Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Recommended Read - Obstinate? or Gifted?

I read a very good blog post this morning from Lisa @ The Joy of Learning that really got me thinking and I wanted to put it here on my blog for you to read. Enjoy!

Sometimes, before parents fully realise that they have a gifted child, they learn they have an obstinate one. From early toddlerhood, such a child can constantly test parents’ patience and boundaries, and those Terrible Twos evolve into the Trying Threes and the Frustrating Fours. Some traits one might find in the obstinate child are:
• the child doesn’t appear to respect parental authority;
• he has his own agenda from which he won’t be swayed;
• he will throw tantrums or even be destructive when he doesn’t get his own way;
• he is quite happy to engage in arguments with his parents (often very adroitly) and is willing to persist in his position until he “wins”;
• the parent/child relationship is characterized by constant power-struggles, even over the littlest things; and
• the child is frequently angry or outraged by perceived injustices.

Some parents wonder if they should seek professional help and question whether their child might have Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) or some other mental health issue; others question their own parenting style and wonder what they are doing wrong.

Certainly, if your child is being destructive or dangerous to himself or others, or if his oppositional behaviour is directed to adults in all settings (instead of just his parents or a single teacher), then professional help should be sought.

In the book, Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults, the authors note that ODD is the second most common misdiagnosis of gifted children, after ADHD. It was certainly a diagnosis I wondered about when one of my children was about three years of age and very difficult to manage. In fact, I even went to see a therapist because I couldn’t believe how strong-willed this child was and I was worried about how we would ever cope. It was she who suggested that he might be gifted, which of course opened up a world of understanding.

Today, at age seven, he is a much easier child, so I want to share some hopeful news for parents dealing with this type of child, as well as some strategies that have worked for us. While the traits listed above were all present in my child at age three, it should be noted that he only behaved that way for his parents. He was capable of presenting an entirely different front at school, which is why the ODD label would not have applied to him.

Part of dealing with his behaviour involved understanding my own. Most parents of gifted children are themselves gifted, and can be challenging and overly-sensitive people too! I began to understand that he was as much a control freak as I was. We are also both extreme perfectionists and have short fuses. I didn’t expect that a 3-year old “needed” to be in charge of his life, but then again, at that time I didn’t really understand giftedness.

Some strategies I’ve employed over the years that seem to have made a real difference in his behaviour today include the following:

i) Set clear boundaries and then calmly enforce them — every single time. If there is any possibility of a loophole, a gifted child will find it immediately and then proceed to drive a dump truck through it. This is the most important thing to remember. If you make a rule, and then fail to enforce it or allow regular exceptions to it, you might as well not bother having a rule at all.

ii) Be prepared to explain clearly why the rule exists, even if it’s just to say that it makes family life run more smoothly if everyone abides by certain terms. Fairness is the key issue for these kids (although young children tend to see this only through the lens of “fair to them”). If they understand why they have to follow a rule, and see it being applied consistently (to their siblings as well), then they are more likely to be prepared to follow it themselves (and will be sure to point out if someone else in the family does not).

iii) Don’t make arbitrary or ad hoc rules designed for your convenience in the moment. If they seem even slightly unfair or inconsistent, he will call you on them and you’ll lose face. Rules must be thought of ahead of time, made patently clear to the child and then rigorously enforced with, perhaps, an escalating consequences list (or whatever works for your family).

iv) Having clear consequences that you’ve determined in advance means that you can calmly state what’s going to happen next, without falling into the trap of sputtering something out in anger like, “No TV for the rest of the month!”

v) Try to let her have some control, where possible. If she wants to choose her own clothes to wear at age three, even if they don’t match, let her. Recognise which battles aren’t worth having. Give the child a choice between two things (that are both agreeable to you) and relinquish control over the things that don’t matter.

vi) Where it does matter, he has to understand that you’re the boss. I sometimes tell my children that our family is not a democracy, but rather a benign dictatorship. Daddy and I are in charge. That said, we try very hard not to cross the line between authoritative and authoritarian. We DO listen to our children’s opinions on things and we do encourage their independence and the development of responsibilities; but, at the end of the day, they have to understand that there is a final authority in our household and it isn’t the child. Some days it might seem so much easier just to give in to a child like this and let him rule the roost, rather than engage in constant battles, but it would be a huge mistake to do so. Despite their protests, they do want rules. They need to know that competent adults are in charge, so they can be free to be children and not be overwhelmed by the awesome responsibility of making all of the decisions.

vii) Work on your attachment relationship. Since beginning homeschooling 18 months ago, we have had few significant behavioural problems. Being together constantly presents some challenges, but it also allows plenty of time for the positive aspects of our relationship to flourish. We connect so much better now than we did when we had more limited time together. Additionally, he is getting plenty of intellectual challenge, and has a say in what he learns, so the frustration of being bored and under stimulated is no longer there. There is time for him to take on responsibilities around the house that make him feel important and useful, and there is time for attention to be given to his interests and hobbies, as well as special family time that makes him feel warm and loved. With all of that positive attachment, it’s much harder to get angry and stay angry.

viii) Recognise that some of the difficult behaviour may have another cause or contributing factor and seek to find out what that is. For example, my son is an introvert, as is most of the gifted population. I have learned that when he is getting irritable it is often because he either needs to eat something (he’s got reactive hypoglycaemia, also quite common among the gifted due to the high ‘fuel consumption’ of their brains) or he needs time by himself to recharge his batteries. This is not treated as something punitive, but just as something essential to his well-being. He now recognizes it himself and will say “I need some alone time”, and then take it.

ix) A little humour goes a long way. In the heat of the moment, it is hard to remember that, but cracking a joke or doing something unexpectedly funny, like making a face or changing your voice, can disarm a child who is gearing up for battle.

Remember, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Gifted children are often highly attuned to issues of fairness and justice, particularly, as young children, when those issues concern them personally. As they get older, they often develop considerable empathy and those ideals may be directed toward redressing injustices elsewhere in the world. The child demanding fairness from you now may be tomorrow’s crusader for justice or Nobel Peace Prize contender. Or so you can hope – and a little hope can go a long way in trying times.

Wow, could it be that many of those things that frustrate me as a parent are actually signs that I have a gifted child? That puts things in a whole new perspective for me. What about you?


: ) Cassie

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