Sue Scheff: Students - The Stress of Being Gifted

As school is opening, is your child gifted? Have you ever considered the stress and anxiety that comes with being gifted? Having to meet high expectations and feeling the pressure that can result in other difficulties. Please take the time to read these great parenting tips. Be an educated parent.

Stress of Being Gifted

“I have all this pressure on me that they’re saying ‘Emily, help me!’ And then I can’t.”

– Emily, age 10.

A small percentage of the kids now heading back to school are called “gifted.” They are children who are very smart, multi-talented and often stressed out. High expectations and the pressure to succeed can weigh heavily on high IQ kids. But there are ways to help them cope with the pressure.

Ten-years-old, she practices the piano almost every day. Emily is a gifted student and she knows it. She expects to perform better than the average student and will push herself until she does. “If I don’t maybe play piano really good that day,” she says, “I just play forever until I really get it.”

As smart as she is, Emily is beginning to understand that the label “gifted” is mostly a blessing but also a curse. Sometimes the other kids tease her. “I mean if you’re teased….you have a lot of pressure on you and then maybe it affects your schoolwork or something,” she says.

But teasing is only one of the difficulties gifted children experience. Research also shows that they feel a constant pressure to excel at their work and, at times, even to help other children with their schoolwork.

“Sometimes, just sometimes when I like don’t know a problem, it kind of makes me feel weird because I have all this pressure on me that they’re saying ‘Emily, help me!’ And then I can’t,” says Emily.

Experts say the best way for parents to help their gifted children cope with the pressure of being so talented, so smart is to encourage them to talk about it.

Family and Child Psychiatrist, Dr. Dave Davis says because these children are gifted, they will excel at learning how to cope just as they excel at math and reading and playing the piano. “These coping skills are all learned and often bright children are able to learn them more quickly than other children and that gives them another jump ahead.”

That’s something 8-year-old Ryan is learning from his parents. “I think they’ve taught me a lot about solving problems, not getting so mad.”

In the end, Ryan and Emily have learned that being ‘gifted’ doesn’t just mean being smart. It also means being different.

Tips for Parents

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, most teens experience stress when they perceive a situation as dangerous, difficult, or painful and they do not have the resources to cope. Some potential sources of stress for teens might include:

■school demands and frustrations
■negative thoughts and feelings about themselves
■changes in their bodies
■problems with friends
■unsafe living environment/neighborhood
■separation or divorce of parents
■chronic illness or severe problems in the family
■death of a loved one
■moving or changing schools
■taking on too many activities or having too high expectations
■family financial problems
Some teens become overloaded with stress. When it happens, inadequately managed stress can lead to anxiety, withdrawal, aggression, physical illness, or poor coping skills such as drug and/or alcohol use.

There are a number of benefits typically associated with being identified as “gifted’ child. These benefits may include:

■access to superior educational resources
■participation in challenging and stimulating academic programs
■unique opportunities to explore special talents and gifts in non-traditional settings
■personal recognition
■enhanced opportunities for advancement
However, a recent study by researchers from the University of Michigan Medical Center has found evidence that gifted children may be subject to stresses specific to their special designation. While the children participating in the study all reported generally positive feelings about being gifted, they also identified up to nineteen individual stressors that caused them varying degrees of anxiety and discomfort. According to Dr. Lesli Preuss, the lead author of the study, these stressful feelings and experiences include such things as:

■increased or additional workload resulting from participation in the gifted program
■extraordinarily high expectations regarding grades and perfect work
■being expected to help out other kids in the class
■pressure on selves to excel in everything they do, whether academics, sports, languages and other activities
■insensitive treatment by teachers – i.e. being singled out in class as gifted, being expected to know all the answers, etc.
■generally higher expectations regarding behavior
■feelings of isolation
■feeling misunderstood by peers
Regardless of whether or not your child is officially designated as gifted, it is important that parents be aware of how their children are reacting to their environment at school and at home. Children react to stress in a number of ways, and their reactions can include such behaviors as:

■increasingly moody or withdrawn behavior
■suddenly rebellious or defiant challenges to authority
■changes in sleeping and eating patterns
■loss of interest in activities or people they previously enjoyed
■reluctance or refusal to go to school
However, Dr. Rex Forehand cautions that parents should be careful not to overreact to signs of changes similar to those listed above. “Some of these new or changing behaviors are related to the normal transition from childhood to adulthood. They should not necessarily be seen as danger signs of poor stress management.”

Some experts say that learning and using effective coping skills is critical to a child's ability to successfully navigate stressful situations. Some examples of coping skills are:

■suppressing feelings of discomfort in the short-term in order to get through situations
■directing feelings of anxiety toward more positive outlets (sublimination)
■learning relaxation exercises (abdominal breathing and muscle relaxation techniques)
■developing assertiveness skills. For example, state feelings in polite firm and not overly aggressive or passive ways: ("I feel angry when you yell at me" "Please stop yelling.")
■rehearsing and practicing situations which cause stress. One example is taking a speech class if talking in front of a class makes you anxious
■decreasing negative self-talk
■learning to feel good about doing a competent or "good enough" job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others
■developing and maintaining a sense of humor
By using these and other techniques, teenagers can begin to manage stress. If a teen talks about or shows signs of being overly stressed, a consultation with a child and adolescent psychiatrist or qualified mental health professional may be helpful.

■American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
■Dr. Lesli Preuss, University of Michigan Medical Center
■Dr. Rex Forehand, Director, Institute for Behavioral Research Health

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