Gifted children often struggle with anxiety. Here’s a look at why, plus 4 ways to help your child cope.
Need immediate, practical help for your anxious child? Take a look at this practical guide for soothing childhood anxiety.
Three weeks ago, my six-year-old started having panic attacks over the possibility of having swallowed lost toys. It began with a wayward Lego figure, whose legs she had been chewing on moments before.
“Oh help! HELP ME!!! I swallowed it. DO YOU HEAR ME?!?! I SWALLOWED IT!”
Flying Legos. Hysterical sobbing. General wailing and gnashing of teeth.
“OH MAMA, HELP ME! JESUS, HELP ME! I’VE SWALLOWED AN ELVISH LEGO PERSON!!!!!”
It seems irrational, and if I weren’t living it I would probably laugh. But the truth is we’re a family of chewers, and my kids put all manner of things in their mouths. This child, in particular, is a frequent accidental ingester: we’ve swallowed gum, a small googly eye, four sequins, and a quarter. It was entirely possible she could have swallowed the Lego, but she did not: we found it quite fortuitously after it took a flying leap from the folds of her hair.
I cancelled the alarm, talked my wallet down from the Emergency Department ledge, and lay on the floor with my worn out child. Sweat hung in waves on her forehead; her chest rose and fell in great heaves.
“You’re alright, love. You didn’t swallow the Lego.”
“But I COULD HAVE, mom. Don’t you know anything?!?”
I can’t go outside – it’s cloudy! It might rain, and the wind’s picking up! (age 6)
I’M ALONE! I’M ALONE! THERE’S NOBODY UP HERE! I’M GOING TO DIE! HELP ME I’M GOING TO DIE!” (age 4)
“Look, honey – look. It starts over. December means the end of the year, not time.” (age 2)
I don’t know much about quantum mechanics. I’m pretty clueless when it comes to the migration of grebes. I have no idea what led up to Wat Tyler’s 14th-century rebellion.
I’ve been bedfellows with anxiety for ages. I know more about it than I would like to, honestly.
The Root of Anxiety in Gifted Children
Gifted children are a bit of an enigma. For starters, there’s no solid definition of what giftedness means. Compounding this is a lack of definitive research on gifted self-concept: some findings indicate a propensity for increased social adjustment; others suggest a deficit in social function and self-esteem.
My own perception falls within the latter category – I’m a mother to gifted children and a former educator of gifted tweens and teens. In my experience, it’s the traits we celebrate in gifted children – imagination, sensitivity, empathy, powers of observation, and higher-level thinking – which lend themselves toward a deeper understanding of the world around them. Couple that with asynchronicity, perfectionism, and an acute sense of justice? You have the perfect recipe for global functioning hampered by anxiety.
How Anxiety Manifests, and What to Watch for When it Does
If you’re like me, you can’t always see the shift toward dysfunction: the symptoms of anxiety in poppies often masquerade as normal life:
- Inability to concentrate
- Stomach aches
But at some point, you begin to see the haze of Mordor on the horizon, and you’re unsure when the boundaries of the Shire got left behind. There’s insomnia, depression, angry outbursts, and withdrawal. You’ve crossed psychologist Dan Peters’ fine line between anxiety as “a normal byproduct of their…perfectionist drives [and] something…detrimental” to the process of their lives.
This is the point where we grasp for an escape route, often yanking as hard as we can. But anxiety is like the Chinese Finger Puzzle of gifted parenting: the stronger the reaction, the tighter the hold of the weave. We have to empathize with our children’s experiences, model appropriate coping mechanisms, and make that practice a part of our daily routine.
My six-year-old’s fear of toy swallowing may seem silly and outrageous, but telling her she’s overreacting won’t do much to allay her fears. Gifted children need to know we hear and empathize with their emotions, so we try using phrases like, “I can see you’re very worried. How can I help you right now?”
We have two extremes in our house. One child is vocal about her anxieties, while the other is more likely to hold it in till she breaks. While their MOs are decidedly different, both benefit from expressive modeling – watching their parents manage their own anxieties and fears. We are upfront and open about our problem-solving, thinking aloud as we navigate setbacks and struggles.
Knowledge of a thing increases one’s power over it, so we also delve into the biological origins of fear. We try to connect the feelings they experience to their physical sensations, then assign them a concrete, visible name. We’ve made Worry Monsters and worry jars; we’ve used role-play to practice social occasions. The end product is a new way of looking at anxiety. It’s no longer something that controls them, but an aspect of life they can manage or move past.
Gifted kids need an outlet – one not wrapped up in their own expectations or fears. For us, this means physical activity like a walk or a bike ride, plus open-ended opportunities for creative expression and play. Gifted kids may be intellectual, but they are children just the same. They’ll be better able to manage their anxiety if they have a channel to move them past the brink.
Even with all these lifelines, I still find my kids mired in the muck.
There are days when the anxiety’s so vicious we get nothing accomplished – nothing material anyway. I’ve shifted my expectations away from perfection. Sometimes schoolwork is neglected or the kitchen floor waits another day. What does get accomplished is the healing of my children.
They’re more important than chores anyway.
For more practical tips you can use right now, check out this guide to soothing childhood anxiety.
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