What You Need to Know About Your Gifted Teenager

If your gifted child has reached the teenage years, you certainly already know that the preschool years and kindergarten can be very trying for both parents and children who are precocious. But after that, to make a long story short, parents have finally gotten their school age children settled down and calm. There is a schedule and predictable routine in place regarding activities, homework, and friendships. And the house runs relatively smoothly. Or if not—if there is confusion, anxiety, and disappointment about achievement and friendships—there is help to be found through school special needs programs, tutors, and psychologists.

When the teenage years arrive there is a resurgence of emotional intensity related to changes in the way teens think about the world. Added to changes in cognitive processing are changes in hormones that create sexual developmental changes and interests and even more emotionality or moodiness. A new search for identity—for who your teen is in this world—begins in a dramatic way. Adolescents, because they are so barraged by new ways of thinking about their world, feel vulnerable and are extremely self-conscious. Far too often teenagers feel like they are the center of the universe and act as if they are being viewed by an adoring audience that expects them to be perfect.

The change in cognitive development from thinking concretely about the present, seen in school age children, to a future orientation, based on the ability to think abstractly, is distinctive and dramatic. The teenager begins to ask questions of the world that will diminish his or her respect for authority. The teen can question his or her parents’ ideas which were more easily accepted as a younger child. Fighting with parents that always was routine is intensified. School and other accepted authorities are no longer given as much credence. A new epoch begins which can be horrifying if you don’t have some insight into why it is happening. Even with a great deal of understanding and knowledge dealing with gifted teenagers can be a downright nightmare. And if you think that I am exaggerating you are one lucky parent.    

The normal developmental changes that all preteens and teenagers go through are difficult to deal with for any family. Gifted children can be even more perplexing because they are more idealistic, intense, perfectionistic, and sensitive which can make their search for identity more difficult to understand and contend with. Persistence and focus on particular ideas or people can be mind boggling. When concentration is focused productively these fascinations can lead to career and relationship choices. But when their fascinations are out of line with mainstream life, gifted kids can get tangled up in destructive preoccupations and lifestyles. Parents of gifted teenagers who can make no inroads to restoring logic at home are often infuriated and exasperated beyond belief. Their own awesome abilities in the world have become almost useless at home.
Just as in childhood, social issues for bright and talented children need to be monitored. Gifted teenagers can be made to feel like outsiders or nerds or weirdos by more insecure and aggressive peers. Bullying is very common and demoralizing. Finding new friends, mentors, and teachers is critical as well as holding onto old friendships. Isolation for gifted teens never leads to any good outcomes. Often, school phobias develop and require interventions from mental health professionals. Healthy social interactions can lead to productivity in this period, but self-consciousness and moodiness may lead to dangerous early sexual behavior (either “live” or online), drug use, or identification with a non-conformist culture, which includes dropping out of school.

Managing your gifted teenager’s demanding behavior, self-consciousness, and moodiness with his or her need for love, attention, and validation is very hard to do. I sometimes wonder how I ever lived through this time with my own children. Think of your 100-pound son or daughter having a two-year-old style temper tantrum that is out of control and impossible to stop. Or, you might imagine that you are trying to navigate a raging river that is leading to a calmer sea.

Having family rules that are realistic and firm for this developmental stage will help contain some of the anxiety, uproar, and antagonistic behavior of your once-sensible child. Here are some ideas for structuring your family life.

1.  Set up new limits and consequences for your teens that give them a little more freedom but also take into account family and school responsibilities.
2.  Find a working system of accountability so you and your child understand and maybe even agree upon what is getting done and what needs to get done.
3.  Be positive about your child’s success because this helps to diminish or control self-consciousness.
4.  Empathize with your child’s point of view because it will make them feel understood and valuable. Don’t give in to your teenager. Handle problems and solutions in a matter-of-fact way.
5.  Avoid screaming matches and humiliation at all costs.
6.  Hold family meetings on a regular basis that take all of the family members’ issues into account. Remember, parents need to make changes and listen to their kids’ requests.
7.  Find quiet time to talk with your son or daughter about things big or small. Just have talking time.
8.  Family life should still be important even when your house is filled with extra friends.
9.  Take family vacations that focus on your teenager’s interests when possible.