How can we help our gifted children build resilience?
Although privileged with strong intellectual skills, many gifted kids struggle to adapt to hard times. Heightened sensitivities, common among many gifted children, increase reactivity to stressful situations. Overthinking and perfectionism can add to the mix, intensifying anxiety and fears. A highly attuned sense of fairness and justice can trigger additional stress and a feeling of betrayal when demands or life events seem unjust. Asynchronous development manifest through social immaturity can interfere with the development of necessary coping skills that can guide them through complicated social interactions. And just as gifted children can be confident and adaptable, other times, they may be rigid, inflexible, and lacking in perspective.
On the other hand, there is evidence that heightened intellectual abilities may serve a protective function. Gifted individuals may be better able to understand and reflect upon their reactions and make effective choices. They often possess an “internal compass,” responding from an internal locus of control rather than merely reacting to outside influences. They can be adaptable and”planful,” and possess good problem-solving skills. In other words, they see the big picture and possess an ability to tease out what is meaningful and essential when making decisions.
Essentially, giftedness provides an array of factors that can both enhance and hinder their capacity for resilience. As Neihart & Yeo have noted:
“Gifted children do have unique psychological issues, but these do not arise from giftedness itself. Rather, giftedness seems to add complexity to an individual that can either enhance or interfere with healthy adjustment…”
What is resilience?
Resilience is loosely defined as the ability to bounce back from and thrive after adversity. It is a behavioral skill that can be cultivated – not a fixed personality trait. No one is resilient in every situation; we all are influenced by an interplay of personal characteristics and family, cultural, and social circumstances.
In Part One of this series, resilience-building was addressed from the perspective of attitude change and reframing one’s assumptions about failure. A failure experience is less emotionally painful when viewed as part of a learning process, rather than as a sign of generalized incompetence or an indication that nothing will improve. If failing is framed as a normal part of growth and development, and as an opportunity for learning and self-awareness, its negative impact is diminished.
Not all struggles with hardship result from difficulty adapting to failure, though. Many children – and adults – weather hardships and challenges associated with a range of influences. Examples include social difficulties, emotional and mental health struggles, health problems, economic hardship, poverty, systemic racism, cultural and gender-based bias, disabilities, loss, abuse, violence, trauma, or at is worst, enduring life in a war zone. Sadly, the list of potential challenges is extensive. However, resilient people are equipped to endure these hardships and even thrive in spite of them.
Even when children are not confronted with the devastating hardships some families face, they still may benefit from tools and strategies for navigating hard times. Your gifted child, for example, may not be living in a war zone – but still may struggle with insecurities, fears, and social stressors. And the recent Pandemic has contributed to unique challenges that affect every child and adult, provoking varying degrees of stress.
The following are strategies for building resilience
1. First, identify the specific skills your child needs to develop. Your goal is to pinpoint the unique thoughts, feelings, and automatic reactions that prevent a “resilient response” to hardship. Some examples include highly self-critical reactions, worrying and “catastrophizing” about the future, or responding to situations either impulsively or in a rigid manner. Not only will identifying interfering behaviors provide a roadmap for what needs to be addressed, but your attuned awareness of your child’s struggles will help them feel understood. “Even though I feel overwhelmed, it’s good to know that my parents really get me.”
2. Discuss your concerns with your child. Note your observations in a compassionate, caring manner, and approach goal-setting with the same optimistic spirit your might use when planning a vacation or baking cookies. Your optimism will be reassuring and convey the expectation that you will roll up your sleeves and figure out how to solve this – not that you are worried or assume your child’s struggles reflect a character flaw or deficit. “Well, I guess if my parents aren’t too worried, it’s not so bad.”
3. Keep your expectations in perspective. While you might wish for greater observed resilience in your child, keep in mind that they are doing the best they can. Their developmental level, maturity, asynchronous development, social skills, temperament, strengths, vulnerabilities, and past experiences all come into play. Any goal-planning needs to consider these factors; otherwise, both you and your child will be upset and frustrated. “Trying to act differently is hard; what a relief that my parents aren’t pressuring me too much.”
