Gifted children & the pandemic: protecting emotional health
Feb 19, 2021
By: Kiyo Morse
Head of School, Steppingstone, School for Gifted Education
Staying healthy is a central focus in every household during these unprecedented times. While we are all rightly concerned about the physical health of our loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that we not let our emotional and mental health fall to the wayside.
For gifted children, a crisis like this one can be especially challenging to navigate. Gifted children are more emotionally sensitive than the average child. They are highly observant, and therefore have a better sense of what’s going on around them.
However, gifted children are not always emotionally prepared to handle the vast scale of information they are processing. In times of crisis, when the flow of information can be overwhelming and unpredictable, we need to pay special attention to how our children are coping emotionally.
Steppingstone School was founded in 1981 as a specialty school exclusively for gifted education. Over the last four decades, our school has passed through many experiences which have taxed the emotional health of our students–from the Gulf War to 9/11, and the all-too-frequent school shootings.
There is no doubt that the current situation poses a unique set of challenges and anxieties for the gifted population. Through the years, we have acquired valuable experience to manage and protect the emotional health of our students in times like these.
Here are some of the lessons we have learned.
Control the flow of information
First of all, remember that you cannot and should not try to shelter your child from all of the news. This would be impossible. In fact, it is important that you allow your children to go through various experiences, especially those that are challenging and difficult. Experiences are a part of how we grow. But, as parents or caretakers, our job is to make sure those experiences are as healthy and constructive as possible.
Managing information intake is key.
Try making a list of the major “information sources” accessible to your child. Do you leave the news on all day? Does a particular family member love to “talk politics”? Make some house rules on the news spigots. Turn off the TV. Wear headphones when you listen to your podcast. And try to set some ground rules with Uncle Harry (easier said than done, we know).
Second, remember that as a caretaker, you can be the most important source of information for your child. You can set the narrative early on by presenting and emphasizing constructive facts (more on this later). And remember: you do not need to provide all the details!
Gifted children are infamous for their endless stream of questions. Answering them all can be an exhausting task. But more importantly, it can also be counterproductive to give your child too much information. Gifted children often speak with such sophisticated language that parents may, momentarily, forget their children’s age.
There is no doubt that they are smart kids. But they are still kids! They may be intellectually ready to process more advanced questions but not emotionally prepared for the answers. We recommend that you give direct and straightforward answers. Limit the information to the minimum necessary to answer the question.
Hot Tip #1: If you are unsure of where a question is leading, ask for clarification. Try to get a sense of what information they are after by posing a question back to them: “Why do you ask?” or, “What problem are you trying to solve?” This will allow you to gauge what specific information you need to provide at a given time.
Be mindful of your child’s understanding of space and time
Children (not just gifted children) have difficulty comprehending the intricacies of time and space. If they learn about a terrorist, for example, they will struggle to understand the distance of the threat, and the frequency of the event.
During the Gulf War, one of our Steppingstone students told me in passing that he had begun taking a kitchen knife to bed with him because he was worried a terrorist was going to come through the window at night. Of course, I immediately called his parents. They rectified the situation, avoiding possible disaster.
But what became clear through our follow up discussions is that this child imagined the threat to be immediate and nearby. We need to provide time and spatial context to events, especially with gifted children. Do not assume that such things are understood because they are so smart!
Furthermore, this child did not see any solution to the problem presented. He was trying to solve it himself, to feel more secure. When you talk to your child in a crisis, try to provide a resolution to the problem at hand. Gifted children may have a more profound understanding of the problem and be unsatisfied with the solution you offer.
In this case, assure your child that there are adults who are working on solving the problem. This will take off the pressure to create their own solution using their very active imaginations.
Hot Tip #2: The pandemic is tricky to discuss. A gifted child’s bold imagination may run wild at the idea of an invisible threat. Try to give the concept some concreteness. Consider a science experiment about germs like this one which recently went viral. Crises are scary and complicated by nature. Make sure that you include a positive element to the discussion. Again, emphasize that there are medical scientists with decades of experience who are working on a cure.
Establishing your new normal
At the outset of the stay-at-home orders here in Michigan, one of our Steppingstone students told us he did not want to work at home. “School is for work and home is for play. Why do I have to work at home where I am supposed to play?” he protested.
There are going to be many such conflicting concepts that gifted children will struggle to reconcile. This is understandable. All of the usual schedules, norms, and rituals have been upended.
Everything is changing. Our expectations should be no different! Schoolwork and other extracurriculars might need to take a back seat. And that has to be okay. One thing we have learned through the years is that gifted children can catch up quickly once they are ready to do so. If your child is not in the right “headspace” to learn, it will be fruitless and possibly harmful to try to force them to keep up.
In the meantime, there are many aspects of your child’s environment that you can control to help facilitate a healthy and efficient transition to your new normal.
Establish a designated workspace at home with all the tools your child needs to learn. Try to recreate a semblance of the school environment. But do not put restrictions on the space. If the child wants to wander away to another spot to do an assignment, that’s ok too.
Encourage physical exercise. At Steppingstone, we believe that the development of the whole child, emotionally, intellectually, and physically is critical to a happy and healthy future. We put a special emphasis on physical fitness because we know there is a strong connection between physical and mental health. Consider making exercise a family activity (especially if your child is not thrilled with exercising to begin with!).
Try to set up some virtual playdates. A video conference with friends over lunch can go a long way in brightening your child’s day and maintaining those critical social relationships.
Hot Tip #3: Socializing can be hard for some gifted kids. Virtual socializing can be even harder. Get creative! Exchanging written letters with friends and family may be a fun thing to introduce. Tap your family and friend network to help out, too. Does your child have a favorite aunt or cousin? Set up a Zoom call. Remind your child about all the activities they have been doing that they can talk about during their virtual playdates.
Cut everyone some slack, including yourself!
These are trying times. Be patient and forgiving with your child, their teachers, and their friends (and maybe their friends’ parents!). But most importantly, be patient and forgiving to yourself.
Taking care of your own emotional health is just as important as taking care of your child’s. If you are not healthy, you will not be able to provide for your child’s needs. Check in with yourself and your partner or co-caretakers. Take breaks if and when you need them.
Remember, if you can avoid signs of high anxiety and stress, it is much more likely that your child will cope and flourish in the “new normal.”
This blog was posted by Steppingstone, School for Gifted Education on May 8, 2020 by Mrs. Kiyo Morse.
Mrs. Morse, who has been Head of School of Steppingstone, School for Gifted Education, since its founding in 1981, holds BS and MS degrees in Population Genetics and Immunology from the University of California, Davis. Her experience as a research scientist at the University of California and with the Swiss National Red Cross in Bern provided her with the expertise to serve as a science mentor for gifted students in the Plymouth-Canton Schools. She served for three years on the steering committee of the Plymouth-Canton Association for the Academically Talented (PCAAT).