Jerry Seinfeld said “Having a two-year-old is like owning a blender that you don’t have the top for.” This is surely equally true about parenting a gifted child.
Parenting is both exhilarating and exhausting — children are wondrous creatures whose every sigh and gurgle can make a parent’s heart flutter and soar. Then, seemingly two seconds later, they can be the most infuriating humans you have ever come across. Guiding them through childhood without either of you losing your mind is a massive undertaking, and one that feels like a fragile miracle at the other end (or so I hear).
However, parents whose children are not “standard-issue” in some way bear an extra burden in that the “collective wisdom” about the things that “all children” do or think or need just doesn’t apply. Not only can it feel like being set adrift without a map of what lies ahead, but it also can leave a parent feeling isolated, unable to find and connect with other parents to commiserate and celebrate with someone who “gets it.”
Misperceptions about gifted children can add an unwelcome layer of complexity to this situation. Because the general public imagines gifted children to be simply “smart,” and not tremendously complex, multilayered, asynchronous, and intense little people, other adults may be less sympathetic to the plights that gifted parents experience — and may not see them as “plights,” at all. Despite a deeply human need to connect with others, sharing details about daily life with a gifted child can be fraught for their parents.
When sharing isn’t caring
Relating a story about how impossible it is to keep your voracious reader’s brain fed may sound to the parent of a reluctant reader like someone singing the blues by crooning lyrics like, “Woe is me — my diamond shoes are too tight.” If the parent you’re talking to has knock-down-drag-out arguments every night to get their kid to do assigned reading, your tale of yet another trip to the library because your child loves to read so much may be truly aggravating. Unless that other parent understands that your child’s needs (and yes, they are needs) require you to cram three or four (or five!) hour-long library ventures into a week that was already full, they won’t get it. Unless they know what it’s like to worry that your kid is reading something really inappropriate — because there’s no way on earth you can read everything ahead of time to make sure it’s okay — they won’t get it.
Similarly, if your child is performing exceptionally well at school — straight As, teachers’ pet, etc. — but is completely unengaged and underchallenged, who on earth do you share that with? Most other parents hearing your situation would likely feel like you’re bragging or being ultra-competitive — and understandably so, if they don’t have a gifted child like yours. But if your child is deeply unhappy and disengaging more and more from school, even excellent grades don’t quell your fears about what to do for them. Unless you’re living this story, it’s nearly impossible to convey that without sounding whiny (again, those troublesome diamond shoes!).
So while there is a general and enthusiastic consensus that parenting is normally quite demanding and difficult, do parents of gifted children actually experience more anxiety in any scientifically significant way, or is that just a self-pitying misperception?
This question bothered Natalie Rimlinger, an Australian researcher with a degree in clinical psychology. Given that “parents of children with ADHD and developmental problems show higher levels of stress in comparison to parents of children suffering from HIV and asthma and [typical] children,”[i] it seemed possible that other significant departures from the “average” child were likely to create parental stress and anxiety, as well. Did giftedness in a child in fact actually cause stress to parents, as she suspected, rather than confirming the societal misperception that gifted children are “easier” to parent?
Research about parenting children with exceptionalities
An exhaustive search showed Rimlinger that studies on the psychological well-being of parents of gifted children were… nonexistent. She therefore embarked on doctoral research to evaluate whether or not parents of the gifted truly do have a quantifiable and significantly elevated level of stress compared to parents of “average” children.
Dr. Rimlinger’s conclusions were perhaps more striking than even she had anticipated. Using an instrument called the Depression and Anxiety Stress Scales[ii], Rimlinger profiled the parents of 265 parents of gifted children in the US and 117 parents of Australian gifted children, and her results were clear: while the parents were less stressed[iii] and depressed than she had expected, they were much more anxious than she had expected.[iv] And during her analysis, she realized that the DASS scoring profiles looked familiar.
Indeed, the Americans were strikingly similar to another group: parents of developmentally-delayed children.[v] The Australians “looked like” those parents, as well — and also very much like parents of clinically-referred children, meaning children whose psychological issues were pronounced enough that they were seeking professional help.
What Rimlinger found, then, is what you no doubt suspected: the effect of parenting a gifted child is indeed quantifiably (and significantly) similar to the impact felt by parents of children whose struggles are widely acknowledged to actually be struggles.
In other words, it’s not your imagination — these extraordinary children, unsurprisingly to those who know them, do not always feel like a “gift” in terms of ease of raising them. In fact, this effect may be partly due to the fact the there is a widespread societal misapprehension that advanced intellect in a child paves a smooth road for their progress through life: while it’s hard to feel supported in your efforts as a mother or father if your child’s needs are out of the ordinary, it’s all the more stressful if no one believes you.
This understanding is all the more reason for parents of the gifted to seek out ways for their children to meet others like themselves — in so doing, not only does the child benefit, but you find a community of other adults who truly do understand you in a way that most other parents cannot. When the child goes home from the activity happy, you do, too. In fact, only part of that benefit comes from the satisfaction of a job well done in supporting your child: the other part may very well be the relief of spending time in the company of other people whose daily lives can be as much of a rollercoaster of intensity and asynchrony as your own.
Parenting is already a journey full of ups and downs, for all parents. Now, we have scientific proof that you’re not imagining the bumps and bends in the road that you’ve always known were there. And that knowledge, especially when shared with others on the same road, can make all the difference in being able to enjoy the ride.
[i] A. Feizi, B. Najmi, A. Salesi, M. Chorami, and R. Hoveidafar. (2014). “Parenting stress among mothers of children with different physical, mental, and psychological problems.” Journal of Research in Medical Sciences 19 (2): 145–152.
[ii] More information about the DASS is available here: www.psy.unsw.edu.au/dass/
Lovibond, S.H. & Lovibond, P.F. (1995). Manual for the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales. (2nd. Ed.) Sydney: Psychology Foundation.
[iii] Note that by “stress,” the DASS means measures of physiological response to stress (e.g., nervous tension, difficulty relaxing, irritability, sleep problems), as distinct from emotional ones, which are measured as part of the “anxiety” subscale.
[iv] Rimlinger, N. (2016). “Dwelling on the right side of the curve: Psychological well-being of parents of gifted children.” Presentation at SENG Annual Conference, Williamsburg, Virginia, July 22, 2016.
[v] Rimlinger “found a similarity in scores between parents of gifted children and parents of children with a developmental delay,” as measured on the Parental Stress Scale by Berry and Jones: Berry, Judy O., & Jones, Warren H. “The Parental Stress Scale: Initial Psychometric Evidence.” (1995). Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 12(3): 463-472.