I should probably start this post off by mentioning that my oldest kiddo is 6-years-old. So I’m certainly not a parenting expert. I am an expert in dealing with him (and his siblings) but I have no experience with gifted teens or tweens. So if you’re looking for a magic answer that will solve all of your problems, this isn’t the post you want to read. You probably expected that because you’re living with a gifted kid and nothing is easy. Ever!
So now that I’ve outed my inexperience, let’s get started.
I often write that gifted is just more. Sometimes that more is good, sometimes it’s earth-shakingly difficult. The nature of gifted, if you will. When they were babies, the more showed up in how they (didn’t) sleep, how alert they were, what they would eat, and how much they cried.
We joke that the terrible twos came and never left. When everyone else is dealing with a tantruming toddler, you’re dealing with the child who melts down for hours. When everyone else says “ignore the misbehavior and focus on the positive,” you wince, thinking of who would be headed to the ER next if you did that.
You’ve tried everything: time out is laughable. Taking things away does absolutely nothing. If you ground them, they laugh and say they didn’t want to go anyway. In desperation, you even tried spanking the little snot – and they laughed in your face.
You’ve read every parenting book you can get your hands on, tried every technique. Nothing works. What next?
Here’s the thing: your kid is different. What works for everyone else will not work for them, which is why conventional parenting books are so frustrating. Those books are written for children developing at a standard rate – not a kid who converses like an adult, but reverts to a toddler level when frustrated.
So what can you do?
1. Figure out what’s going on
Gifted kids are complex. You need to understand what’s driving their behavior before you can address it. If you crack down harder when they’re trying to exert some sort of control over their lives, things will backfire spectacularly. If you tell them they’re over-reacting when they’re dealing with overexcitabilities, you’ll alienate them.
In our case, we had to search for medical diagnosis before we understood what was going on with the Engineer. His aggression, his meltdowns, his lack of understanding cause and effect – all of that stemmed from his 2e issues. Once we figured out he had pretty severe anxiety a light bulb went on in our heads. It made so much sense!
That’s one reason I’m such a huge proponent of getting the correct label for our kids. You need that label to help you identify what makes them tick. It’s easier to research if you know the correct terms, plus you can find the people who have been through the same thing that you have. Labels matter.
2. Be a compassionate parent
One of the biggest changes to our parenting style was becoming compassionate parents. Once we understood more about what made the Engineer tick, we realized that the poor kid often couldn’t help himself. Our focus changed from making him behave to helping him learn to cope. It sounds so simple, but it was a massive shift in our thinking and parenting. Being compassionate helps us to understand that sometimes he really wants to behave but struggles with making good choices.
The Engineer sometimes needs reminders to behave because while he knows the rules, he can’t seem to stop himself from breaking them. A touch on the shoulder, calling his name, asking if he’s making a good decision – these all help him regroup and make better choices. We don’t use his weaknesses as excuses, but we do understand that he struggles with things that are difficult for him. We ask him to try harder next time instead of beating him up verbally about his mistakes.
Being compassionate doesn’t mean ignoring consequences. It means disciplining instead of punishing. Discipline teaches a lesson, punishment makes you pay for what you’ve done.
3. Be consistent
Gifted kids are quick to pick up on inconsistencies and weakness. They probably understand you a lot better than you understand them! They know how to manipulate, they know how to push buttons. Set your boundaries and stick to them. Gifted kids will test every line you set just to see if you’re serious about it.
Being consistent doesn’t mean being rigid. We have to be flexible with our kids and adapt with them, because their motivator changes from minute to minute. What works one day might not work the next.
When the Engineer was little, we started using a variant of the 1,2, 3 Magic parenting method. A very loose variant, as we never actually purchased this book! We were very consistent and quick – we would make sure we had his attention, and start counting. “1 or XYZ happens. 2 or XYZ happens. Ok, that’s 3. XYZ happens now.” He hated it. He would quickly scurry to obey after #3 in hopes of getting away with it, but consequences happened anyway. The consequences changed from day-to-day depending on what motivated him, but the swift response never changed.
As he got older, this method didn’t work quite as well. On the advice of one of his therapists, we started having him “discipline” himself if we counted #3. Instead of us taking a toy away, he had to pick one out and put it on the counter himself. Instead of us packing up the marble run, he had to do all the work of putting it up in the box and physically removing it from his room. This backfired at times when he was defiant enough to refuse, but our response was always worse (2 marbles runs put away instead of 1) and he knew it.
Today, the mere threat of taking away one of his motivators is often enough to stop him in his tracks. We still count – especially if we really need to get his attention in a safety situation.
4. Be logical
Kids need boundaries. Gifted kids need boundaries that make sense to them. Their sense of fairness and justice can cause clashes with the rules if they think they’re being mistreated.
