Parents of gifted kids face an array of challenging emotions, often juggling multiple feelings at once. Some of the most perplexing emotions and reactions can be summarized as “the 4 E’s.” Not to be confused with 2e, a term used to describe twice-exceptionality (when gifted children also struggle with a condition such as ADHD or anxiety), the concept of “the 4 E’s of Gifted Parenting” is shorthand for some of the most common pressures and emotions parents of the gifted face: exhilaration, envy, embarrassment, and (high) expectations. Many of the worries and confusion parents often face stem from these four emotions and reactions. The sooner we understand how our emotions are triggered, and can compassionately accept and learn from how we feel, the more easily we can manage their impact on our children.
These emotions are described in depth in my new book, The Gifted Parenting Journey: A Guide to Self-discovery and Support for Families of Gifted Children. And while I plan to elaborate further in future blog posts and articles, a brief description of these complex emotions is listed below. Some findings from the Gifted Parenting Survey, an online survey conducted in early 2022 to access parents’ emotions and reactions, are also included.
Of all the emotions and reactions we experience as parents, exhilaration, excitement, and pride over our gifted child’s abilities and accomplishments are the easiest to accept. Who wouldn’t be overjoyed and astonished that their child excels, wins awards, or shows tremendous empathy and compassion for those less fortunate? Nevertheless, these feelings can be complicated. Many parents of the gifted are reluctant to share their child’s latest accomplishments with even their closest friends, given concerns that they might appear to be bragging or that acknowledging their child’s giftedness could create conflict. Parents of neurotypical children often cannot fully grasp that our child’s accomplishments are not the product of prepping and coaching, but a natural progression based on their abilities. Our spontaneous expression of excitement may be perceived negatively. As a result, we might hold back details – or possibly share nothing at all.
In the survey of 428 parents of gifted children launched online earlier this year (and summarized in my book), a large percentage of parents (54.2%) indicated that they felt grateful “a lot” or “always” for their child’s ability to excel and enjoy school and 30.3% were grateful “a lot” or “always” that their child possessed additional qualities, such as creativity, empathy, curiosity, and sensitivity. Certainly, these families have a lot to share about their child’s strengths! Yet, two-thirds of these parents (65%) indicated that they felt misunderstood by other adults “a lot” or “always.” Interestingly, a much smaller number reported that they have been accused of bragging (30%). It is possible that many parents of the gifted avoid situations that might result in accusations of boasting or bragging, and prefer to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves.
Envy is not pretty. It is not something we are proud of. Yet, almost everyone experiences envy at some point. It arises when we encounter folks with better looks, or abundant wealth, or whose children never seem to get in trouble! Parents of gifted children face some unique experiences with envy, particularly when we compare ourselves or our children to others. When our child shows signs of asynchronous development, behaves immaturely, and cannot fit in with peers, we may wish they were more, well… normal. When another student wins that award we feel our child deserved, we might feel resentment – even though we know that the other child was also deserving. When we encounter families that can provide enrichment and after-school activities we cannot afford, we might envy their wealth.
Contrary to what we might expect, a substantial percentage of parents in the Gifted Parenting Survey did not report feelings of envy related to their child’s level of functioning. In fact, 38.3% reported “never” feeling envy toward other children with better social skills, and 48.2% claimed that they “never” feel envy toward children who receive more recognition. It is possible that parents in this sample are exceptionally generous in how they react to others’ successes or are able to distinguish their child’s gifts/challenges/struggles from those of other children. On the other hand, envy is a troubling emotion; it is possible that this survey’s questions did not tap into underlying resentments that are not easily acknowledged – even within the confines of a confidential survey.
All kids make goofy choices, disappoint us, pronounce their uncensored observations (at quite inopportune times!), and disappoint us with their oppositional, disrespectful, or clueless behaviors. It’s all a part of growing up and learning appropriate behavior. We may feel particularly vulnerable to embarrassment, though, when our gifted kids’ advanced intellect and asynchronous development confuse other adults who cannot grasp how such a bright child can behave so immaturely. It is difficult to take a neutral stance, calmly explain the discrepancy between their intellect and their behaviors to bystanders, and take that deep breath while reminding ourselves that we are not responsible for their actions.
Despite commonly voiced concerns about the embarrassment
parents of gifted children feel when their child disappoints, few of the
parents in the Gifted Parenting Survey identified frequent feelings of embarrassment. In fact, 34.3% reported that they “never” felt embarrassed by their
child’s social or emotional immaturity, 41.5% indicated that they “never” felt embarrassed by quirky or non-normative behaviors, and 42.9% reported “never” having concerns about their child’s disrespect toward authority. Perhaps, those parents who responded to the survey are a compassionate and enlightened group and have accepted some of their child’s offbeat behaviors. On the other hand, like with feelings of envy, admitting to a troubling emotion like embarrassment may be difficult to acknowledge. It is also possible that only a subset of parents – perhaps those with highly asynchronous children – experience embarrassing incidents.
We all have expectations for our children, whether associated with family values, cultural norms, or merely an assumption that they should demonstrate kindness and respect to others. However, parents of the gifted are quite aware of their child’s abilities and often feel pressured to personally ensure that their child excels. They question whether to push their child and worry that they might be pressuring their child too much – or conversely, not enough. When our children have so much potential, we may hold high expectations for them and assume personal responsibility for nurturing their talents. And of course, one of the greatest expectations involves what the schools can provide for our gifted child; these are typically realistic expectations that are rarely met, given the limited options available in most schools.
Worries about how to manage our expectations for our children are common. In the Gifted Parenting Survey, 90% of parents indicated that they feel a daunting level of responsibility to meet their child’s academic needs “a lot” or “always” and 53.5% worried “a lot” or “always” about whether their child would reach their potential. And 51.6% felt uncertain “a lot” or “always” about how much to push their child. Clearly, the profound sense of responsibility for nurturing so much potential weighs heavily on the minds of many of these parents.
Every parent is unique and the intensity of our response to the “4 E’s” will vary. What is most important is your diligent pursuit of self-awareness and attention to how your personal feelings and reactions might influence both parenting decisions and your relationship with your child. Use the “4E” concept as a check-in when you feel off-balance, pressured, uncertain, or experience regrets over how you approached your child. We are all imperfect as parents, but we owe it to ourselves and our children to recognize when we respond without thinking and when our reactions conflict with our goals and values.
A more in-depth understanding of these topics is available in The Gifted Parenting Journey. Interactive online workshops related to this topic also will be offered soon! (If you are not already receiving emails with these blog posts, please consider signing up.) And as I mentioned in previous blog posts, I am immensely grateful to those of you who responded to the Gifted Parenting Survey and shared your experience with all of us!