Tips for Parents: Worry and the Gifted: How Much is Too Much?
Davidson Institute for Talent Development
This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Edward Amend in which worry and stress as related to gifted children were discussed. The author explains that some worry is good and is a motivator, but that it is important to distinguish between a normal amount of worry and an amount that will cause problems for the child.
Although there is a difference between everyday worrying and anxiety that is interfering with functioning, both can be managed with the right tools. Parents report that gifted children and teens seem to worry more than other children they know. They report a negative outlook or a tendency to report negative events with more frequency than positive ones. They may worry about everyday events or world tragedies. When the worry interferes with functioning, it is time to act. While there are many strategies for parents to try, professional intervention may be necessary.
Here are some facts about anxiety:
- Anxiety disorders, as a group, are the most common mental illness in America. Worry is different than an anxiety disorder.
- In general, persons suffering from anxiety experience nervousness and fear that are chronic, unremitting, and can grow progressively worse. Persons experience excessive, irrational fear and dread, and may also show physical symptoms.
- It is common for anxiety disorders to co-exist in persons with other mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse as well as medical conditions like cancer or heart disease.
- Professional treatment of anxiety disorders may include medication and/or psychotherapy.
Cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapies have been proven the most effective types of therapy. There are many types of anxiety disorders, including but not limited to:
- Panic Disorder—Repeated episodes of intense fear that strike often and without warning. Physical symptoms that accompany the fear may include chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, abdominal distress, and fear of dying. This has a variable age at onset, but late adolescence and mid-thirties are most common.
- Specific phobia–A fear of something specific, like snakes or heights. First symptoms usually occur in childhood or early adolescence and can persist to adulthood.
- Social Phobia—An overwhelming and disabling fear of scrutiny, embarrassment, or humiliation in social situations, leading to avoidance of such situations. Age at onset is usually mid-teens, and may emerge out of a childhood history of social inhibition or shyness. Onset may follow a stressful or humiliating experience.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder—Repeated, unwanted thoughts or compulsive behaviors that seem impossible to control or stop. Onset for this is usually gradual.
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder—Persistent symptoms that include frightening and intrusive memories and occur after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event such as assault, abuse, war, or plane crash; duration is more than one month. This can occur at any age.
- Acute Stress Disorder—A persistent re-experiencing of a traumatic event and avoidance of things that arouse recollection of the event; duration is a maximum of four weeks. This can occur at any age.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder—Constant, exaggerated worrisome thoughts and tension about everyday routine life events, decisions, and activities; persons are always anticipating the worst, and this can be accompanied by physical symptoms. Most persons diagnosed with this have reported being anxious to some degree for much if not all of their life, and over half report onset of symptoms in childhood or adolescence.
When worry or symptoms of anxiety appear, there are some strategies for management that parents and their children can try. Here are a few tips.
- Structure and routine—in short, predictability—tend to decrease anxiety and worry. We like our traditions and we do things in certain ways because they are comfortable. For example, many of us know where we’ll be and what we’ll eat on certain holidays. Those ways of living give us comfort—they are always there. Fewer unexpected changes, priming kids for changes, and providing clear expectations can help anxious kids.
- Obviously parents can’t predict and prepare for everything, so teaching a child to be more flexible and think through changes will also help. Start by discussing the “best, worst, and most likely” outcomes. Let’s say a child is worried about something at school. The parent asks the child what the worst possible outcome would be and discusses it. Then, parent asks what the best possible outcome would be. Finally, the parent asks about the most likely outcome. Be careful, though, because all-or-none thinkers and perfectionists will try to pick from the best and worst outcomes they have already identified, rather than thinking about what is truly the most likely.
- Model positive thinking and behavior, and monitor the words you use. For example, how many of you have to go to work tomorrow? Now, how many of you get to go to work tomorrow? That one word change makes a big difference in the way it is communicated. It “feels” different, perhaps better. Seeing things as opportunities not hurdles and viewing what might go well instead of what might go wrong is hard, but changing our words and outlook can help.
- The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman and other books by this author and/or his colleagues have ideas about helping kids think in more positive terms and ward off negative symptoms. A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children by Webb, Gore, Amend, and DeVries also has several strategies in the chapters on perfectionism and depression.
- Try to get the youngster to focus on the present. Anxiety is usually about something that occurred in the past, or something that could happen in the future. If one can focus on the present—what really is or is not happening right now—then it is easier to breathe and get unstuck. “That’s not happening now. I am here eating dinner and no one expects me to balance a checkbook now…”
- For most kids who have a good relationship with their parents, parents can get them to read a children’s book, one like Something Might Happen by Helen Lester. This book is about a lemur that worries, and you can discuss the lemur rather than your child, focusing on the lemur’s thoughts and feelings. If the child is young, he or she is likely to apply his or her own feelings to the lemur, giving the parent some insight.
- Finally, as parents, remember that you can’t do everything—seek progress not perfection. Enjoy the good things about where you are. Keep planting seeds. Find positive outlets for perfectionist tendencies. And, most importantly, do the best you can—and model health by forgiving your own mistakes as they are inevitable.
As a clinical psychologist, I see my share of worry and anxiety in gifted children, especially with terrorism and war permeating the news. Although this is not always the presenting concern of parents coming to my office, it often underlies the behavior problems, school conflicts, or social difficulties. Worry and anxiety are experienced in different ways and, in general, people that suffer from anxiety experience, to a varying degree, fear and nervousness that are excessive, chronic, unremitting, and often irrational. Symptoms can grow progressively worse and may include physical symptoms. Worry in a gifted child can be related to just about anything, from global issues like environmental changes and world peace to personal issues like their homework or “bad hair.”