The Engineer often decides that the rules don’t apply to him, so we have to define those boundaries and why we draw the line there. The authoritarian parent in me wants him to obey because it’s the rule. The compassionate parent in me understands that he needs to understand the logic behind the rule to obey it. It leads to a lot more negotiating and arguing than I’m comfortable with, but it helps him understand the boundaries.
If you’re dealing with a gifted kid like the Engineer, it helps if you define the big battles ahead of time. The Engineer knows that I will not approve of him talking loudly in public, but that I will fight him into the ground if he decides to run out into the parking lot. Safety rules are the highest priority, and there is absolutely no give at all.
Use that sense of fairness against them when you can. It’s not fair for me to have to clean up your mess – you need to do it. It’s not fair to damage someone else’s stuff – you need to fix it for them. Fairness is a total brat when you have a high sense of justice!
It goes without saying that you need to pick your battles and have a logical reason for the rules. Arbitrary rules because you’re not in the mood to deal with it don’t work.
5. Be safe
Gifted and 2e kids often have strong emotional responses to things. In our case, the Engineer can become aggressive. Learning how to safely restrain my son wasn’t on my list of parenting skills when we began this journey, but it’s something we had to figure out, and figure it out quickly. Sadly, I’m having to use those same techniques on the Destroyer, as he seems to be following in his brother’s footsteps.
As a parent, my job is to keep my kids safe. But it’s also important to keep myself and the rest of the family safe. Sometimes that means isolating ourselves, sometimes that means isolating the aggressive family member until they’re calmer. Give them a safe space to rage and close the door. Don’t engage.
My instinct is to “fix it.” I’ve learned that I can’t – and I can’t even begin to work with them until they’re calmer and not emotionally volatile. When the storm is over, we’ll sit down and discuss what happened and how to handle it. If they need consoling, I’m there to help. If they need to talk, we talk.
One of my new goals is to see verbal abuse as unsafe – and to remove myself from that situation. Up until this point, I stayed with the child unless they became physically aggressive. The older they are, the more hurtful and abusive the insults they hurl when they’re angry. Verbal abuse is real – and with my background I tend to ignore it. Don’t. Verbal abuse can be devastating, and we need to teach our children how hurtful their words can be.
6. Be connected
Parenting is exhausting. Parenting a gifted kid is like running a marathon. It’s easy to check out and ignore your kid, or be less involved in what they’re interested in. Fight to stay connected to your kid. If they feel that they’re safe with you, that you love them and are interested in them as a person, then they’re less combative. You’re on their side and they know it.
Physically be there for them. Emotionally, mentally, and intellectually be there for them.
Sure, I really don’t want to get into a long discussion about the merits of beavers or the habits of carnivorous plants. I hated going to T-ball games because they’re boring but I went anyway. There are lots of times when I just want him to SHUT UP ALREADY but I try to engage him and his siblings because they need that mental stimulation. We never have a quiet car ride unless I turn on a video. That’s the easy way out – and we save it for long trips.
Mr. Genius is present for every scouting meeting. He never drops the Engineer off and goes to relax for a few minutes. He’s there. He’s involved. He’s present in a way that is tough to do. The Engineer appreciates that, and expects that. He knows that Scout nights are special daddy time with just the two of them, and he looks forward to it and their little ritual of stopping at the gas station for a drink. It’s important – it says “you matter to me.”
Kids need that. They need to feel loved and appreciated. They understand that saying “I love you” isn’t true if you don’t want to spend time with that person.
7. Don’t take it personally
Your kid doesn’t hate you. They’re not out to make your life as miserable as possible. Sure, that may be what actually happens, but that isn’t their goal.
Gifted kids deal with a lot. 2e kids deal with mountains of issues. They have enough to deal with without worrying that their parents can’t stand being around them. They’re intense. They’re over-the-top. They’re wired differently. Even for gifted parents, they’re a lot to deal with.
You are their safe place, their sense of belonging. Feel privileged – your kid knows you love them, and that they can be themselves without fear. They need to have that one place to be themselves, because the rest of the world probably doesn’t understand them, and doesn’t appreciate their differences. Be that rock for them. Be accepting and unconditionally loving. Be their advocate, their lion, their warrior when they’re overwhelmed.
8. Seek help
If your kid is really struggling, reach out to a therapist who can help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a great tool, and it’s a safe place for your child to talk about what’s bothering them. Gifted kids are at high risk for depression and anxiety, and CBT can help them feel understood.
Think of therapy as another tool in your toolbox. Your kid doesn’t need to be “fixed,” they just might need a little help learning to cope. Make sure that you find a therapist who is familiar with gifted issues. The wrong therapist can make things much worse!
Need more guidance? Check out these books that have been helpful for us (these links will take you to Amazon, please read my affiliate disclosure on the main page for more information)
Also check out Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Press for books written by parents of gifted kids and professionals who deal with gifted kids. Their collective wisdom is really helpful because they’ve been there – they understand.