So far all of my children tend toward intensity, and this year one child in particular has been navigating a phase of particularly heightened emotional responses. After a troubling encounter with the pediatrician, who immediately declared those behaviors abnormal and probably indicative of extremely serious mental illness, we had a major parenting crisis and the wheels felt like they were coming all the way off of our already challenging family life (not challenging in a bad way, but parenting soon-to-be five children when we are all pretty intense people and are in various stressful and/or developmental stages takes considerable effort). Thankfully, and as a major answer to prayer, we got connected with a very understanding and helpful psychiatrist who assured us that the child in question is not at all mentally ill, but is a gifted kid with an intense personality who needs different strategies and parenting techniques. Progress has been slow, but we do see progress, both in this child’s responses and in our own ability to parent these intense–but also intensely interesting!–kids of ours.
In this process we got a lot of good counsel from friends we trust, and naturally I read some books. On the off chance that one of you might run into similar situations at some point, I’m reviewing a few that were particularly helpful.
It turns out that common characteristics of gifted children and adults are often misdiagnosed as mental illness or disorder. It also turns out that we were exceedingly fortunate to find a mental health professional who recognizes the difference (as apparently this is not the norm). Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, Ocd, Asperger’s, Depression, and Other Disorders contains exceptionally helpful comparisons between behaviors and markers for a variety of illnesses and the ways giftedness can look like those conditions but is actually different. The book also goes into what to look for when a child or adult has a dual diagnosis–that is, the person is gifted AND has another condition, and how that dual diagnosis often presents differently or can be overlooked. The information is complex, but the detail is critical if you are at all unsure about what someone is telling you about your child.
To be very clear: I absolutely support getting help and using medication for actual mental illness or imbalance. This book does NOT take the line that you shouldn’t medicate children at all, ever. It just counsels restraint and accurate diagnosis prior to medicating, which seems eminently reasonable to me, especially as so many of the case studies in the book involve kids being given serious drugs designed to treat conditions the children did not even have–to the detriment of the child’s development.
Even if you aren’t currently dealing with a potential diagnosis issue, I still might recommend this resource for parents of gifted kids in general. I’ve read plenty of books on the topic, but this one presents data-driven findings about the way gifted kids think and react to situations that I found helpful for all of my kids. The authors point out that often giftedness is a touchy topic because it strikes people–even people who are gifted themselves–as gilding the lilly, but in reality parenting kids who think differently, experience life differently, and engage differently and more intensely can be very, very challenging. This part of the book is insightful, encouraging, and helpful.
The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children is not written explicitly about gifted kids–although lots of the case studies seem to feature them–but rather offers perspective and techniques for parenting kids who are intense (in all sorts of ways) because they lack skills in flexibility and frustration tolerance.
One criticism I’ve seen of this book is that it’s just making apologies for kids who are bad and manipulative. Don’t they just need more discipline or sticker charts or to be told to get over it when they overreact? Well, maybe some kids do. But if your kid is consistently flipping out at one or two key triggers (in our house this often happens with deviations from the planned schedule–whether our stated agenda or what the child had in mind for the day. Other kids may overreact to bedtime or departures or homework or whatever) and the regularly suggested parenting tips aren’t working, it might be worth your while to consider another approach.
The book suggests a collaborative problem solving approach to teach kids to deal with unexpected situations with greater flexibility and perspective. It’s not an easy one-click solution, but if you have a kid who flips out it might take less time than dealing with that. One thing I found particularly helpful was examining my own reasons behind making changes or asking kids for things. I kind of like flexibility and being able to change plans when things make more sense a different way, but I have a few kids who don’t roll with that as easily (and who aren’t as highly motivated by efficiency as I am!). The problem solving approach requires the parent to articulate the actual concern behind a request–why am I saying no/changing the plan/setting this requirement–and sometimes once I’ve considered what I’m really concerned about, I realize that I don’t actually need to instigate the problem. Sometimes I do–I’m still the parent here–but being more aware of the couple of triggers a child has can go a long way to minimizing them. I also liked how the book emphasizes teaching skills rather than various techniques for strong-arming or manipulating kids into doing what you want. It seems more in line with the goal to train children to be functional adults.
As for how well the problem solving works…well, it’s a process and the author admits that. We’ve had some success with it, and I’ve been surprised at how well mutually agreed upon solutions can work–especially in areas where I have pretty well defined ideas of how things should go. By getting to what my concern is, and what the child’s concern is, we can come up with solutions that might not have been either of our first idea, but which are workable.
Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope with Explosive Feelings is a very readable, encouraging book geared primarily toward parents but also with considerable insights for teachers, schools, and other outside-the-family situations. I liked how the book focused on the strategies you can teach kids to help them to navigate their feelings and intensity. So often the response is “get over it” or “stop overreacting” or otherwise implying that something is wrong with the child. But our feelings are not wrong, just sometimes what we do with those feelings.
I think this book does a great job of exploring the different ways that kids can be intense. It doesn’t always look like anger or flipping out or weeping–many kids just chatter a lot, get giddy, and have a lot of energy.
If you’re parenting a gifted kid, especially if you are also teaching one, this book has a lot of practical helps and things to think about. I found it very, very helpful and would highly recommend this one.
Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults takes a much more academic approach, which was fine with me but might be dry if you aren’t really fascinated with the topic. I found that there were several chapters I only skimmed, while others I took time to read slowly and carefully, because some dealt with things I’m not dealing with currently, or were better laid out in other books (like the Misdiagnosis book reviewed above).
I thought the particular strengths of this volume were the chapters on specific strategies for different excitabilities (if you’ve read much of the literature of giftedness you’ve probably run into this idea of different types of intensity/excitability) and the sections on being a gifted adult. I took LOTS of notes on the practical strategies, because my kids do have different excitability types and frankly, I can actually use some of these ideas on myself!
Sometimes I wonder if I read books on giftedness halfway for parenting and halfway for myself. The chapters in Living With Intensity on adult giftedness really helped me. First, it’s helpful to know that I’m not so very strange or abnormal as I usually feel. This book goes into several studies on how gifted adults progress through life stages, and it helped me to look at my stage in life and realize that I am not alone in some of my feelings and fears. It also helped me to think through strategies of dealing with things as part of a bigger picture–this is the very thing I try to help my kids with, but I don’t always do it for myself.
Living With Intensity might be a good book to check out of the library so you can read sections of particular interest to you, but if you don’t have time to read widely on these topics you really can skim lots of it.
If you have intense and/or gifted kids, or were/are one yourself, what resources have you found particularly helpful?
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