Critical Counseling Tips for Guiding Parents of Gifted Children

Critical Counseling Tips for Guiding Parents of Gifted Children

by Paula Prober
Learn invaluable therapeutic strategies for guiding parents of gifted children.
Filed Under: Anxiety


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Jimmy is seven. He started reading on his own when he was 4 and is now devouring the Harry Potter books. He asks his parents questions about death they cannot answer. He knows the states and their capitals and the differences between dinosaurs. He loves numbers. In second grade, they are teaching addition and subtraction while he is already multiplying and dividing. Jimmy loves learning but is disappointed in schooling. While he was so excited to start school, he now comes home feeling angry and defeated. Jimmy is longing for friends, but the other boys are not interested in his love of the dictionary. He is very sensitive, empathetic, emotional, and lonely. He is showing signs of anxiety and having meltdowns after school. Jimmy is gifted. His teachers do not know what to do with him. His concerned parents are anxious and do not know where to turn. They come to you. What do you tell them?

The Drama of the Gifted Child

I have been working with gifted children and adults since the mid-1970s, first in education and now as a psychotherapist. Starting as a teacher of middle school gifted kids in a pull-out program, then providing classes for teachers and parents, I have learned over the years that these kids and their families often have certain traits and experiences in common. Certainly, there are many differences and much complexity among the gifted. There is even very little agreement over what giftedness actually is and how to define it.

There is even very little agreement over what giftedness actually is and how to define it.
Even so, there are some obvious characteristics we can identify and specific ways to help parents navigate the school system and negotiate life while raising a gifted child. These parents are struggling and feel misunderstood by a world that assumes having a gifted child makes parenting easy. It doesn’t. If you have some basic knowledge of the needs of these children and their families and can provide specific resources, clinicians can have an important impact on a population that is often overlooked and surprisingly underserved.

The controversy over how to define giftedness has existed since before I entered the field in the 70’s and it continues to this day. For our purposes here, I will briefly share my understandings based on my years working with these students and clients, and also share details of a recent case.

We might all agree that giftedness in children starts with advanced intellectual capacities. This is often measured by an IQ score but there are other, sometimes more reliable, clues. Usually, these kids reach typical milestones early. The easiest developmental step to notice is early verbal ability and an advanced vocabulary. Parents often report these children learn to read before school starts. The kids are extremely curious, ask complex questions, and are eager learners.

Typical gifted children also have many sensitivities, a range of intense emotions, creative thinking skills, and deep empathy. You see many of them speaking out at an early age for fairness, justice, and environmental issues. These children may feel pressure to be very high achievers if they have been praised too much for their “smartness.” A paralyzing perfectionism can then become an issue. They may never feel good enough or smart enough if they keep raising the achievement bar to not disappoint parents and teachers, or if parental expectations are inappropriate. Even if they are not over-praised, they may naturally set high standards for themselves. This intrinsic desire for excellence is not always problematic or unhealthy. It can be what provides our world with its symphonies and cathedrals. But if the drive comes with too much self-criticism, it can become problematic.

Some gifted children have what is called “twice exceptionality”, which means they have learning differences or disabilities along with the giftedness
Granted, not all gifted children fit this description. Some are linear-sequential thinkers, and some are highly competitive. There are gifted children who perform well in school and others who don’t. Not all of them deal with perfectionism. Some gifted children have what is called “twice exceptionality”, which means they have learning differences or disabilities along with the giftedness, which adds to the complexity of parenting, teaching, and helping them in counseling. The concerns parents of younger gifted children bring to me are usually around schooling, anxiety/emotional regulation, and finding meaningful relationships.

The Case of Jimmy

There is so much pressure on teachers these days and so many needy children in the schools. It was easier to be an educator back when I was in the field. So how can we, as clinicians, both understand the stresses teachers and parents experience while also finding ways to provide an appropriate education and home environment for gifted children? As you can imagine, these kids are often sitting in their classes being taught material they already know. In many cases, this is true day after day and year after year. The expectation is often that these children will be fine on their own because they are “so smart,” but inappropriate schooling experiences can have long-lasting serious consequences.

Jimmy’s mother, Joan, contacted me because her son had been identified as gifted in first grade and she was noticing some issues with increasing anxiety, emotional regulation, self-esteem, and difficulty making friends. She was wanting to find solutions and learn how to approach his teacher because Jimmy would come home from school agitated and complaining of boredom and loneliness. His frustrations would often be expressed in emotional outbursts at home.

Jimmy was already reading in first grade, and in second grade enjoyed chapter books. His math abilities were also quite advanced. They were teaching addition and subtraction while he was excited by division and fractions. Like many educators, his teacher was not trained in differentiating instruction for gifted children and so Jimmy was made to complete the same assignments as his classmates. In the beginning, he was compliant and completed the required work, but the tension he felt in school would explode at home.

But his anxiety and emotions were getting harder to handle, and his sense of being inadequate and an outcast were growing.
Jimmy also had trouble finding friends who had similar interests. No one else in his class was reading the books he loved or had the interests in astronomy, mathematics, and so much more. Luckily, he did have some athletic ability so he was able to find other boys to play with at recess and could experience the joys of teamwork on an after school soccer team. But his anxiety and emotions were getting harder to handle, and his sense of being inadequate and an outcast were growing.

What I suggested to his mother, Joan, will hopefully be helpful to clinicians working with parents of gifted children:

1. Look for the teachers who are more sensitive, flexible, and creative. Ideally, they have some training in gifted education. But even if they don’t, some will teach in ways that work better for these kids. Methods that work better? Project-based learning. Independent reading programs. Interdisciplinary approaches. Open-ended assignments. Acceleration. Flexible deadlines.