There are three key aspects that help determine the severity of worry or anxiety, and these are:
- Frequency: How often do the problems arise? Are the symptoms of worry and anxiety experienced daily, weekly, monthly, or several times a day, for example?
- Intensity: On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad are the problems?
- Duration: This refers to two things. First, how long do the symptoms last when they appear? Do you worry for a few minutes and get back to work or do you worry for hours on end. Second, how long have you been experiencing these problems? Is this a new phenomenon or something that’s been around for years?
When it comes to the association between worry and the gifted, the research is unfortunately contradictory. Basically there is some evidence to suggest that gifted individuals are both more and less vulnerable to internalized distress (which includes worry and anxiety). We can safely say that worry and anxiety, like most other adjustment concerns, are an issue for gifted children at least as much as they are for the general population. However, common sense would suggest that gifted individuals might experience more worry just because of the way their brains work–being able to see more possible problems and more possible outcomes or solutions. Research also suggests that the gifted may have buffering traits (e.g., high self-efficacy, sensitivity, and effective coping strategies) that help reduce the negative impact of stressors and anxiety provoking events. (NAGC, 2002). And, once trained, the gifted child’s mind can be an ally in combating worry even if it helped create the problems by thinking or over-thinking possible solutions or problems or outcomes in the first place.
Of course worry and anxiety have negative effects on many people, and these effects are often very obvious. However, it is important to keep in mind that some moderate level of anxiety is a mobilizing force for us to get things done. If we weren’t somewhat nervous about our work or performance, for example, we wouldn’t spend so much time making sure we do a good job. If a kid doesn’t worry a bit about his or her homework or the consequence of not doing it, he or she likely won’t do it. When one cares about their products and others’ perceptions of them, he or she will worry about the possibility of negative criticisms. Some of this worrying is motivating and pushes one to get work done and do a good job. However, too much worrying raises the level of anxiety too high and actually prevents a person from getting things done. If there is too little anxiety or worry, we DON’T do, but when there is too much, we CAN’T do.
What can we do to help our gifted children manage their worries in a healthy way? Here are some suggestions accumulated over the years from a variety of sources. Some come from research, some from clinical experience, and some from parents like you.
“Men are not worried by things, but their ideas about things,” said philosopher Epictetus. He would argue, for example, that it is not the war, but what and how we think about the war that would affect our behavior and emotions. Albert Ellis is a noted psychologist who developed this idea into what is called Rational Emotive Therapy, a way of thinking that helps one avoid falling prey to irrational beliefs and the negative feelings that go with them. These irrational beliefs, such as “You must be unfailingly competent and almost perfect in all you undertake” and “You should feel fear and anxiety about anything that is unknown, uncertain, or potentially dangerous,” contribute to worry and anxiety. Managing these negative thoughts and the “thinking errors” (like catastrophizing and all-or-none thinking) that go with them can help a gifted child get a handle on worry. Helping kids identify these thoughts and recognize their negative consequences on moods and behaviors is a good way to work on decreasing worry, anxiety, and depression. Although the gifted child’s battle with this type of negative self-talk is certainly frustrating for parents, especially when they don’t let you know it is going on internally, using this type of cognitive approach can be helpful.
With younger children, you cannot always use these cognitive techniques because they have difficulty thinking about thinking. In those cases, you can try other options. With all children, it is important to provide opportunities to express feelings, whatever they may be. Remember that feelings are never “wrong,” but actions based on those feelings can be. Accept the feelings, reflect the feelings (e.g., “Sounds like your pretty worried about…”), and work to identify positive outlets for them. For younger children, drawing or writing are safe ways of expression. Consider having your kids develop a worry jar or worry jail (either on paper or a physical object) where kids can “store” those worries in a “safe” place for a while. The physical act of drawing a worry and locking it up is sometimes enough to help a child “put it away” for a while.
Relaxation techniques are a concrete way to decrease stress. For those kids that love control, this can be a fun way to help them learn to control breathing and tension. On the topic of control, you can also help your child develop some feelings of control over the worry by being proactive. For example, if the worry is about pollution or world hunger, help your child acknowledge that those global problems can begin to be addressed at a local level. Participate in local causes or create new ones. Volunteer at a shelter or community agency or organize a city park clean up. There are many ways to make a difference locally that allow a child to feel some control and see the rewards of his or her work.
Fearing increased worries, many parents struggle to decide how much information about world events they should give their gifted children. Try to maintain a balance of information that fits within your family values and does not serve to increase worry. In general, accurate information can help gifted kids better understand, not jump to false (and more worrisome) conclusions, and keep emotions in check. If worry persists, perhaps more information–rather than less–is needed. Consider digging deep and doing some research on or related to the topic creating the worries.
Many parents have found success in reassuring kids through reading. Especially with younger kids, it can be difficult to talk directly about a worrisome subject like death for an extended time. But, you can read a book, even a picture or children’s book, with a theme that surrounds death, and discuss the feelings of the characters, their reactions, and their behaviors without ever relating it directly to the child or situation. Stories about yourself and others can be told in the same way (i.e., you tell a story about you or another and never relate it to the child). In this way, you let them draw the links and learn the lesson in a safe, non-threatening way. You validate feelings without directly confronting or exploring the issue on a personal level.
As always, support, involvement, and communication are the keys to healthy relationships with children. A strong relationship will help moderate negative feelings and events of all types. This won’t, of course, prevent all problems and lead to stress free life, but it will certainly help.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visitwww.DavidsonGifted.org.