Parents of gifted children, who are often gifted themselves, parent (and experience) their children’s intensity through the lens of their own intensity; awareness of this complex dynamic can help mitigate the potential for escalation.
One of the things we hear from parents over and over again is that in discovering their child’s giftedness and trying to find a school environment right for them, they eventually realize that they, too, are gifted. (What they actually say most of the time is that they “were” gifted, as though giftedness is something you grow out of. Spoiler: it’s not. )
The same thing happens on VIP Day at our school, when many of our students’ guests are grandparents or other relatives; their day at Grayson includes a presentation at which they can learn more about giftedness and how it impacts what they need at school. Afterwards, many of the VIPs report first that they realize their own children “were” likely gifted, too — and then, that they, themselves, have many of the same characteristics that we talk about. Research reflects that giftedness does “run in families”: for a gifted child, their genetically-related relatives — siblings and/or parents — are likely to also be gifted, though there are plenty of exceptions.
What kind of impact does it have on a family for gifted adults to raise gifted children? Intuitively, the answer seems like a positive one: surely, being familiar with the experience of being gifted yourself can only help you in parenting a gifted child… right?
First, there is the distinct possibility that your giftedness may be expressed or focused on completely different things than your child’s. For example, perhaps you are a word-lover — a bibliophile of the highest order — and your child is (gasp!) not as inclined in that direction, or perhaps instead you (the bibliophile) have a young mathematician in your house, or a young computer scientist. Just because you may not share a particular “flavor” of giftedness with your child, that does not mean that you don’t benefit from the “been there, done that” experience of your own giftedness, however. Your memories of being different from others your own age can indeed be helpful in understanding and helping your child cope with difference.
Your own giftedness may also make it easier for you to empathize when things aren’t going well — for instance, you can relate to how frustrating it can be to not have your ideas or questions taken very seriously because you’re so young, or perhaps you remember how it feels to want to take a book to the playground at recess even though you weren’t allowed to. You likely have some coping skills of your own that you can offer, too — and by virtue of having made it to “the other side” of childhood giftedness, you serve as an exemplar for your child, in addition to being able to offer them authentic validation about their feelings.
GIFTEDNESS IS INTENSITY
Annemarie Roeper, founder of the Roeper School and a pioneer in gifted education, describes giftedness as “a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and to transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences” (Roeper, 1982). Another commonly cited definition, from The Columbus Group, also stresses the non-intellectual implications of giftedness, explaining that “advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm” (Columbus Group, 1991).
Gifted children and adults may also share another characteristic that does not always manifest in the same way: intensity. Again, you may be very different from your child, but as a gifted adult, you are perhaps better able to understand or recognize the degree of passion they demonstrate about their latest interest. After all, a person who dons facepaint for every football game probably more readily appreciates someone who has forty-two team bumper stickers on the back of their car, even if they don’t follow the same team or even the same sport: devotion is devotion, and like recognizes like.
As you may know very well, this intensity is not always received well by those only familiar with “standard-issue” children, whether in a classroom or on a sports team. Sometimes, that intensity is pathologized, or treated as a problem that needs correction: “their excitement is viewed as excessive, their high energy as hyperactivity, their persistence as nagging, their questioning as undermining authority, their imagination as not paying attention, their persistence as being disruptive, their strong emotions and sensitivity as immaturity, their creativity and self-directedness as oppositional disorder” (Piechowski, 2013).
Luckily for your child, if you’re used to living your own life with the volume turned up to 11, you may be more comfortable letting your own child live loudly, as well.
SO, GIFTED PARENTING CAN BE INTENSE
While there are benefits of being a gifted person yourself when parenting a gifted child, there are also potential drawbacks that may be invisible to others. The Columbus Group’s definition explicitly states that the gifted child’s intensity “requires modifications in parenting…in order for them to develop optimally”; of course, anyone who’s parented a gifted child can tell you that the implementation of such may not be as easy as it sounds (Columbus Group, 1991).
