Most of the phone calls I get from parents of G/T kids follow the same pattern. They explain to me how their child was just diagnosed, and then they kind of nervously giggle and say, “I know they didn’t get it from me.” The follow-up comments are usually along the lines of, “I have no idea how to help them,” and, “How do I keep from messing them up?”
These concerns are valid and normal. It is perfectly acceptable to feel like you are unprepared for this journey you just found out you are on. While test results don’t change who your child is, they can change how you support them. Suddenly, there is a professional who is validating thoughts you might have about your child’s intelligence and behavior, all while bringing out insecurities and fears about your parenting in a way you were probably not prepared for.
Here’s the thing, though: You are exactly the parent your child needs! Do not let a test, a number, or a diagnosis change the fact that you are the parent to this amazing person. They need you. They need your support, your kindness, your time, and your energy. You are the only advocate your child will ever have who truly knows them. You’ve been there for them from the beginning, and you will continue to be there as they grow. You know their hopes, dreams, fears, and dark places. When they need someone, it is you they seek. You are the place they call home, even while they are finding their independence from you.
There are going to be many times you will feel as if your child does not need you. That is not true; your presence is enough to provide the stability they need to handle the unique world in which they live. You will have struggles and battles — possibly more than most — but never fear, you are the perfect person for this role. If you love them and support them, you are not going to mess them up! Your intelligence does not need to match your child’s if your heart for them is big enough to take on the challenges they will bring. What I mean is, you don’t have to understand nuclear fission, cardiac surgery, Russian literature, trains, World War II, or any of the other diverse interests that might thrill your G/T child. What you do need to understand is that they need to understand these. They will have interests that far exceed what you might think is normal or appropriate for them at their age, but it is normal and appropriate for them. Further, they will have a driving need, almost a compulsion, to learn about things you might not be able to comprehend. The beautiful thing about parenting these amazing kids is you don’t have to comprehend their interests; you just need to support them while they do.
So how do you support a 5-year-old who scratches a bug bite while she’s supposed to be sleeping, then crawls out of bed to put a speck of blood on a slide to explore it under the microscope? (Yes, this is a true story I heard from a parent!)
The first thing to notice is you are already supporting her because she has all the tools to explore a blood sample independently! That is supporting her. Mom understood her daughter was fascinated by microscopes and looking at things with them. She supported her by providing the tools she needed to further her interest. These are obviously not the toys most 5-year-old children request. Your G/T child might not be interested in most of the hot toys their same-age peers ask for; they are going to ask for items that help them learn more deeply about things that make their hearts happy, such as a microscope! This means supporting them might look different than what friends and family expect from a child their age. Cousins might have different interests and desires than your G/T child. This can be isolating and confusing, but it’s where your support will be invaluable for your child. I don’t imagine the other 5-year-olds in the family are having the same evening as the girl getting up from bed to look at blood on a microscope! But support means encouraging this curiosity and knowing this child’s brain is not going to let her sleep until she completes her examination of this specimen.
A large part of supporting a G/T child is realizing they have the same needs as all children but in different ways. For example, the 5-year-old will require less sleep, as will the 15- or 50-year-old G/T person, than the neurotypical person. Further, if the child is motivated by something, they can forget other needs such as eating and hygiene. Therefore, they need you. While it is not acceptable to let a child stay up half the night looking at slides in the microscope, it is acceptable to tell your child, “I know you are excited about this, and I want you to get to see it. We also need to get a good night’s sleep. How long do you think you will need to look at this slide?”
While it might seem odd to ask a 5-year-old to set their own bedtime, you are enabling the child to set their own boundaries and allowing them to learn how to balance their needs with their wants. A G/T child will need to learn early on how to understand limits and will do better if they can help set those boundaries. Allowing them choices will help set them up for success. You might say, “We can look at this slide for 10 minutes tonight, and tomorrow we can get on the computer and explore this further.” Then you set a timer for 10 minutes so that the child knows when it dings it is time to set the slide aside and get into bed. This also helps them learn time management, which is an essential executive function skill.
The biggest three things to remember are: 1. They are kids. 2. You are the adult! 3. Your child needs you.
The most important thing for you to remember is that you are the only person who will ever have their most authentic and best interests at heart. Others might say what they think is best for your child, but there will be outside factors that influence what they feel is best, whether that be funding, meeting a quota of some kind, or whatever else. You are your child’s only advocate and the person who is most qualified and best trained to know what they need, simply by being their parent.
The biggest three things to remember are:
1. They are kids. Many times this will seem like it’s not true because they have an advanced vocabulary and interest set that disguises this well. Make them go out and play in the dirt or leaves or snow or water. Take them for ice cream (and listen to them tell you about the importance of the dairy industry), take them to a petting zoo, or any relaxing activity. Just realize that they might have more fun at an interactive museum exhibit than an amusement park!
2. You are the adult! There will be days you will question this, especially when it feels like your child is running the show. Take a deep breath and remember, you are the one who is allowing this unique, independent spirit to have the freedom to learn and grow. It is going to be difficult to rein them in without clipping their wings, but you are up to the task, even when you do not feel like it.
3. Your child needs you. This will seem false more times than not. Then you realize that brilliant child of yours who is discussing the intricacies of the foreign trade deficit has their shoes on the wrong feet or hasn’t taken a shower in three days. These kids are amazing and fun and talented and a mess!
They are all the best and worst pieces of yourself, your hopes and dreams, and your traits all at once. However, they are kids and need to be allowed to be more than a brain with feet. Let them have days off, where they don’t have to take a shower or get dressed or comb their hair, and let them explore, read, or research as much as they want. On those days, you don’t have to participate, but you do need to be present. Just sitting in the same room and reading a book while they do whatever they want to do sends a message of support and lets your child know you are there and they can depend on you. When they have a meltdown day, let them sleep in your room or sleep on the floor of their room. Just be physically available; you do not have to say or do anything. Just being there is all they need. They must know you understand they are doing the very best job they know how to do, figuring out how to be who they are going to become.
When you feel like you’re about to lose your mind — and you will feel that way — know that you have the most difficult job in the world and are doing a phenomenal job at it. You are being a parent to a gifted child, and that, my friend, is a special kind of superpower!
Jamie, American Mensa’s Gifted Youth Programs Manager, has been a state-licensed teacher for more than 15 years. She received her Gifted Education certification in 2016. She was recognized as the 2008 Teacher of the Year at Bowie Middle School in Amarillo, Texas, and was a finalist for the 2011 Texas Speech Communication Association’s Teacher of the Year.