to raise funds for an incurable disease; prepare meals or collect food for the homeless; gather school supplies for a community center; or participate in work camp trips. Maybe it’s visiting the elderly or playing chess with a care center resident. The high ideals of bright children combined with a personal responsibility to address humanitarian issues such as poverty, war and global warming, may lead to depression over the injustices in the world. Parents who listen and find avenues for their children to become involved in a cause can alleviate the isolation and helplessness experienced by some gifted children.
Parents want an appropriate education for their child.
Some are hesitant to approach schools in requesting accommodations for their gifted child. They’re not sure what to ask for or how to approach the schools. Their curiosity and motivation lead parents to seek out information about gifted children and appropriate programs. Internet searches assist these parents in locating books, articles, and conferences about parenting gifted children. Successful parents think through what they want to say before approaching the teacher; provide documentation regarding reading, math, or art work; are respectful and diplomatic; avoid “hot button” words, such as “bored” and “last year.” They begin with finding something to admire about the teacher or the classroom, focus on the child’s needs, and ask questions rather than making demands. “I’ve noticed Emily gets the spelling words correct on the pretest. I’m just wondering. Would it be possible for her to have a more advanced list of words?” Listening and writing notes of appreciation work wonders in establishing a positive relationship with the school.
Parents exhibit (and need) a keen sense of humor.
I’ve met parents who indicate they cannot handle one more “why,” or “how come,” from their child. Although it is exciting to see how much these children want to learn, parenting gifted children can be exhausting. A gifted sense of humor comes to the rescue when parents have depleted all other coping skills. Families who have fun together, play games, love to tell jokes and funny stories, and can laugh at their own mistakes are modeling an important tension reliever. While sarcasm can damage the child’s self esteem, this lighthearted humor leads to positive family relationships.
The intensity of parents can lead to stress.
In understanding parents of gifted, it should come as no surprise that they often exhibit the same characteristics as those of their children. . . . highly verbal, motivated, curious, emotionally involved, acutely sensitive, high-energy, creative, perfectionist, and intense. Because they care and are talented in many areas, parents, too, tend to be over-involved. Their leadership skills are in demand from cultural, religious, and community organizations. Their need to know and their drive to excel cause them to enroll in advanced degree programs. Concern for others results in volunteer opportunities. Idealism and lofty goals lead to perfectionist tendencies resulting in stress and guilt when they fall short of their ideal. Many parents have increasingly complex demands at work, which must be balanced with the time they spend providing opportunities for their children outside of school in community organizations, sports or the arts. These pressures leave little time for the adults to fulfill their own physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional needs. Parents can be role models for their children in establishing priorities, learning how to “let go,” and practicing relaxation strategies.
Parents yearn for positive relationships with their children.
Relationships are the key to raising a successful, caring and contributing member of society. Relationships are developed through modeling and communication. The interactions parents have with other adults are important for their own well-being, and as a model for the children. There are many barriers to establishing relationships in today’s fast paced society. Do we allow cable news channels, telephones, computers, text messaging, and committee duties to displace time we might have spent with our children? The message is, “These are more important than my time with you.” Special time of just 5 minutes a day with each child is a powerful technique in establishing a positive relationship with your child. One parent taking a child out for breakfast before school or on a weekend camping trip reinforces family ties. Children need that sense of security knowing they belong, that home is a safe haven for them, and that “Someone in this world cares about me!”
Parents of gifted children feel alienated and alone.
One mother commented, “Parenting is a lonely job. It’s very important to know that you’re not alone.” Parents of gifted experience emotions of relief when they finally meet other parents with whom they can share parenting experiences. Explore the options in your community for meeting with other parents. Maybe it’s a local advocacy group, maybe it’s other parents whose children participate in summer camps or classes for gifted children, or maybe you are fortunate enough to be part of a SENG Model guided discussion group for parents. One SENG group participant shared, “This has been ten weeks of positive reinforcement ending in a closer family, a happier more well adjusted student, and a more relaxed and secure parent.”
If you want to revitalize your parenting skills and interact with other parents of gifted, consider the SENG Conference, July 18 – 20 in Salt Lake City. This national conference is committed to the social and emotional aspects of giftedness, including special programs for children and sessions addressing relationship issues for gifted adults. Participants will find training in becoming SENG Model Parent Group Facilitators. Parents tell us that meeting other parents at the SENG conference who are experiencing similar challenges is “life changing!”
Arlene DeVries, currently a private consultant in gifted education, retired after twenty-five years as the gifted/talented community resource consultant for the Des Moines Public Schools. She is a board member of the National Association for Gifted Children and has facilitated more than 70 SENG Model Parent Group series. She is co-author of “Gifted Parent Groups: The SENG Model, 2nd Edition,” and “A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children.” Arlene will be a featured keynote speaker at the 25th Anniversary SENG Conference, where she will also offer SENG Model Parent Group facilitator basic training and advanced training