Why gifted children develop behavioural problems
I have had a little run of seeing kids in clinic of late who have been particularly gifted. It is more common for a paediatrician to see children who struggle with their learning due to below average thinking and reasoning skills, but gifted children can struggle too. They are remarkable little people, and some of the talents I have seen in certain children have been nothing short of astounding. These differences however, can cause difficulties that can present in various ways (many gifted children do NOT have difficulties, but in a paediatric clinic setting, parents don’t tend to come and see me unless there is a problem they need help with) and from my experience depend on things like
- the child’s personality
- their age and developmental status
- the home environment and emotional stressors
- whether they have an isolated “gift” as opposed to being more globally advanced
- how this giftedness and its associated challenges have been managed in the home and school environment to that point.
Often the problems arise because of a SPLIT in the child’s abilities – where one or more abilities are very advanced (eg reading and comprehension, problem solving skills) and other abilities seem to lag behind (for example fine or gross motor skills or emotional maturity). This is called “asynchronous development.” That is for example, the fact that some children can intellectually understand more difficult concepts but then be not emotionally mature enough to handle them. This can lead to “big emotions” especially around more abstract/complex concepts such as death, the future, or understanding why they are different from other children their age.
Difficulties can also come from splits in other abilities like verbal versus visual reasoning abilities – (eg a child might be much more adept at solving problems presented in a word based format rather than in a visual/diagrammatic way or vice versa) and this can lead to frustration, decrease in confidence and self esteem and resultant disengagement from learning tasks.
I have done considerable reading around the topic of managing children with giftedness, and spoken to many of my colleagues (huge acknowledgment to my work mates at both Ipswich Hospital and at Paeds in a Pod for their shared opinions) as well to glean their experience and advice in managing this challenging subset of patients. I hope that you find this information helpful…
How this can present/what does it look like in real life?
Gifted children can be argumentative and/or manipulative. Even though a child might be able to present a logical or convincing argument, they still need boundaries and discipline around their behaviour else they learn that these undesirable behaviours get them what they want.
Gifted children often communicate with a vocabulary that is sophisticated or above that of their age-matched peers and this can cause them to be misunderstood. In toddlers, just as a child with a speech delay gets frustrated at not being understood, a gifted child can have the same reaction for the same reason – causing them to hit out or act out in annoyance, tantrum, prefer to NOT interact at all with peers or prefer to interact with older children and adults who are more likely to understand them.
Perfectionism can lead to a fear of failure and avoidant behaviours (when they are fearful of trying a task in case they can’t do it). This can also mean that they might take even the slightest criticism very personally, making them even less willing to participate next time.
These difficulties can lead to anxiety about certain situations like school, new circumstances or meeting new people. The anxiety can intensify their reactions to stressful conditions and make their behaviour look like it is out of proportion to the trigger. Their imagination, abilities in observation and thinking “outside the box” might mean they hold back in order to consider the situation in its entirety making them look shy or reluctant. OR, they might ask a lot of questions, requiring full details before responding or participating, potentially appearing oppositional or defiant.
Strategies to handle big emotions in gifted and talented children
- Talk to you child. Ask them how they feel.
- Listen to what they say.
- Prompt them to think about what might make them feel better. Help them to action this.
- Teach them ways to calm down (eg deep breathing, mindfulness exercises)
- Teach them that it is okay to make mistakes and that every person has strengths AND weaknesses.
- Show them how to use their mistakes to learn what to do differently the next time.
How can we support the social interactions of gifted children?
Supervising and scaffolding around your child’s social interactions will help them build confidence and ability in relationships. For example, explaining to them that sometime using other (simpler) words to explain themselves to someone who doesn’t understand them can help. Modelling and setting a good example for them in interactions is also very valuable.
Give them the opportunity to create social relationships and practice their skills in a supported environment eg Girl Scouts/Cubs, martial arts, craft groups or even play dates where you organise activities for the children and supervise them etc.
The best management for behaviour problems in gifted kids (and indeed most children) is usually a multi-component approach. It may involve multiple different health professionals working together.
Assessment: It is important for the child to have a thorough paediatric assessment as well as a neuropsychological work-up to build a picture of the whole child (strengths, weaknesses, personality and all) and their functioning and development. Gifted children can still have medical issues that can explain sleep/mood/behaviour disturbances and these need to be ruled out. As with all developmental issues, it is important that the child’s hearing and vision is tested.
Education: Just with other developmental problems, it is really important that the child in question is understood. We start this process with assessment, but teaching and involving parents and teachers is also a vital part of management. By understanding how and why the child thinks as they do, helps us to formulate effective ways to help them.
