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  • Writer's pictureTing-yi Huang

My kid is not a bad kid. He is smart, but he just wouldn't listen.

Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope with Explosive Feelings by Christine Fonseca. 2015. Texas: Prufrock Publisher.

Parents are often inadvertently drawn into power struggles with their gifted children and strong-willed child (SWC). The power struggles become even more salient when the children enter the pre-teen stage, teenage years, and young adulthood.

Parents struggle with their gifted children and SWC because first of all, they are not even aware that they have a gifted children and SWC. All parents know is that "my kid is smart and we just have a hard time making him listen and cooperate with us. I feel like I am in a constant fight with my kid."

Secondly, parents struggle with their gifted children and SWC because these children sometimes experience a broad range of emotional intensity for various reasons, including natural temperament, social environment, gender, parenting styles, etc. All parents know is "I am struggling with not knowing what's the best way to approach my kid. I don't want to fight with him, but I want him to do what I think is more appropriate for him." Indeed, many parents are wondering what the "right" or "balanced" way of discipline should be for their gifted children and SWC.

The struggle with managing the emotional intensity in SWC or Gifted Students is the main reason that parents or school counselors contact me.

"She is being bossy towards her friends at the play ground."

"We tried to talk to her. She knows she's loved, but she is still having a hard time."

"He is so stubborn. He just would not listen."

"I know being rebellious is what teenagers are known for being particularly good at, but does it really have to be this bad?"

School psychologist Christine Fonseca pointed out that, one key to work with gifted students when they are grappling with situations that trigger emotional reactions is to "guide" them through rather than "tell" them what they should do. "The act of facilitation itself focuses on teaching the child how to think, not what to think."

Next time, when your SWC and Gifted Students are accused of having some behaviors that need to be addressed, do not rush into "fixing the problem" mode. Your SWC and Gifted Students are interested in managing the problems as much as you, the parents, the teachers, and the adults, do. But before that, they want to make sure that you are capable of solving the problem with them as a team, and your ability to really listen to them and know where they are coming from is what they use to determine whether you are capable or not. This "eligibility determination" process is most likely conducted by SWC and Gifted Children on an unconscious level.

So why conducting this eligibility determination process? SWC and Gifted Children often screen the world around them with a critically insightful and cognitively adept lens. They feel and think at a more advanced level than their peers. Hence, they could be easily frustrated when their peers are having a hard time understanding or seeing where they are coming from, especially after several repeated efforts to explain. Without proper knowledge of SWC and giftedness, teachers could join the peers and start labeling the kid as being "bossy," or "needing anger management." Needless to say, this not-being-understood-by-their-peers in the first place, coupled with our unintentional labeling of them, makes them feel even more discouraged. They might sit silently but sullenly, or they act out even more.

SWC and gifted students are also quick to spot the flaws in adults. In my years of working with these children, however, I notice that they spot the flaws not to challenge us, but for their own integration of observation and experiences of the world around them. When we impose and insist our opinions onto them, there will be an increased chance that they present their observation of our flaws, to openly inquire "why I would want to listen to and follow your opinion when I see the flaws in you?" Parents could take this very personally, unfortunately. We all do. We think that our kids are challenging us. However, again, there is a possibility that they are raising the question as part of their process of deciding whether your opinion is valid or not. Remember SWC or gifted children are constantly processing information at the emotional and cognitive level.

So what are parents to do to resolve potential opportunities of power struggle? to guide their SWC and gifted students? There are certainly abundant ways to achieve this. Here are some general guidelines:

1) Please do not take things personally.

2) Please abandon the idea that you have to be a perfect parent to avoid giving your children any ammunition. Your striving for perfectionism for your kid itself is part of the power struggle already.

3) Listen to where they are coming from. Refrain from judging whether his behaviors as bad or good. Rather, you want to point out the consequences of his behaviors and ask him about his thoughts on the consequences. When he said, the consequences are bad, such as his friends do not want to play with him, ask him if he'd like to try again. If he does, how else can he do differently and assertively. Tab into your SWC or gifted children's cognitive resources to guide him through the choices he want to make.

4) Catch it when your kids do well. For instance, instead of impulsively react or frustratingly throw his hand up in the air and say "I give up," when your kids exercise meticulous efforts in solving a situation, let him know that you notice his efforts.

5) Identify and validate his emotions. Say things like "I understand how upsetting the situation is, and people make reckless decisions sometimes when their upsetting emotions take over. And the consequence seems to tell us that it is not working out the way we want it. Do you think there is any other way we can handle similar situations when they arise again in the future?"

It is impossible for this blog entry to capture things we can do to optimally guide our SWC and gifted students, as you can reckon. Every child is different and situation is different. You, the teachers or the parents, are also in different contexts. Some teachers handle only a small number of students at a time while other handles more than 20 students at a time. This impacts our ability to nurture and guide our SWC and gifted students. Talk with a therapists or a colleague who specializes in working with SWC and gifted students could be a tremendous complementary source to our efforts in bringing the giftedness in these children to shine. Parent support groups could also be a very good emotional and practical resources for parents who have the best intention in raising bright and kind-hearted youngsters. Reaching out for support is a sign that you are caring for your children and also for yourself.

To end this blog entry, I'd like to share a story: In my work with a five-year-old girl, who is clearly very gifted, I once asked her why all she wished from her parents is for them to just listen, she replied: "Ting-Yi, when we love someone, we listen. Isn't that why when we put our two ears together, they look like a heart?" She said she feels frustrated when her parents said that they love her, but brushed her off when she started talking. I then worked with the parents to listen to understand her, not listen to dispute with her or judge her opinions. I learned tremendously from this 5-year-old girl as an adult myself :)

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