(Names and situations have been changed to protect privacy.)
I have an eight year old client, Anne, who is profoundly gifted and loves to perform. I was recently invited to her end of the season awards dinner for her theater troupe. The dinner was to celebrate the completion of a successful season with students and their parents in attendance. Anne’s parents were the directors of this troupe and their daughter has been raised in the footlights. She is used to seeing her parents as teachers and directors and quite often they are the center of attention. To begin the celebration, her mother gave a short introductory speech and then everyone began to eat and visit.
About half way though dinner, Anne stood and clinked her knife on her glass to get everyone’s attention. “Excuse me,” she stated in a high, clear voice, “I am finished with my dinner and would like someone to play with me now.” An awkward silence ensued followed by a few giggles from other children. Anne’s mom pulled her down and whispered in her ear. Anne yanked her arm away and said very loudly, “But I need someone to play with right now!” Anne’s mom tried to grab her again but Anne dodged away from her and began to run through the dining room. Mom tried valiantly to catch and remove her, but Anne was too fast. Finally Mom cornered Anne and began to talk to her in a low voice. Anne began to yell, “I don’t want to talk about his right now in front of everyone!” and “You are embarrassing me!” In desperation, Mom grabbed Anne and dragged her kicking and screaming out of the room.
I recently had experience with this behavior on a personal level. My son likes to play a game with me, similar to 20 Questions, where he asks me random questions to see how many I can answer. A few months ago, I had a phone call that brought me some very bad news. My son walked into the room, oblivious to my tears, and asked me a question to start his game. I told him I wasn’t feeling like answering his questions right now because I had just received some really bad news. My son looked at me and said, “I’m mad at you. I wanted you to play with me!” When I told him I couldn’t, he began to throw things and have a raging tantrum. At times like these, it is hard to be benevolent about my son’s special needs. I want to scream at him and tell him to stop being so selfish. I want to inform him that he is not the center of the universe. I want to lock him out of the house. But I know from past experience, if I yell and criticize him, he will be crushed and looking into his wounded eyes, I will feel like I have just hit a puppy.
So what is behind this seemingly selfish behavior? According to Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration as a theory of moral development, this egocentric behavior has to do with sensitivity, asynchronous moral development, and overstimulation. Dabrowski believes that humans progress through levels of integration with their world. In a nutshell, moral development goes like this: Level 1, Primary Integration, is all about the self. Children at this level have little concern for others, in their eyes they are the center of the universe. Level 2, Unilevel Disintegration, children are no longer totally self-centered but their interactions with others are motivated by what others think of them. They struggle to obtain approval and are critical of themselves when they don’t get it. Level 3, Spontaneous Multilevel Disintigration, child begins to develop an inner core of values and may suffer from internal conflicts because they feel dissatisfied with who they want to be versus the reality of who they are (perfectionism really rears its head at this stage). Level 4, Organized Multilevel Disintegration, children have now learned to adjust to personal ideals and can live according to those ideals. At this stage, they have strong personal values but are able to live successfully with themselves and others. Level 5, Secondary Integration, individuals have now reached their ideal, inner conflicts are resolved, and life is characterized by living according to the highest and most universal principles of regard for humanity (very few of us actually reach this level, think Mother Teresa).
Obviously, progressing through these levels is not easy and can be emotionally painful for the average person. The most difficult transition usually occurs between levels three and four; a level which our gifted children often have to contend with at an emotionally tender age. When you throw sensory issues into the mix, you have an incendiary combination. Young gifted children have often moved on to level two at a very young age and are trying to please others while their peers are still egocentric. They can move into level three by the time they are only five or six years old. This advance is compounded by the physical lack of ability/fine motor skills to work at the level they feel they should. Frustration and self loathing can be the result of a body that doesn’t do what the mind envisions. On top of this, they are trying to learn how to handle their emotions and deal with the negotiations of daily life with other people. All the while, they are struggling to cope with a world filled with relentless sensory stimulation. It’s a tall order for anyone, yet there is very little empathy from others when your child is the screaming center of attention.
Dabrowski believes, “Those individuals with strong emotional, intellectual, and imaginational overexcitabilities seem to have the greatest potential for attaining the higher levels of moral development with the emotional and intellectual overexcitabilities being the most significant.” So there is the silver lining to this cloud, while our children struggle and suffer the most in making the transition between levels, they also have the greatest potential to reach the highest moral development.
So how do we help our kids move through those tricky levels?
First and foremost, home should be a respite from outside stresses. Children should feel they are loved and supported for who they are, not for what they can do or may become. It is not always easy to love and support an out of control kid, but they are depending on you to model how to behave. Be creative; brainstorm solutions with your child, be flexible, and open to unusual solutions. Tune out the relatives’ judgments, reject society’s norms, and stifle your inner critic. Respect your child’s right to be both true to themselves and master the ability to live successfully in our society.
Second, we should avoid putting them in situations with more stimuli than they can handle (yes, that can include school). Take their ability to handle stress on a day-to-day basis. Their coping skills can and do change, sometimes from day to day. As they grow and mature, they can be taught coping strategies to help them stay in control, even in stressful situations; but this takes time, patience, and help from caring adults. Our kids’ behavior can be unexpected, embarrassing, and puzzling. We are often left scratching our heads as to what caused the latest meltdown. But overall, most parents know their child’s biggest stressors and what situations to avoid. We have to walk a fine line between exposing them to daily life, so they can learn to cope in a variety of situations, and pushing them into too much too fast. Books, articles, and websites can provide many strategies on helping your child cope (Hoagies Gifted and Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum are two very informative websites that come to mind). Psychologists, who are trained in working with gifted children, can also be a wonderful source of information and support to parents and children as they work through these stages. Socializing with groups of similar peers who truly understand you and your child’s struggles can be less of a pressure cooker and can help normalize your child’s experiences and feelings.
And third, when a meltdown happens (despite all your best efforts), try to resolve it in a way that does not escalate the situation or embarrass your child. I know that our children usually appear to be the embarasser rather than the embarassee; but our kids are often hypersensitive to disapproval and far more aware of their social gaffs than we may think. They want desperately to fit in, even when they are isolating themselves through their own actions. If at all possible, find a way to get them to a private area and help them through the meltdown without an audience. It helps to be proactive; be observant and responsive to their needs, even if it means you won’t be able to relax and enjoy yourself. Families might develop some private signals or secret code to use so your child can tell you discretely when they need your help or you can signal unobtrusively when their behavior is out of the norm. It is also helpful to practice coping mechanisms ahead of the event and on arrival take time to walk through together to find a private spot to repair to if needed. It can be very helpful to give your child a preview of what is expected of them at the event. If they do lose it, there are good social autopsy programs that you can work through together to return to various social events and see what led to their stress and how they might have handled it differently.
It requires a great deal of work to help our children successfully navigate their moral development, but this developmental phase doesn’t last forever. If you are a parent of a young gifted, egocentric child, your goal of having a socially functional, empathetic child may seem all too distant and unobtainable. Yet, one of these days your hard work will pay off and you will see them successfully mitigate one of those dicey situations all on their own. Then they will turn to you with a big smile on their face and you will feel like you just won the lottery! Take heart in knowing that many have gone before you and their love, respect, and tenacity have enabled them to raise happy, functional gifted children.