Psychotherapy: Gifted children develop behavioural problems for different reasons. They can lose self confidence with their peers due to the difference in their thinking and reasoning abilities. This might mean they have different interests, or communicate on a different level, or with more sophisticated language. They can be disruptive because they are bored, they can be oppositional or argumentative because they feel that they are right (and to their own reasoning they might be so) or have a persistently low mood because of these difficulties. Psychotherapy helps to unpack this, get to the root of the problem and help the child to work through it in a safe space. Cognitive behavioural therapy is one type of psychotherapy that helps a child to change unhelpful or unhealthy habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. It teaches the child new ways to think about and do things, and for working around their own perceived weaknesses.
At home: All children (not just gifted ones) respond well to structure and predictable routine. When children know what to expect and what is expected OF them, they are more likely to comply and problem behaviours are minimised. There are a few elements to effective behavioural management and intervention that are worth mentioning here:
- Establishing a regular daily routine & predictability (even on school holidays!)
- Identify triggers to your child’s problem behaviours and try to anticipate them to avoid them
- Intervene with problem behaviour BEFORE the situation becomes irretrievable
- Consequences need to be consistent, and need to encourage the child to calm down, rather than promote escalation
- Meeting their need to learn with a stash of intellectually stimulating activities (for example, have a craft box, a selection of wildlife documentaries, books to read, a trip to the museum) will eliminate the undesirable behaviours arising from boredom
Make sure, at a time when everyone is calm and in a good place, that behavioural expectations are made very clear to the child as well as what the consequences will be if those expectations are not met. It helps to have a chart or a poster (that you can hang up in the family living room) that you create together – a “Rules of the house” and a list of consequences.
In the classroom: Channel the child’s talents for good (and not evil)
It pays to have a meeting with your child’s class teacher to discuss different strategies to approach behavioural challenges. The success of these will depend on the personality of your child, but sitting down, discussing your child’s strengths, what has worked for you before at home or for the teacher in the classroom, will enable you both to build a tool box of approaches or a “game plan” of sorts. Pushing the child up a grade is not always the best answer, even if their talents are more globally advanced as it can socially disadvantage them. They may not be emotionally as mature as the children in a higher class and it removes them from the friends that they have in their current class. Being able to meet a child’s learning needs (whether they be advanced OR delayed) is a key part of being able to effectively manage their behaviour.
Mentoring – setting the child up to help another child with learning difficulties. This can be a fantastic strategy for those children who enjoy being helpful to give them a sense of achievement and pride (and also help the teacher in the classroom). If both children are distractible, then you might not want to sit them together on a permanent basis, but just temporarily when the gifted child has finished their own work and has time to help.
Class project managing: Children with imagination and vision can be great leaders. Placing them in leadership role to help co-ordinate and direct other children on a class project can keep them challenged, invested and motivated. IT also helps them with their social interactions as in a leader position, their role is more clearly defined.
Enabling access to extension material/fast-finisher activities: Depending on the child’s specific abilities (these may be focussed or quite broad), ensuring access to extension work and making certain that the child remains challenged is key to keeping them engaged. This is best negotiated with the teacher.
Diversify: Challenge the child’s talents by extending their abilities into other areas such as music (eg learning an instrument), sports, astronomy, art (eg sculpture, paint, mixed media).
I’ve placed medication last on the list because I strongly believe it should never be instituted as a sole intervention. Certain medications might be useful to treat certain symptoms/signs like anxiety or poor concentration/attention, but they do not fix the problem. They are a tool we can use to create a window through which we can reach the child, and engage them, but it does not teach them how to behave or how to deal with their big feelings. If the child is not taught, then when the medication is taken away, the problem recurs!
For parents – all of the rules for behaviour management in a typically developing child STILL APPLY to gifted children.
- Plan ahead and establish regular daily routines; follow these
- Give your child as much warning as possible if there is a change in usual routine
- Anticipate – be a step ahead of your child when transitioning, when there are disruptions in routines, in explaining expectations of behaviour in upcoming situations.
- Develop a bag of tricks – soothing techniques, mindfulness exercises, distraction etc
- Use this bag of tricks to distract from or interrupt a behaviour before it becomes unmanageable
- Make sure that behavioural expectations are well set out and understood before anyone “gets in trouble.”
- Be consistent in your application of consequences for undesirable behaviour.
Keep in mind that sometimes it is easy to have unrealistic expectations of emotional maturity in gifted children, because their advanced cognitive ability makes us think that they are older than they actually are.
I hope you have found this blog post useful. It is one I have been wanting to write for a long time, but hadn’t had a chance to.
I’ll be back on Friday with another exciting recipe so until then,