One of the frustrations for parents (and PG teens, too!) is the grand intellect that seems to fly in the face of the "goofiness" associated with the teen years. At one moment, you are trying to rationalize with a teen worried about zits and dates and telephone conversations--in the blink of an eye, this teen takes on the persona of a high priced attorney, wielding the vocabulary and powers of argumentation that would make Johnny Cochran squirm.
This swing between intellect and awkwardness can be disconcerting; especially when it happens at break-neck pace. In fact, quick swings between the extremes can be very problematic for an adolescent trying to understand her/his fit in the world; and, struggling with a developing sense of personal identity.
A little guidance from parents can provide support your PG teen desperately needs to successfully journey through the adolescent years as (s)he explores the boundaries of adulthood and stretches to plan an individualized sense of self.
On True Peers and Friendship
PG individuals exist as a tiny portion of the population. For instance, a person with a 150 IQ is around 1/10,000; a 160 IQ is around 1/100,000; a 180+ IQ is around 1/1,000,000 people (Gagne, 2003; Hollingworth, 1942). There are pretty small odds of happening across someone of "equal par" intellectually; let alone intellectually and of the same chronological age.
As shown above, the number of intellectual peers will by necessity be very small. About 0.25% of the general population exists at profoundly gifted (IQ 160+) levels of intelligence (Kline & Meckstroth, 1985). Factor in interests, compatibility and home location; and the odds become stacked against consistent friendships. But, when the odds are beat, and a connection is made, it could run very deep and likely be life-long (even if the connection was made over just a 10-minute span of time!).
Another factor influencing friendship is a need for alone time (or as I call it Me-Time) (Schultz & Delisle, 2003; Schultz, 2003). The continuous flurry of activity in the PG mind causes individuals to seek internal solace as they work through the myriad possibilities whirring around in their head. Indeed, the higher the level of intellect, the more the need for personal refuge.
So, a small number of friends actually works positively for many gifted teens. They get the Me-Time needed without the pressure to keep friendships nurtured. Interestingly, PG peers understand the need for Me-Time and are very understanding with one another. Perhaps this is one reason (among many) the friendships between PG individuals are deep.
As for age peers, it is very likely your teen is "beyond" agemates in many ways. Her/His peer groups (no one has just one) are going to include people who are interesting and intellectually closer in ability. In PG teens' cases this means adults and a very rare age peer or two (tops!). By the way this is exactly the same situation for adults. We choose peers and friends by interest rather than age.
Is your daughter/son a loner? Maybe, maybe not. In fact, with PG individuals this is not necessarily a negative condition, as we've seen above. The more important question--is (s)he reasonably comfortable in this situation? As long as (s)he can answer positively, and is talking to you; worry not about lack of friends.
On Emotions and Passions
With PG teens, the emotional pool runs deep. So much so, these teens become very wary of other people's impressions--almost to the point of developing an intuitive (or spiritual) sixth (or seventh!) sense. They can "read" a room and know, just by observing body language and facial expressions for a split second, what the setting is like and if there are other like-minded individuals present.
You might even remember yourselves doing this, but not being able to explain it to anyone else. If this was the case, you might begin having some conversations with your teen about your experiences. I would bet they are feeling very similar and unsure if they can even talk about these things with other people. Conversation here can really open some important discussions.
Passions develop when they are identified and nurtured. Therefore, parents and educators need to provide many, many opportunities to try new things. Adolescence is a natural risk-taking period of life (I know, some of you are now clenching your teeth!). But, I propose something Jim Delisle (2003) calls risk-making. This is where teens (with the help of others) develop a plan of action to try things out in life (like volunteering in the local community; learning how to ice skate; starting a part-time job; or taking part in a foreign exchange program).
Risk-making is all about listing possibilities and laying out a feasibility chart. What things could I try; and, could afford to try? What things need more planning and time to develop? etc. By the way, parents should be involved in this process as well. So, if your son takes a "shine" to learning how to ice skate, you should try it as well. Nothing beats the joy of watching a parent fall on her/his rear in the eyes of a teen! Modeling your risk-making will build a connection between the two of you that will nurture additional conversations, plans (and probably a laugh or two).
This will also help fend off some of the risk-taking behavior associated with adolescence (you know, the stuff that makes you grit your teeth and grimace!). So, get out there, talk about possibilities with your family, and make some risks! Learn to skate; start a foreign language course; find a local charity to volunteer for; organize, collect and deliver donations of slightly used items to: battered women's shelters (clothes, toys, books), animal shelters (old rugs and bedding); spend time in the middle/junior high school volunteering (of course your teens will not want you in their classes, but you can do something, somewhere else).
It's a numbers game, so to speak. The more possibilities and opportunities you provide for your teen to get involved and try new things, the more the likelihood that a passion might uncover and develop.
It's great fun (even if your teen rolls her/his eyes and wonders if you've had a little too much Robitussin for that cough!); and, shows your teen life is meant to be lived. Who knows, you might ignite a passion or two for yourself!
On Helping Self, Helping Others
Activities beyond the academic (and intellectual) help provide multi-dimensions to PG kids. These activities also help teens appreciate the differences in their own abilities (great in one area, not worth a darn in another).
Life experiences are always important ways of showing how creative and imaginative thinking can guide interests/passions to higher levels; or, help relieve the stress associated with putting too much emphasis (or focus) on one endeavor.