The very intensity that is a manifestation of your own giftedness can get in the way of your parenting — because you don’t only respond to your child’s intensity, but you perceive and process it through your own highly sensitive, intense lens.
One gifted education researcher calls this “crisis cubed”: “The effects of life situations, feelings, and ideas become magnified in the gifted family. It is [like] a geometric progression of intensity with each family member involved” (Meckstroth, 1989). Another says, “In the case of parents and children, unsupported intensity amongst family members can cross-multiply and, at the extreme, reach toxic levels of distress and create unsustainable living for everyone involved” (Pryde, 2022).
A PAIR OF MAGNIFYING GLASSES
The experience of dealing with a child having an emotionally intense reaction to something if you are also naturally emotionally intense can quickly become an escalating cycle. The intensity of the gifted mind is like a magnifying glass: phenomena are experienced as being louder, larger, brighter, happier, etc. because they are magnified on the way “in” to the brain to be processed. Having one magnifying glass in a conversation significantly alters the dynamics of that interchange; having two can create an incendiary environment that can quickly escalate well past the scale of the original issue at hand.
If there are two very intense people in an emotionally-heightened situation, then a signal coming from person A to person B is likely to reflect a “louder” version of the idea being communicated. Person B receives and processes the words and ideas from A after they have passed through another magnifying glass — so now the signal is louder still. A louder incoming signal is likely to earn a louder response than a quieter one, of course, so both A and B respond accordingly. The two magnifying glasses are essentially in an infinity loop of mirrors that increase the signal every time it’s passed between them.
(Now imagine what might happen in a household where both parents — and perhaps multiple children — are gifted!)
TURNING DOWN THE VOLUME
The sticky wicket here, in terms of parenting a gifted child, is that it is far preferable for you to keep your own emotions steady when your child is having an intense reaction of their own, regardless of your own emotional intensity. After all, your child is not as capable of self-regulation as you are to begin with — not because they’re not capable of lots of extraordinary things, but by virtue of their age, which matters because it’s how much time their brain has had to physically develop and mature.
As Grayson’s school counselor Ashley Freeborn explains, “Ideally, if your child is having an intense emotional response you want them to dial down, you model the calm you want to see from them. Then they are more likely to meet you at that level; if you try to meet them at the same level of emotion they are, then they will escalate even more.”
That kind of calm can be difficult to maintain when emotions are running high. It may be easier to find, though, if we can remember that the effort to lower the intensity of the moment is an investment with very quick returns. At the very least, your child will likely not continue to escalate, because the your social signals to them say that that level of their response is not warranted. You may not be able to convince them of that out loud, but the mirror neurons in their brain want to match their social surroundings so they fit into their social environment — so at least part of their brain is on your side.
Neuropsychologist Kelly Pryde frames these moments as opportunities to be supportive to those we love: “When we are able to support ourselves and lessen our own emotional reactivity, we can more fully and sustainably support our loved ones and significant others in their intensity” (Pryde, 2022).
In other words, keeping sight of your own magnifying glass is helpful when dealing with someone who also experiences the world through a magnifying glass; this awareness can help you see “around” your own magnifying glass rather than through it to help your child manage their own.
Columbus Group. (1991, July). Unpublished transcript of the meeting of the Columbus Group. Columbus, OH.
Meckstroth, E. (1989). Guarding the Gifted Child. Understanding Our Gifted 1(5), 10-12; cited in May, K. M. (2000). Gifted Children and their Families. The Family Journal, 8(1), 58–60. doi:10.1177/1066480700081008
Piechowski, M. M. (2013). A bird who can soar: Overexcitabilities in the gifted. In Neville, C. S., Piechowski, M. M., & Tolan, S. S. (Eds.) Off the charts: Asynchrony and the gifted child (pp. 99-122). Royal Fireworks Press.
Pryde, K. (2019). Sustainable Intensity and Self-Compassion: A Mindful Perspective. Third Factor. Retrieved 15 May 2022 and available here: https://www.thirdfactor.org/sustainable-intensity/
Roeper, A. M. (1982). How the gifted cope with their emotions. Roeper Review 5(2), 21-24.