Helping a Gifted Child Deal with Anxiety

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It may be exciting for a parent to learn their child has been chosen to be part of a gifted program at school. However, there can be challenges to raising a child with exceptional intellectual capabilities. Studies show that gifted children have a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

Because gifted children have different capabilities than their peers, other children may find them intimidating. Consequently, a gifted child may feel left out, and try to socialize with their classmates (instead of focusing on their classroom tasks or seat work), in an effort to make friends. Other gifted individuals feel lonely when they are unable to find others who think like them.

A gifted six-year old may consider existential questions about the end of the universe or death, which can lead to anxiety. They might also worry about global or local issues, fear events or situations that are out of their control, and even their own perfectionism.

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Gifted Children and Perfectionism

Perfectionism can lead to the fear of failure — a concern that can affect a child mentally and emotionally. When a gifted child fails to meet their goals, they can experience distress and feel like a failure. Trained psychologists can often identify signs of anxiety and teach children skills to deal with it. Meanwhile, parents and teachers can also look for certain symptoms, so they can assist young people or get them the help they need.

Signs of Anxiety

  • Irritability
  • Tension
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tantrums/sudden outbursts
  • Changes in attitude or temperament
  • Challenges starting or completing schoolwork
  • Constant worrying
  • Asking a lot of “what if” questions
  • Inability to focus

While many children will show these behaviours from time to time, chronic struggles may indicate a deeper issue. Let your child know that the best learning can sometimes come from the greatest challenges. Talk to them about your own failures, and the lessons you’ve learned from making mistakes. When perfectionism prevents a child from getting involved in new activities (or is impeding their normal activities) counselling and the aid or a licensed psychologist can help.

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Teaching Your Child

It may be impossible to completely eliminate anxiety; but it can be managed. Clinical psychologist Maureen Neihart spent more than thirty years’ experience working with gifted children and their families. She suggests some of these techniques to deal with the frustration of “giftedness.” These activities are also useful for anyone experience tension and anxiety:

  • Relax by tensing and releasing muscles. Ask your child to clench their fists for five seconds then open them slowly for 10 seconds. Do this for all the body’s major muscle groups, from the arms to the toes.
  • Manage stress with deep, controlled breaths. Have your child sit or lie flat, whichever is more comfortable. Have them take slow, deep breaths, inhaling in through the nose and exhaling through pursed lips. Encourage your child to place one hand on their belly button and the other on their chest, and ask them to focus on the movement of their body.
  • Let your child conquer their own fears. Most parents choose to swoop in and rescue their child from situations that are anxiety-inducing, but this won’t help them learn to deal with their own fears. In fact, it might teach them to be overly dependent. Instead, encourage controlled “baby steps” toward overcoming their fears.

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Encouraging Positive Socialization

Social interactions may lead to anxiety for many gifted children – especially those who tend to be shy. A fear of being evaluated, perfectionism, hypersensitivity, a tendency toward self-criticism, and even simply being singled out as gifted can all heighten stress and anxiety in young people. A gifted child’s social skills can be enhanced. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Attend a school or sporting event to introduce the child outside their immediate peer group
  • Arrange playdates (one-on-one, or with just a few friends)
  • Teach positive self-talk to reduce self-criticism
  • Take family outings to places that interest your child (e.g. a museum, art gallery, or amusement park)
  • Share in an activity that reinforces your child’s strengths (drawing, “make-believe”/dress-up, building with LEGO, reading)
  • Role-play social situations with your child to prepare them for real life encounters

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Developing Creativity

Creativity is often a defining characteristic for gifted children. However, according to Carol Morreale (President of the Illinois Association for the Gifted), it is also among the most fragile of attributes. A child’s creativity is an important part of mental development, and parents can encourage artistic and creative exploration. Interaction between a child and parent nurtures a young person’s developing mind, builds curiosity, and strengthens creative skills.

If you already know your child’s interests, enhance them by providing access to supplies, materials, and resources that can further hone their talent. Other things that can be done to support a gifted child are:

  • Limit screen time and TV. Instead, exchange ideas by talking with your child about your day and sharing experiences.
  • Encourage activities your child enjoys. Recognize their efforts and support them as they make attempts to develop new skills.
  • Let them solve problems for themselves. Encourage your child to independently guess at solutions and guide them when they need help.
  • When asked questions, respond calmly and patiently. If you don’t know an answer, team up with your child — look online or in books together.
  • Avoid negativity. Try not to make sarcastic or insulting remarks in front of your child. Discourage self-criticism. Model this behaviour for your child as well and don’t make negative comments about yourself.

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Promote Cognitive and Emotional Intelligence

While cognitive intelligence may develop quickly for many gifted children, emotional intelligence develops at a more typical rate. Dr. Sandra Ma of Northwestern University says when parents make a special effort to nurture emotional intelligence, children have are more likely to feel emotionally secure and confident. Provide ways for children to articulate their feelings, since they may not be able to express their experiences and emotions clearly. Offer access to non-competitive extra-curricular activities and encourage creative outlets through play-based learning. By providing an explorative, pressure-free environment, children can explore their interests without the expectation of “success.”

All children have traits that make them special. The gifted child, while having an increased intellectual capacity, may face additional challenges. Parents and teachers can teach healthy ways of managing stress, help children reach their potential, and reduce frustration.

If your gifted child is encountering some challenges, York Region Psychological Services can provide learning strategies and guidance. For caring assistance, give us a call at (416) 602-3230.

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