Monitoring Anxiety in Gifted Children
By: Dan Peters, Ph.D.
It's customary for gifted kids to be advanced in their thinking, have strong imaginative and creative abilities and, oftentimes, to be highly sensitive. The combination of these characteristics, however, can often give rise to experiences of worry and anxiety. Because I subscribe to the adage, "A problem is not a problem unless it's a problem," even anxiety can be par for the course for the gifted child, but when it starts to interfere with a child's life experiences, performance, and/or your family relationships, then what?
First let's look at what fear stems from. It is a primitive trait thought to originate within the emotional part of our brain, the limbic system. Within the limbic system is a tiny almond called the amygdala. This is our alarm system and center. Kids who are overly anxious always have their amygdalas working to sense danger. Thus, these kids may become irritable, jumpy, emotional, avoidant, and at times seem paranoid that someone is out to get them or that bad things may happen. Over time, an anxious child gets depleted and exhausted. It is tiring having your alarm on all the time.
For gifted children, there is a thin line between anxiety being a normal byproduct of their often perfectionist drives or becoming something that is detrimental to their overall health and well being. Over time, excessive anxiety can cause sleeplessness, irritability and emotional meltdowns. If this occurs for long periods of time, it can lead to depression. This is a difficult one though, as often gifted kids are driving their intense schedules too, as they often crave challenge, engagement, and to be among the best.
The best bet as a parent is to arm yourself with tools to combat your child's sense of worry in productive ways, like:
Talking to your child about anxiety and worry and how those two characteristics can rob us of our life satisfaction and negatively impact our performance as well.
Teaching them about how our brain is designed to keep us alive (fight or flight) and that it is this alarm system that is on when we are worrying or feeling scared.
Teaching them that their negative and worrisome thoughts are the culprits in making them worry. Our "what if" thinking is what causes us to worry and feel bad.
Helping them learn to identify their thinking and change it into more rational and adaptive directions such as "I am prepared for my test" or "It is not the end of the world if I don't do as well as I'd like."
Helping them to stay in the present. Teach them that all anxious thinking takes place in the future, which has not yet occurred.
Then, teach them this very simple technique that although takes discipline to put into practice can become a regular solution to stress. Take deep breaths. Inhale slowly and exhale slowly for one minute. This tricks our brain into thinking we are calm and makes us feel calm too.
Most of all, try not to pressure your children by making them think that things matter more than they really should. This kind of pressure only creates thinking like, "I will never get into college...I will never find a career I like...I will never amount to anything...I have to be the best...I need to get the award or I am failure." None of these is true. If your child is thinking like this, he or she is feeling too much pressure.
It takes courage to fight worry, fear, anxiety, and perfectionism. It often takes a team, which includes you. In the process, you may have to fight your own Worry Monsters, too.
Dan Peters, Ph.D., is co-founder of the Summit Center, which provides psychological and educational assessments and counseling for children and adolescents, specializing in the gifted, creative, and twice-exceptional.