It’s summertime and the gifted forums are packed with summertime suggestions, advice-seeking, and general nostalgia. Summer can be a wonderful time to reconnect with yourself, your friends and family, and nature. As you can imagine, most of my students look forward to summer all year. And so do I! However, as a gifted educator winding down another school year, a less pleasant topic is also on my mind. I’m thinking about anxiety.
Even though my students excitedly tell me about their summer plans, after years of working with significantly gifted children, I can sense the anxiety and stress associated with the transition from school to summer. Most of them wouldn’t say it themselves, but the elevated intensities that arise at the end of every school year let me know my students are totally stressing over what’s sure to be a lack of structure, impending long stretches of solitude, or time at camp with children they don’t know and adults they don’t trust.
What could be a time of relaxation and carefree playing is really just another chance to be misunderstood while suffering bug bites.
I hear many well-meaning, loving parents of gifted children exclaim about their child’s stress and anxiety, “Why are they so stressed out? Why all the anxiety? What do they have to worry about? They’re just kids!” My answer is simple: everything.
Here’s a great story illustrating exactly what I’m writing about. My sister, a wonderful mother of two gifted children, was strapping in for a long cross-country plane ride with her two little guys when her seven-year-old began actively freaking out (again) that lightning was going to strike the plane. For days she’d been reassuring him that everything would be fine, the likelihood of that happening was extremely low, and if the pilot felt they were in danger of that happening he would land the plane. This time, her youngest looked up at her, fear in his eyes, and exclaimed “The decision is in one person’s hands?!”
Sound familiar? Let’s dive deeper and get to the heart of it: anxiety is experienced as a floating sense of impending doom attached to specific or non-specific events and ranging from manageable to debilitating. In a gifted child, anxiety can show up as a loss of appetite, loss of sleep, tantrums, nightmares, and despair over existential concerns. I’ve even seen gifted children coping with severe anxiety misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder/ Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s confusing, overwhelming, and self-perpetuating.
And the real kicker is that there’s no way to think your way out of it. As you all are well aware, our gifted kids are really good at thinking. The best of their abilities can’t get them out of this one. Yikes.
To make matters more anxiety-provoking, our kids also grapple with the rest of the differentiating characteristics of gifted children that can set them up for emotional maelstrom. These include unusual emotional depth and intensity, fierce idealism, and a strong need for self-actualization. If the average brain is open to receiving a yard’s worth of life’s data, my students’ brains are open to receiving a mile’s worth. They notice every like and dislike, every approving nod and sideways glance, and every change in tone. Sometimes it’s just too much.
Imagine being gifted and seven, sorting through this complicated set of inborn characteristics in a world that thinks you can’t handle control or choice. And try that in a world full of contradictions and injustice without any life experience. A seven-year-old has no prior experience to realize that most of the time when you feel like the world is ending, it’s not. Really, you just need a snack and a nap and when you wake up, the solution to your problem will reveal itself. To this kid, the world really could be ending! They don’t have the experience to know otherwise.
In my years of helping gifted learners and their families cope with anxiety, I’ve found only one thing that consistently works: movement.
We’ve got to get our gifted children out of their heads and into their bodies! And of course, this is much easier said than done. Anxiety is paralyzing and the allure of Minecraft and science fiction novels is understandably strong. Anything works, from skipping rope to dance to acting out action scenes from aforementioned novels. And if your gifted child is like the gifted children I work with, they have a strong preference for your participation and engagement. So that means you’re gonna have to get out there with them. Think of it this way: it’s way more fun to spend an hour jumping rope and playing freeze dance than sitting up with your child while they sobbingly recount the worst LEGO anxiety dream you never imagined. It’s a simple prescription, but it works.
Try it out! What’s your favorite way to get active with your kids and students? What tames your child’s or student’s worry monsters? Let me know in the comments below.