Parents Ask: Because he is so bright, our child is often bored with other children his age and doesn’t like spending time with them. That’s completely normal, isn’t it?
Normal? Avoiding peers may be all too commonplace, but it’s not healthy. Granted, making friends can be challenging for gifted children. Often, they relish their own abilities and do not feel comfortable with children who do not share their intellectual skills and focus. As a result, some become isolated and fail to develop social skills.
Adults who put too much emphasis on a bright child’s intelligence make it more difficult for the child to acquire age-appropriate social skills. As a result, too many children who excel in academic areas are developmentally arrested in their psychosocial growth. And, they may lack friends.
Here are some things parents can do.
Make being well-rounded important for your child
- Don’t fall into the trap of serving as an approving audience for your child’s narrow focus on her intellectual abilities. Gifted children tend to seek adult attention and approval for their intellectual abilities and achievements, and excessive adult approval makes it less necessary for a child to communicate with same-age peers, develop appropriate social skills and form friendships.
- Make it clear that you expect your child to learn to get along with all his classmates and to form friendships with some of them. Explain how important being well-rounded, having social skills and making friends are to you. Yes, it’s nice to be smart—and it’s smart to be nice!
Look for opportunities to praise the character traits, skills and behaviors of other children. Avoid references to intelligence. Instead, focus on traits like their ability to get along with others, their honesty, kindness, perseverance, cooperation, and athletic, musical or performing skills.
- Proactively help your child form friendships with children who may not be her intellectual peers but have other things to offer. For some children, parental encouragement may be enough. For others, you may need to arrange social occasions with other children consistently. You may need to coach your child on how to behave before these occasions and to follow up by discussing how she did behave. Gifted children can be so self-absorbed that they are unaware of how their behavior affects others.
Prepare and coach your child
- Explicitly teach your child basic social skills. Teachers and counselors who work extensively with gifted children remark at how often these children do not make eye contact with others, fail to smile or say good morning, fail to use other children’s names, praise others, make intentional efforts to be pleasant or simply ask, “How was your weekend?” Remind her that it’s smart to be nice.
- Role-play these skills with your child. Identify some specific situations that are likely to occur in her daily life, and work on these.
- Don’t take it for granted that your child is using the social skills she may have begun to acquire. Ask her how frequently she used these skills each day. Is she making efforts to be nice to others each day? Ask for examples. Praise her for doing so. Ask how other children respond. Make it clear that you value her efforts to be friendly and are proud of her of making them.
Reflect on your own behavior
- Are you modeling the “smart to be nice” approach you expect from your child? Parents who justifiably delight in their child’s intellectual ability sometimes criticize teachers, insist on special treatment for their child, try to micromanage her academic career and, in the process, may unintentionally belittle other children. Does this describe your behavior? Have you complained that your child was being held back by others and not sufficiently challenged or recognized by teachers for her academic prowess? How often do you thank teachers for the good job they are doing? How often do you encourage a teacher to promote the psychosocial development of your child as well as her academic growth?
Use other resources, including Gifted Resource Council
- Recruit your child’s teacher to partner with you in promoting his psychosocial growth. Although she may be aware that your child needs help learning to interact with other children, the teacher may be reluctant to take the initiative to help him improve. If the teacher knows that helping your child develop the social habits he needs for success and happiness in life is important to you, she will be more likely to help. Encourage the teacher to not give attention to your child when he inappropriately seeks her approval rather than interacting with classmates. Arrange for the teacher to keep you informed of how your child is interacting with classmates. In short, recruit the teacher to be your teammate.
- Involve your child in extracurricular activities that promote cooperation. Team sports are excellent, as are activities like theater, band or scouting. Avoid intellectual competitions unless they are the rare kind like GRC’s Academic Challenge Cup which promotes teamwork. Activities which stress cooperation with teammates and fair play with opponents will help your child develop social skills.
- Insist that your child be involved in at least one such activity year-round. If your child complains–as many gifted children do–that he is not good at the activity, so much the better. Participating on a team in which his performance is average or below average will help a child develop empathy for others who do not excel at school. It also develops perseverance, an invaluable trait for real success in life.
- Programs and competitions which focus rather narrowly on intellectual ability may do more harm than good for gifted children. Unless a child has unusual support from parents to be well-rounded and can resist the pull of these programs, the child will become more focused on intellectual prowess and adult recognition, while falling further behind in psychosocial development.
Take Advantage of GRC programs
- All Gifted Resource Council programs go beyond academics to promote growth in interpersonal skills. Not only are GRC’s programs themselves designed to do this, but teachers are hired with this in mind and then given further training to enhance their abilities to promote this type of growth.
Even the academic approach of GRC programs is special. GRC’s Saturday Learning Labs, Summer Academies, and Academic Challenge Cup are not only based on teamwork, but on creativity, a focus on the process rather than the product, along with an interdisciplinary approach built into every class. In short, the academic challenge is broadening rather than restrictive, the approach is based on cooperation, and the goal is to strengthen the interpersonal skills of students while challenging them with an enrichment program unlike those in their home schools.
Parents who intentionally use strategies like these can help a child with the social skills and peer friendships so essential for being well-rounded and successful in life.
Dennis O’Brien is a licensed clinical social worker, experienced educator and therapist, who has led five nonprofits. He has written educational materials for the Washington University School of Medicine Dept. of Psychiatry, weekly columns on parenting for the Suburban Journal/Post-Dispatch and numerous columns for St. Louis Moms and Dads, CHARACTERplus, Family Connection (Mo. Dept. of Mental Health) and Gifted Association of Missouri. O’Brien’s April 6, 2010 column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Suburban Journals, Prevent teen suicide by addressing it, won the 2010 Missouri Institute of Mental Health award for outstanding reporting on suicide.