PG teens need to find personal balance. A space and place for themselves to be satisfied with their choices; yet still able to have the wonder and excitement of a child encountering something for the first time—even if this is definitely not cool in school.
All risky behavior cannot be stopped. But if teens know they can approach parents with questions and concerns and count on listening rather than judging; questionable and/or dangerous activities can be limited.
PG teens want to contribute to community but are unsure what they can do; and, worry they might not be supported in their efforts. The sense of space and place that develops from volunteering, or otherwise contributing to community, helps the PG teen ground her/himself. A few examples were provided in the previous section. Take some time to work up a list of possibilities right now. Then, talk them over with the whole family and find something everyone can contribute some time and effort toward.
Indeed, this sense of balance is crucial to fending off peer pressure to take part in risky behaviors. These contributions can be as simple as cleaning an elderly neighbor's yard to the complexity of organizing a clothing drive for victims of the earthquake in Iran (including arranging shipment of the collected stuff overseas).
Achievement is much more a sense of self-satisfaction for helping another human being (well, animals count too!) for gifted individuals, than it is performance in a sport, or on academic tests or in coursework. When positive outcomes can be achieved without competition, PG teens win without feeling guilty for inflicting their intellect on others.
On Teasing and Bullying
Bullying (I include teasing in this category) is an unfortunate but very real part of adolescence; and, it is highly likely all PG teens have faced it. They are different and therefore subject to harassment from others--almost continuously!
The bullies thrive on "pushing buttons" and getting reactions. Walking away and ignoring the abuse is the most effective strategy; but, PG teens (who are typically very verbal) will have difficulty suffering fools gladly.
In addition, walking away will likely cause a brief (but highly stressful) increase in bullying behavior including probably pushing. The bullying will decrease (this--technically--is called Extinction) but it does take time, a lot of willpower and resiliency; especially if pushing/shoving begins to occur. See the bibliography at the end of this paper for additional resources to consult.
On "Best Practices" for Raising PG Adolescents
The job of parents is to connect with PG teens, providing them with a safe environment where they can (and do) discuss any issue without fear of quick-judgment or being told what to do; rather than having their feelings/thoughts/emotions involved in the decision. This isn't a complete list of "best practices," but it is a sure-fire start:
- Be Flexible. Try to brainstorm with your teen at least three potential action plans before striving to solve a "prickly" issue. Then talk through each of them together. Be willing to "chuck" them all and start again if nothing feels right.
- Have a Sense of Humor. Being able to laugh at yourself and with your teen (never at your teen) will keep stress and tension in check.A great sense of humor goes a long way--especially when you can point out your foibles and laugh them off to model this behavior for your teen.
- Communicate. Talk, write, or draw how you feel and share this with your teen. Share stories about your life, especially things you messed up! It's ok to be upset and angry with a situation (notice I did not say teen!) so long as everyone knows it. You don't want to "bite anyone's head off" in the heat of the moment. Give yourself time to cool down and decompress before approaching the issue.
- Care and Be There. Don't be judgmental, or a "told you so" know-it-all. Rather, be a listener and help your teen develop a list of potential outcomes (remember, flexibility?) that (s)he feels good about before addressing an issue.
- Be Committed. Stick with your teen as (s)he is working through an issue. Check often to see how things are working out. Be available for plan revision. Above all, if you say you are going to do something...do it! This can be as innocent as lending the car as agreed; or as complex as actually taking the vacation that always seems to be put off due to one emergency or another.
- Be Confident. Parenting doesn't come with a handbook (trust me when I tell you I wish it did!!). Yet, if we can own up to our limitations and admit to not knowing from time to time, our teens will respect this honesty and be much more willing to work with us, than battle our every suggestion.
As you traverse the straits of adolescence with your PG teen, keep your sense of humor; and, try to provide an "ear" more than "told-you-so" advice. Above all, marvel at the independence your daughter or son is gaining. This sense of self will amaze you as you share the growth of your family and emotions in ways you have yet to imagine.
Freedman, J.S. (2002). Easing the teasing : Helping your child cope with name-calling, ridicule, and verbal bullying. Chicago, IL: McGraw-Hill.
Gagne, F. (2003). Transforming gifts into talents: The DMGT as a developmental theory. In N. Colangelo and G.A. Davis, (Eds.), Handbook of Gifted Education (3rd ed., pp. 60-74). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Hollingworth, L.S. (1942). Children above 180 IQ Stanford Binet. New York, NY: World Book.
Kline, B. & Meckstroth, E.( 1985). Understanding and encouraging the exceptionally gifted.
McNamara, B. E., & McNamara, F. (1997). Keys to dealing with bullies. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's.
Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Schultz, R.A. & Delisle, J.R. (2003). Gifted adolescents. In N. Colangelo and G.A. Davis, (Eds.), Handbook of Gifted Education (3rd. ed., pp. 483-492). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Schultz, R.A. (2003). Tips for parents on highly gifted/profoundly gifted (HG/PG) adolescence.
©2004 Davidson Institute for Talent Development.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit operating foundation, which nurtures and supports profoundly intelligent young people and to provide opportunities for them to develop their talents and to make a positive difference. For more information, please visit http://www.davidson-institute.org, or call (775) 852-3483.
Reprinted with the permission of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. © 2008 Davidson Institute for Talent Development