How Do I Know When My Gifted Child Needs To See A Psychologist?

By Susan T. Berry, Ph.D

Parents of gifted children often find that a psychologist who understands giftedness can be helpful in a variety of situations. They may be struggling with behaviors in their child that they don't understand or can't manage, or perhaps their school has suggested that their child has a psychological problem – without acknowledging his or her high abilities as well.

The anxiety and frustration of parents of gifted children is real and understandable. At a time when few school districts offer substantive curricula for gifted students, and high ability children are caught in a "one size fits all" model, parents of gifted children find themselves serving as the sole advocates for their children, a task that leads them to an uphill battle to meet their children's educational and emotional needs. Parents who are in this position are often experiencing a significant amount of stress. They need support, and, perhaps, some resources, for both their children and themselves.

One of the signs, then, that it's time to consider a consultation with a psychologist is prolonged frustration – both that of the child and his or her parents.

A child's frustration can often be dismissed as "a phase," or attributed to some event such as a single disappointment or failure to reach a desired goal. If a child displays frustration often, however, or for a long period of time, it's important for parents to check to see if there is a pattern to the distress.

Gifted children are often frustrated when they experience failure or if they are unable to complete a task easily. Because high ability children can tend to be perfectionistic, and are also accustomed to accomplishing tasks fairly easily, they can become frustrated quickly when faced with a real challenge to their abilities.

This particular situation is a reminder, to all of us who live or work with gifted children, that ensuring they are sufficiently challenged is not a "luxury," but, rather, an "essential." Children of high abilities who are in learning environments in which they are not regularly challenged never develop the coping mechanisms with which to handle difficult tasks. And everyone's life – gifted or not – has its difficult tasks. Learning how to emotionally deal with challenge is just as important as the challenge itself.

A high ability child who is having difficulty with a challenging task, sport, or project may need some psychological support to develop skills to cope with a slower learning process that also involves some failure at times.

As many parents know, gifted children may also display "intensities" or "overexcitabilities" that have been described to us by Kazimierz Dabrowski (1967). Intensity can be observed in the following arenas:

Psychomotor:

High energy; fidgetiness; impulsivity; tics; plays with hair, eyelashes; often misdiagnosed as ADHD or Tourette's Syndrome.

Sensual:

Smells, sounds, bright lights irritate; clothing sensitivities; sensory integration concerns.

Intellectual:

Persistent questions; curiosity; highly analytical; creates own rules/principles; total immersion in passions; often misdiagnosed as Asperger's, Autism spectrum.

Imaginational:

Intricate dreams; question of fantasy or reality; dramatization.

Emotional:

Experiences profound emotions; highly sensitive; intense moods; urgent sense of responsibility; relationships seem very deep for age and can be turbulent; often misdiagnosed as Bipolar Disorder.

When intensities are observed in any arena, and a child's functioning appears to be affected, or parents are experiencing sustained stress in helping a child to manage his or her intensities, a consultation with a psychologist who understands giftedness can be a window of opportunity and the start of learning how to bring balance into life. Regardless of whether a child is gifted or not, learning the concept of "balance" in life is essential for psychological health.

When assessing a gifted child who exhibits intensities, a psychologist also needs to obtain developmental information and a thorough family history. This data is extremely important because it helps the psychologist to understand why a parent might believe a child is gifted if, in fact, the child has not already been tested.

In addition, a developmental history will illuminate areas of concern both in the child and the family. A learning or emotional disability- one or both of which may be present along with giftedness- may be a possibility in some cases. These factors are essential to uncover early on, to help determine whether formal psychological or psychoeducational testing should be pursued.

Similarly, it is important to identify what, if any, family issues, tensions, or concerns may be acting upon the child. A gifted child who is struggling with a mismatched curriculum in school and parents who are going through a high conflict divorce is experiencing stress from several different sources, and all these sources need to be taken into account.

To be sure, if a gifted child who displays intensities is also experiencing another major life event, such as parental divorce, the death of a family member, the addiction or illness of a parent, or a move to a new school, a consultation with a psychologist who understands giftedness could be an important step in helping that child to learn effective coping skills.

In addition, if parents have concerns about their gifted child's psychological health, and there is a history of mental health issues in the family, a consultation with a psychologist who is familiar with giftedness is necessary.

In some cases, counseling with a gifted child may be needed for only a short time in order to help a child develop different coping skills or to view a situation or problem from another perspective. However, for short-term counseling to be effective, it needs to be consistent. Parents who want their child to have a counseling session once per month or "as needed," often inadvertently place their child in "crisis intervention" mode. When this occurs, the child does not have a chance to develop a trusting relationship with the therapist, and comes to associate the counseling relationship with "crises," or negative behaviors, because he or she is only brought to see the therapist at these times. Weekly visits, for a month or two, are usually far more effective and productive than monthly, or "as needed" visits, stretched out for a year or so.

In some situations, parents of gifted children will seek out psychological services with the expressed desire to have their child tested to determine if, in fact, their child's measured intelligence is in the "gifted" range. Sometimes, this desire is prompted by a need to meet a criterion of a specific program for gifted children, or by the parents' need to validate their hypothesis that their child is gifted.

Many psychological tests can be helpful in measuring and quantifying traits and qualities. However, when parents express a desire to pursue testing "just to know" their child's "IQ score," or "just in case we need to show the school that he is gifted," a consultation with a psychologist who understands giftedness can help them fine tune their goals. It is best if the decision for formal testing is based on realistic goals that will ultimately drive parents toward what is truly necessary for their child. A psychologist will also want to educate parents about the costs - both in terms of finances and time spent - of testing.

Parents of gifted children often find that it is helpful to develop a working relationship with a psychologist who has experience with giftedness. As the primary advocates for their children, parents may simply wish to consult regarding educational and emotional issues from time to time, or pursue a course of psychotherapy to allow their child a safe place to share frustrations and other emotions that may need to be managed in a different manner. These professionals can provide resources for parenting as well as to help plan how to best support a child's gifts and talents.

Susan T. Berry, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and practices in Glastonbury, CT, where she works with gifted children and adults. 

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