4. Address goal-setting. Work with your child to set both short-term and long-range goals. A short-term goal might include how they plan to finish their homework tonight; long-term planning could include improved organizational skills, managing distractions, or improved self-awareness about what contributes to procrastination. Frame resilience-building as a strength that develops over time, and should generalize to a variety of situations. Learning to shrug off criticisms from peers in elementary school, for example, may help when social challenges increase in middle school. Include your child’s opinions in the discussion. Ask for ideas, thoughts, and opinions, and allow your child to brainstorm what might work. “I might be willing to take on this plan since it doesn’t seem too hard.”
5. Help your child with self-reflection. Engage your child in asking questions about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You can suggest that they can become a junior scientist or journalist or detective. The more they can uncover their motivations and roadblocks, the easier it is to change them. This is also a life-long skill that will serve them well in the future. The following are useful questions for self-reflection. (Note that a more thorough overview of how to use these questions will follow in a future blog post.)
What are the underlying reasons for my reactions or behavior?
What are the triggers for how I feel or react?
What are the facts? Where is the data? Am I confusing a fact with a feeling? (All because I feel something, doesn’t make it true.)
What is most pressing for me to do now?
What is most important long-term?
Is this something that can be changed – or do I need to learn to accept what cannot be changed?
6. Encourage autonomy. You won’t be with your child in the schoolyard or classroom. The more they can rely on their own abilities, strategies and quick thinking in a stressful situation, the better the outcome. Encourage them to self-reflect on the situation and their response, give them opportunities to take responsibility as much as possible, and ask for their ideas and opinions – even if you don’t always agree with them. Encourage as much independence as is appropriate, taking into account their maturity, judgment, anxiety level, and the environment. Obviously, allowing your child to walk to a friend’s home on their own depends on the safety of the neighborhood and the distance to their destination. But encouraging healthy risk-taking and independence builds confidence and enables self-reliance. “It’s good to know that my parents trust me to walk the dog; they must think I am as capable as a big kid.”
7. Use praise and rewards wisely. We all benefit from praise. Willingham has described what characterizes praise that is most useful: it is truthful, sincere, immediate, specific, earned, and focused on process and behaviors rather than abilities. Setting up rewards and incentives can be helpful also, as long as your child buys into the process and it makes sense to them. Some healthy and inexpensive ideas for rewards can be found here; however, including your child’s ideas for motivational rewards, and taking into account what is doable for you are essential. “I’ll get my homework done now, because I know I can play outside afterwards.”
8. Build optimism. Encourage a positive outlook as much as possible. This does not mean ignoring stress, grief, anxiety, or loss, or espousing simplistic comments that deny your child’s personal emotions. As we all know, telling someone to “chill out” or “get over it” when they are upset is not only ineffective, but builds distrust and resentment. A compassionate and optimistic perspective demonstrates that you and your child can get through a tough situation, and learn from and even grow as a result of enduring hardship. This includes instilling an attitude of flexibility, optimism, humor, belief in one’s ability to endure and overcome challenges, and an understanding that we cannot control everything – but can control our reactions to situations. “I don’t like social studies and hate when the teacher calls on me, but I don’t have to be the best in the class – I just have to get through it.”
While a range of additional factors affect resilience-building, ranging from difficulty with executive functioning skills to untreated depression, the above strategies are a start. Part three of this series will cover more specific strategies for addressing how your child thinks about and perceives specific situations, and how to challenge negative thinking. In short, though, the basic steps to consider include the following:
1. Assess the situation, and identify factors (intrinsic, situational, attitudinal, a skills deficit) that contribute to the problem
2. Understand your child’s strengths and vulnerabilities
3. Approach resilience-building as a strategy and not a personal trait
4. Consider resilience-building as just as important as other skills (such as academics, manners, social skills, and executive functioning skills)
5. Encourage developmentally appropriate autonomy, problem-solving strategies, and healthy risk-taking, along with your child’s ideas and input into addressing any problem.