Redirecting Underachievement and Manipulative Behaviors in Gifted Children

     Gifted children have asynchronous development―learning highs and lows, issues with emotional intensity, and problems learning skills that they cannot master immediately. When these complicated developmental issues are coupled with their predictable perfectionistic personalities, precious and precocious kids become vulnerable to developing learned helplessness. Eventually bright and highly sensitive children will underachieve in one or several areas of their lives, including academics, sports, social skills, or creative pursuits. Understanding how underachievement develops is critical if this cluster of learned behaviors is to be corrected so that the child is allowed to develop all aspects of his or her personality.

     Realistically, underachievement and avoidance of a required task or rule is a tricky problem to solve and requires a lot of stamina and commitment on the part of the parents and teachers who have to deal with this type of manipulation on a daily or moment-to-moment basis. Avoidance (of a required task or rule to follow) or manipulation of interactions with parents contributes to underachievement. Parents are usually shocked and sometimes even horrified when I suggest that their son or daughter is manipulating them in order to get their own way. But it is true―smart kids come up with strategies to avoid all types of fearful experiences. The most common fears in younger children include separation anxiety, fear of making a mistake, and social anxiety because they feel like they don’t fit in.

     Most gifted children develop manipulative strategies through their confusing and negative experiences with their parents. Well-meaning parents are bamboozled into letting their children avoid following directions. This type of defensive behavior starts early and can be centered around separation anxiety or perfectionism―the pressure to avoid what is perceived to be by the child as failure. Parents who are too tuned into their child can give in to the child’s fears and his or her sense of being helpless. The louder that the child cries the more mom and dad give in. The problems (or scary emotions) that foster avoidance will now be harder to overcome. Eventually, a fixed pattern to avoid fear emerges as a way to cope with problem solving or life in general.   

     Young children don’t listen because they want to get their own way. Most commonly, as kids get older, homework is what is sabotaged. Gifted kids who can easily complete homework leave out important facts about homework completion, tell untruths (such as “I finished all my homework”), or fight with their parents about what they are supposed to do. For example, the assignment may include "neat handwriting" but the child refuses to listen to the “stupid and boring” instructions. Even when children complete their homework they can forget to take it to school. And there are other ways that gifted kids manipulate their parents and don’t listen and don’t follow the rules: refusing to stop an activity when directly asked to do so, throwing a tantrum, day-dreaming instead of paying attention in class, or just plain procrastinating about getting ready for any activity that a child does not want to do.

     The causes of these disruptive behaviors can be and often are attributed to attention deficit  disorder (ADD). But most likely your gifted child does not have ADD, although the symptoms are very similar. Perfectionism and emotional intensity can lead to boredom in the classroom and a child who has difficulty paying attention to the teacher. Gifted kids who don’t listen to directions do not necessarily have ADD;  rather, these kids don’t listen because of their overwhelming need to get their own way at any cost, or perhaps strongly fear making a mistake.

    Here are some simple rules to follow when your gifted child has taken their disruptive behavior too far at home or at school. 
    1.  Define what has been disruptive and what your expectations for the interaction or activity are.           
    2.  Deal with disruptive behavior when it happens.
    3.  Find a consequence that works to stop the disruption.
    4.  Give rewards for appropriate behavior. 
    5.  Empathize with your child’s pain but don’t back down and feel sorry for them.
    6.  Don’t ignore the problem. It won’t help.
    7.  Talk to the teacher and make a plan.
    8.  Show your child how to get their homework completed on time.