2. Volunteer in the classroom if you can. Be supportive of the teacher and share your concerns directly. Offer to work with a small group of the more advanced kids. Run a book club in the class or after school. Start a chess club or find one in the district. When he is older, debate is often an activity these kids love where they can find others like them.

3. Suggest to the school administrator which teacher is the best fit for your child, and that you will be a very agreeable and grateful parent if your child gets placed there. It is good educational practice to match a child with a particular teacher. Get support from the school or district gifted coordinator.

4. Learn about curriculum compacting, which is a way to allow a child who already knows the material to test out of or skip the regular assignments and work on projects that are more appropriate for his rate and level of learning. Look into teaching materials designed for gifted kids in the classroom. Prufrock Press is one publisher of curriculum. Gently suggest his teacher check them out. Provide samples.

5. Suggest to the school administrator that they use cluster grouping. This is the practice of placing the gifted children of a certain grade together in one class. This gives the kids a chance to find intellectual peers and provides them with a buddy so that they are not off alone doing a different assignment. It also allows the teacher to design curriculum for more than one student so it will be easier to plan.

6. Consider acceleration to the next grade level or for a particular subject. If your child is extremely advanced, consider home schooling.

7. Look for friends outside of school in different activities if there is no one in his class. Friends can be older or younger. Arrange play dates with potential friends and get together with the families.

8. Find mentors who have interests similar to your child. Mentors can be high school students, neighbors, and family friends. A good mentor will be an important support for developing his interests. Parents may not have the same interests or abilities to answer the many questions these kids ask.

9. Teach him self-soothing techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, drawing, exercise, and mindfulness. Tapping or Heartmath can also be useful. Remind him that his deep, intense feelings are a wonderful part of who he is and learning how to manage them in certain situations will help him in his relationships and in life.

10. Use active listening to validate his feelings. Reflect what you hear so he feels understood. This will reduce the intensity of a meltdown. Once he is calm, problem solve with him. Brainstorm solutions together. His frustration in school is real. It makes sense he will feel angry some of the time. Let him know you are working on solutions. Thank him for his patience.

11. Explain to him what it means to be gifted, including the fact that it does not mean advanced in all areas all the time. Talk about his strengths and weaknesses. He may feel rejected or like something is wrong with him, so these conversations are important. Help him understand that other kids may not have similar interests or abilities, but they all also have strengths and weaknesses. Include explaining sensitivity and empathy. Understanding giftedness won’t make him arrogant. It will help him feel more comfortable in his own skin.

12. Role play how to make friends. You may need to give him some basic skills for talking to other kids. He is more likely to tell you how he feels if you are doing an activity together, using puppets/artwork, or if you are in the car. He may be very smart in certain areas but need lots of guidance in others.

13. Take time for yourself and your partner. Find good childcare and take breaks from parenting. Make time to rest, relax, and pursue your own interests.

14. Find a therapist for yourself if parenting is bringing up your own unresolved issues. If you are also gifted, how did your parents understand or misunderstand you? What was school like? How are you similar or different from your child?

A sensitive and creative teacher can make a big difference even if they do not make big changes in the curriculum.
Joan met with the classroom teacher and the district specialist in gifted education. It took a few meetings, but the school made accommodations for math with a third-grade teacher who was warm and welcoming. Although the scheduling was not ideal and the math was still too easy, Jimmy was happier at first. A sensitive and creative teacher can make a big difference even if they do not make big changes in the curriculum. That said, Jimmy was uncomfortable leaving his class to go to the third grade. This is often the dilemma for these kids. They need advanced material but going to another class can result in bullying or missing more appealing subjects. I was hoping Jimmy might just move to the third grade full time since the teacher was better equipped to handle gifted children, but Joan was concerned about friendships, which is also a real issue. It is important to consider multiple factors with acceleration.

Joan planned to get to know more of the teachers at the school and started doing research in other schools to see if there would be a better fit for the next year. She volunteered in the classroom and started a book club for interested students. Jimmy began to find a few friends for recess and after school activities. His mom arranged play dates with a couple of boys who had some similar interests. She continued to look for a mentor for his science and math interests and a reliable babysitter so that she and her partner could get time away.

To manage Jimmy’s anxiety and emotional outbursts, Joan started practicing active listening and teaching him some self-soothing techniques. I think she was surprised at the positive impact. I often explain this tool to parents, and they can be skeptical at first. They may think that they are already deeply listening! But this method which we all know as counselors may still not be understood well or practiced by many parents.

Joan began to feel some relief when Jimmy was less reactive at home. I continued to support her as she navigated the school system. For these parents, being engaged in the schooling process is necessary throughout the child’s K-12 education. This is often exhausting and discouraging. Getting support is critical. Along with this support, we also began to look at her own experiences as a gifted child and the effects of her family of origin on her own sense of self. Often giftedness has a genetic component, and it can be quite therapeutic for parents to examine their own experiences of growing up gifted.


Parenting gifted children brings a particular set of challenges that are often misunderstood or overlooked by educators, therapists, and the general public. If therapists understand the complexities that come with giftedness and provide guidance for these parents and families, it can make a big difference. Not only for your clients, but really for us all.


Bright and Quirky

Empowering Gifted Families

National Association for Gifted Children

Northwest Gifted Child Association

Your Rainforest Mind  

© 2022
Paula Prober Paula Prober, MS, is a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. Over the 35+ years she has worked with the gifted, Paula has been a teacher and presenter at universities, webinars, podcasts, and conferences. She consults internationally with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. She has written articles on giftedness for Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal, the Eugene Register-Guard and online for Thrive Global, Rebelle Society, and Introvert Dear. Her popular book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth is a collection of case studies, strategies, and resources. Her latest book, Journey into Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide For Gifted Adults And Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of her most popular blog posts along with writing exercises and resources. She blogs at