Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Parents of Gifted 2. Does your gifted teen know you love them ‘warts and all’?

10 ways Parents of Gifted Learners can support them in high school (continued)

 “I feel pressured by my parents and teachers to achieve highly in everything.’’
“My parents love me when I do well... [subtext: but not when I don’t]”
“If I get an ‘A’ in [subjects], my mom/dad has promised me a [reward].”

Although these sentiments might not be voiced aloud, often gifted teens feel they need to score highly to gain approval, and they also feel pressured by well-meaning teachers and parents who simply want the best for them.  

Gifted individuals are not gifted in everything. It is normal for gifted to be performing well above their age peers in some areas, and at the same level, or even below their age peers in other areas.  For example, a student may be outstanding in Maths and Music but more average in English, or she may be gifted in some science areas but not others, and hopeless at geometry.  This is called asynchronous development.  It means that some areas of development are ‘out of synch’ with others. Some individuals are gifted in one or two areas, while others have the ability to achieve highly in multiple areas (we refer to this as multi-potentiality[1]).  Such students  are in high demand by teachers at high school, where work load in every subject area increases exponentially.  They often limit their areas of focus deliberately because they are prioritizing their time and energy, or because they are not interested in that particular area of learning.

Perhaps not understanding this, some parents expect a gifted student to be high performing in every area, which is an unrealistic expectation that sets a student up for failure in the one thing they probably want most of all:  your approval. 

Now while parents might feel that anything that motivates their gifted son or daughter to achieve highly is a good thing, in actual fact approval-based motivation is short-lived.  As they grow older, the opinions of parents and teachers matter less than the opinions and esteem of their peers.   Gifted learners who have previously been high achievers can find that their grades plateau or slide as their priorities switch from learning and achieving highly to please their parents, to other areas of their lives such as friendships and socialising.

Similarly, once students leave the sheltered school environment where teachers have monitored, counselled, supported and cajoled the teen through their high school years, they face the vastly different learning environment of colleges and universities.  Here, it if they fail to turn up to class, hand in assignments, or even pass with minimum effort there will not be a teacher chasing them to perform. Research shows that students who only work for grades to please others are much more likely to underachieve, or drop out at college and university than their peers who are intrinsically motivated (See Successful Gifted Learners v Autonomous Learners).

Gifted students who strive to achieve highly so that others approve of them, or who are motivated by short term rewards are said to be extrinsically rather than intrinsically motivated.  Intrinsically motivated students, on the other hand, are self-driven.  If there is a mountain to climb, a challenge to face, they want to achieve it – because it is there.  They set themselves challenges, and get satisfaction from having tackled something difficult.  They understand that great success comes from putting in the ‘hard yards’.  It comes from digging in and drawing upon dogged determination to work towards a goal, little step by little step.

All of which means it is really important that parents help their gifted teen to discover the joy of chasing the challenge, rather than the reward.  There are no prizes (or grades) for the most important things in life: being a good parent, friend, or community member.  Grades are dependent upon a wide variety of things, some of which are definitely beyond the control of the student. This article is not about discouraging parents from having high expectations of their gifted teens:  rather, it is about considering the messages we send to our child as we try to balance our aspirations for them with guidance and support.

Perhaps we could concentrate upon the focus of our expectations.  When we as parents put a lot of emphasis upon celebrating high grades (rather than perhaps admiring persistence and effort), we reinforce that subconscious feeling that our teen is loved for his success, rather than for who he is. 

Gifted students often have unrealistic expectations of themselves. Some are high perfectionists, to an unhealthy degree. Gifted students, when they have a better understanding of themselves and their giftedness, can accept themselves as normal humans with a mixture of strengths and challenges. 

Questions we might ask ourselves as parents are:
Do I celebrate the grade or do I frequently admire a good work ethic? (Both would be good!)
Which do I admire more when talking about others: their personal qualities or their achievements? If achievements, what type of achievements?
Does my gifted teen really know that (s)he is loved unconditionally? Or does (s)he think my love and approval is dependent upon success or a high grade?

Your teen doesn’t have the benefit of age and hindsight.  Your teen needs you to:

Somehow the climb makes the view
at the top that much more incredible
  • Handle school reports in a way that is helpful:  Ask "how do you feel about your report?" rather than "what happened to your Math mark?"  You can be sure that your gifted teen knows exactly why they received specific grades, what they might have handled better, and what could change in the future.  This type of conversation can lead to meaningful change.
  •  Accept her 'lesser developed' areas as well as her strengths; don’t make a big thing of either! What lessons, now as an adult, can you see in your own imperfections and mistakes, especially those you experienced as a teen? Admit to your own school report card imperfections when you were a student! It allows you to talk about the lessons you’ve learned since, plus it reconfirms that it is okay to be a flawed human – your love of them doesn’t depend upon perfection, and neither should theirs for you.    
  • Ask  him what gives him more satisfaction:  a high grade in an assignment that he found really easy and which took little effort to achieve; or a task that he found quite daunting, that he feared he might not do as well in, but that he tackled anyway, worked really hard to master, and eventually managed successfully.  This is a life lesson. This is the type of experience that promotes autonomous learning. 

Gifted teens need your high expectations! But they need your support as well:  support that allows them to become increasingly independent of you; that inspires them to struggle through adversity, to work through the hard parts, to be brave enough to fail (yes, to fail!) and to know that you love them regardless and that you will be there to applaud when they pick themselves up and dare to try again.  In other words, they need to know that you love them ‘warts and all’.

[1] Multi-potentiality.  The ability and potential to achieve highly in multiple areas.  A future article will be devoted to this topic. (#9 of ’10 Ways Parents Can Support Their Gifted Teen at High School).

© Sonia White, Author, Teacher, Gifted Education Consultant (2012), www.giftedconsultant.ac.nz  

This article is part of a series on how parents can help their gifted teens get the best out of their high school years. 
To read other articles on this topic click on the links:

Parents of Gifted: 1. Facilitate learning at home

Parents of Gifted:  3. Promote sensible risk-taking
Parents of Gifted: 4.Teach your gifted and talented teen to prioritise
Parents of Gifted: 5. Have High Expectations of Your Gifted and Talented Teen
Sonia White is a parent, teacher, author and gifted education consultant.  She has many years of experience working with gifted learners of all ages.
To receive links for future articles on this topic, you can subscribe to Sonia's blog by email, RSS feed, or as a member of Blogspot. 
Follow Sonia on Twitter: @SoniaWhite_  or Facebook: Sonia White Gifted Education     


  1. "Gifted individuals are not gifted in everything. It is normal for gifted to be performing well above their age peers in some areas, and at the same level, or even below their age peers in other areas."

    I would change this a bit. Gifted individuals are not necessarily gifted in everything, but they may be highly capable in virtually everything they try. In spite of this,they may not be able or willing to focus their energy on every subject and every goal.

    Gifted teens with multi-potentiality need a different kind of support than teens with uneven capabilities. You outline the latter well; I think you miss some of the problems of the former.

  2. Thank you for pointing my oversight here in not mentioning those with multi-potentiality - your are quite correct, of course. I've amended the blog accordingly, and will address multi-potentiality as a topic in a future blog. Meanwhile, I really appreciate your taking the time to write to me.
    Warm regards


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