Melanie Brown Kroon, MA, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, provides therapy and consultations at Summit Center’s Encino office. Melanie works with individuals, couples and families specializing in the emotional needs of gifted and creative adults, adolescents and children. She has written for MSN Health and Fitness and THE THERAPIST Magazine, and she has lectured on topics such as “Talking and Listening to Your Kids” and “How to Teach Self Discipline to Children.”
Adolescence is difficult for everyone, but it can be incredibly difficult for gifted kids. To understand why, let’s first look at some of the profound emotional changes common to all teenagers.
A teen or tween begins to value peer relationships over family relationships. This change in relationship to family members can be confusing for all involved. Teens are trying to locate themselves as separate and unique individuals who can increasingly stand on their own two feet. They need more time alone, more time with friends, and yet they need to know that you are still there when they need support. A teenager needs to be able to say no to you sometimes and test how safe it is to separate from you without losing your love. Experimenting with where you end and they begin means they feel safe enough to start individuating from you. You may even start to feel rejected; but they still need to know that you are there, that your love is constant, and that their safety is your highest priority.
Common Challenges for Gifted Teens
As the search for identity becomes an increasingly important developmental task, teens look for a sense of identity within a social group. But what happens when a gifted teen can’t find a social group that works for him or her? One hallmark of the gifted is divergent thinking. Yet finding identity within a peer group means a certain amount of conformity. Here is a built in conflict: “If I am unique, then I have no friends. Therefore I have to be different from who I am, or pretend to be someone I am not, just to fit in.” Some kids can handle the duality of having a social face and a private face. Other teens find being “fake” abhorrent. The risk is that the gifted teen begins to identify with the idea that he or she doesn’t fit in, and that that means there is something wrong inside.
One characteristic I see over and over in the gifted population I work with is a need to be real, true to oneself and others, authentic. Many gifted people are exquisitely sensitive to hypocrisy, and hate it. There is a strong need for honesty and integrity. Yet many socially successful folks are good at knowing and playing into what is expected of them. They won’t speak up if they see an injustice, and will protect themselves socially rather than risk doing what feels “right.” In other words, many gifted kids disagree with the social hierarchies and what it means to be “cool,” emotionally. Being “cool” means different things to different people, but for a lot of kids it means remaining emotionally cooled down, acting like you don’t care about things that you might care a lot about. The gifted teen tends to have a high level of enthusiasm, a strong sense of social justice, and any combination of the five Dabrowski overexcitabilities: Intellectual, Emotional, Imaginational, Psychomotor and Sensory, making him/her care intensely. Or, “cool” might mean being interested in what the group is interested in, which may differ greatly from the interests of your child. So, the need to fit in, combined with the need to be authentic, can create social conflict and ultimately a crisis in self-confidence. Bullies may see a gifted teen or tween as a lightening rod for bullying due to their tendency to either stand out or their attempts to make themselves invisible, thus appearing vulnerable. Both can make them an easy target.
Another issue for gifted teens is that they may feel enormous pressure, both internally and externally, to live up to their potential and achieve great things. It is so important that your child knows that you love them unconditionally, love them for who they are inside, and don’t need them to perform to win your love. The idea is that they learn to strive for excellence out of passion for an interest and self-care rather than a need to be perfect and feel like they have to earn your love. And lastly, gifted kids are exceptionally sensitive to hurt and fear in the present, and to past emotional injuries.
A Three Tiered Framework
What can help with this? The three-tiered framework I like to use with teens is:
1. Know yourself.
2. Like yourself.
3. Learn to take care of yourself in many situations (such as school, peers, and family):
In that, (though overlapping), order!
These goals help children understand that they are not in therapy to be pathologized, but are in an environment that is dedicated to their wellbeing.
1. Know Yourself. Developing a sense of identity is a primary task of adolescence. It is difficult if not impossible to know yourself without a language for your inner life. The ability to identify, name and validate your feelings and needs is learned, and can be learned in therapy. This is the core skill of self-management and social skills. So step one of know yourself begins with talking about yourself, your feelings, your experiences and your ideas with a safe person who will not judge, try to change your feelings, or tell you your feelings are wrong; someone who will validate and help you understand your own feelings. Gifted teens tend to do well with talk therapy even if their abilities are more mathematical than verbal, because they like to get to the point, have quick processes, and enjoy the opportunity to exercise an underused part of their brains.
Caring adults may try to help by finding ways to “fix” or reason them out of the sad, scared or angry feelings. Although the intention behind this is always good, this can have negative consequences. It teaches that you should not feel what you feel, rather than understand the feeling, where it is coming from, what it is telling you, and then finally how to handle the feeling. When you get the message that you shouldn’t feel what you do feel, it can register as a flaw in who you are at your core.
For Twice Exceptional (2e) kids, children who are both gifted and struggling with a learning disability, part of know yourself is getting the proper testing and diagnosis in a strength-based environment. You may be in the process of trying to figure out what gets in your adolescent’s way of achieving his or her goals. If there is a hidden disability, we need to find it in order to prevent it from making your child feel like a failure. Kids can be very hard on themselves and barriers to developing a sense of agency (that feeling that “I can do whatever I set my mind to do”) in the world can make a child feel inherently flawed and helpless.
2. Like Yourself. This is about understanding, sorting, finding accurate and useful meanings, and accepting the instrument of self. This is probably the most difficult step of all, depending on how your teen has felt about him/herself until now. This stage is a move from self-blame to self-responsibility. It is important to see the difference between self-blame and self-responsibility. Self-blame cuts you down, causes negative behavior patterns such as denying needs and then exploding, and can be immobilizing. Self-responsibility means you have choices, can anticipate rewards and consequences of your own behavior, and allow yourself to learn from your mistakes.
Many adults who come to see me identify adolescence as the time that things started to go wrong for them. Having someone to talk to in order to sort out feelings can be like undoing muscular knots before they lead to injury. Therapists sometimes call this unpacking. Taking the feelings and the experiences out of the suitcase to see what’s hiding in there and what to do with it. I enjoy the British concept of “sorting oneself out” because there is an organizational component to it. You are taking your emotional life out of the fog, looking at it, feeling it, thinking about it, and putting it in its place; all with a mind towards self-care.
Once you are able to articulate your experiences and feelings, we can move on to understanding what is really happening. I’ll take bullying, as an example. Why is someone picking on you, is it because you are unlikeable? Or, more likely, because a bully is using you to try to feel powerful because they feel so vulnerable inside and cannot tolerate that feeling. Just because you may be targeted doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. It may only mean that a bully thinks that you are vulnerable. Sometimes the growth is recognizing that we have to put up with other people’s stuff without blaming ourselves, and sometimes it means developing a quiet inner confidence so that you are less likely to attract a predatory kid. What if your child is the bully? Then the task is for him or her to be able to talk about the anger, hurt and fear inside and deal with the real source of pain rather than take it out on someone else. Seeing the whole picture and your part in it without self-blame is the best platform for the next step:
3. Learning How To Take Care Of Yourself in different situations (school, peers, family). This is the behavior part. Working through the first two steps will help immensely with the ability to think through the question, “What should I do about it?” whatever “it” is. Your child has to believe that he or she is worth taking care of, advocating for and deciding what is in his or her best interests.
Some of the skills that can be learned in therapy are boundary setting, assertiveness, choosing your battles, dealing with difficult people, identifying what you can control and what you can’t, and taking personal responsibility for your life.
Boundary setting requires that you are able to recognize when something feels wrong to you: unwanted sexual attention, too many texts from a friend, overprotective behavior from a parent, not enough attention from a parent, etc.
Assertiveness is learning how to stand up for yourself, using clear words in a calm voice without being passive (doormat) or aggressive (bully), or going back and forth between the two extremes.
Identifying what you can control and what you can’t, can keep you from figuratively (and maybe literally) banging your head against the wall. You can’t change other people, but you can change how you interact with them. You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it and let it inform your future.
These are ways of taking personal responsibility for your life. These are life skills that will be practiced, honed and sometimes re-learned in new situations and new challenges throughout life. Remember that you cannot use these life skills without understanding what is really upsetting you and believing you are worth taking care of. Your child’s brain is continuing to develop well into his or her twenties, and these processes and abilities get easier with age.
Learning to know, like and ultimately care for yourself are the three fundamental skills of emotionally healthy personhood. Adolescence, rife with challenges to developing a healthy sense of self, is a time that highlights vulnerabilities, but also offers great opportunities for learning necessary life skills. It is important to remember that your child is a person, with emotional needs as well as intellectual needs. You can help your teen by holding this framework in mind as you support him or her, access help if you need it, and to work on this framework for yourself as well.