I've worked with many parents of gifted children through our gifted children Meetup and parent support group over the past few years. Many times parents would come to me to discuss certain behaviors they were seeing in their child that concerned them. One of the behaviors that was a concern for many parents was the lack of compassion they saw in their gifted children. Lack of compassion or caring, or what was also described as selfishness. Whether it was with a sibling or a playmate, many times it seemed to the parent that their child didn't care about the feelings of the other children, it seemed they were only interested in getting what they wanted, with no thought of how that made anyone else feel. The parents also worried about the other child's feelings, how their child's lack of compassion or selfishness was making them feel, and what the other child's parents would think of their child's behavior. But most of all, their primary concern was over what lack of compassion would mean for their child's own future...their child's future success and happiness. So, BIG worries these parents had, and rightfully so.
Through studying about the characteristics of gifted children, and seeing it myself in my own daughter and other children in our group, I learned that most gifted children feel intense compassion for others, sometimes to the point of distress , even to the point where many of them say they can feel another persons feelings. So to try and understand better these children that were not showing compassion, I started to ask the parents that would come to me, "Is there anywhere in the child's life where you have seen your child show compassion?" All of them said yes, and would go on to tell me a story about how their child cried when a young bird outside their window died, or when they read a book about a duckling who lost it's mother, or when they saw a child on television that didn't have enough to eat, and other stories like these. So I thought, if these kids could feel compassion, the real question was, why weren't they showing compassion in their own day to day lives with siblings, other family members, and friends?
As I thought more about this, I started to remember a time when my own daughter was acting like she didn't care or feel for other children she played with. This didn't make sense to me at all at the time because I not only knew how compassionate she had always been, but that she desperately wanted friends. Why wouldn't she want to cooperate, please or get along with the other kids, why would she push getting her own way and doing what she wanted to do, or sometimes even choose to go off and play on her own? This also made me think of how at that same time she was starting to act out selfishly or stubbornly with me. This too confused me, because she was really a good girl, she was a people-pleaser and cared very much what others thought of her, especially me. So, why at this time would she seem like she didn't care what I or others felt, why would she be showing a seemingly lack of compassion and cooperation? Since I was reading a lot at that time about parenting gifted children and meeting their special needs, and proactive parenting in general, I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together. If the behavior didn't make sense, was different from who the child really was or had acted in the past, if the child was acting out in a negative way and there didn't seem any logical explanation behind it except that they were being selfish, stubborn or defiant, maybe before we accused the child of being one of those things - we should first look at ourselves and our parenting responsibilities. Maybe we needed to ask ourselves what need our child had that was not being met, what need was causing her to feel she needed to act selfish or stubborn to get her needs met herself?
So, away from the problem and with a tone free of accusation, I asked her why she was treating a certain playmate unkindly, one I had asked her time and time again to take the time to play with and be nice to. She went on to tell me the reason she didn't want to play with her, why she was acting negatively toward her and was even irritated by and not caring about the other child's feelings. She told me that the little girl had told her early on that the other children in the group had hurt her in the past, and that they shouldn't play with the other kids because of it, she wanted my daughter and she to go off and play by themselves, to exclude the other children. My daughter being very intuitive could feel that this child was not being truthful with her, she also had known the other children for a while, and knew they would not have hurt the girl. Being a victim of bullying and exclusion in the past herself, she knew how it would feel for the other children to be excluded from playing with them. My daughter instinctively knew that this little girl was lying so that she could have her time all to herself, she knew that this was unfair to the other children, and it really made her mad that this little girl would bad mouth and lie about her friends. She thought about the fact that if this little girl could lie about what the other children did, that she could also lie about her, and she didn't want to be friends with someone who was like that, who was unfair and unkind, she didn't like those kind of people. She also worried that if this little girl bad mouthed her, all of her new friends would hear about it and would believe the girl and wouldn't want to be her friend anymore. Since this is exactly what happened when she was bullied in school, she was terribly anxious and afraid of this. She didn't want to tell on the little girl because she was afraid I would tell the girls mother, the girl would then hear she told, retaliate by bad mouthing her to her friends, and she would loose all of her friends. All of these things weighed heavily on my daughter's small head and shoulders, that is why she was acting out uncharacteristically - in a way that appeared to me to be selfish, stubborn, and lacking compassion. Detailed in depth thoughts, and social or moral dilemmas like these, are common with gifted children. They have the intellectual ability to see multiple possibilities or outcomes to a problem, but do not posses the emotional maturity to navigate a resolution or communicate the issue to a trusted adult, the culprit - gifted asynchronous development.
Subsequently, whenever a child is afraid or doesn't have the emotional maturity or the communication skills to convey a feeling or problem, they will act out in a way of self preservation, or if there is a need that is not being met, they will display a negative behavior that will get they and their need noticed. My daughter was unable or afraid to communicate the problem she was having to an adult in fear of retaliation by the little girl who might badmouth her to her friends. So, by acting out or refusing my requests to be nice or play with the little girl, she was demonstrating self-preservation of her reputation, protecting her friends feelings and their friendships. My daughter's need that I was not meeting? She needed me to ask instead of assume, to trust her and believe if she was acting out in a negative, uncharacteristic way that there was a reason behind it. She also needed to believe that she could trust me, and that if she did come to me I would listen to her, ask more questions to help her understand and communicate her feelings, then trust, believe, support, advocate for her and protect her. She also needed me to allow her to choose her own friends, and trust that she would make good decisions. When she said she didn't want to play with the other girl, ignored the girl numerous times, looked at her with a scowl on her face, I should have seen that as a sign that something was wrong, not quickly placing blame. I should have parented - gotten to the bottom of things and helped her work through her feelings instead of accusing her of being selfish, unkind, not compassionate or uncaring of others feelings. In actuality, she was being so compassionate and concerned for the other children's reputations and valued friendships, that she could not care about anything else.
Trust, trust your children, question, ask why, and listen. Younger children, even gifted ones with seemingly advanced intellect and verbal skills, oftentimes do not have the ability to understand or communicate their feelings, thoughts and needs, and most often they have a really good reason behind their negative behaviors. After this I understood more as well, about why my daughter had suddenly started to act selfish or stubbornly with me. I'm sure after years of me jumping to conclusions and not asking or listening to her side of things, she had shut down, out of preservation, she had shut me out. If I wouldn't listen to and meet her needs, she would do it herself. At what cost? At the cost of our open and trusting relationship. Thank goodness for all of the wonderfully gifted organizations and the books and articles I read that helped me listen to, understand, and better parent my child, if not for those things I'm afraid the divide between my daughter and I would have only gotten worse - but today with trust and open communication we are closer than ever.
My thoughts went back to the parents with the children that were not showing compassion. What need was not being met that was causing the child to feel they needed to be selfish, to put themselves first, to not show compassion or care what others were feeling or needing? I call this state of selfishness in otherwise good kids - survival mode. In real life when humans switch to survival mode, when their lives are really in danger, it is out of necessity that they put themselves and their own needs first. Their basic needs must come first in order to preserve their own lives. With a child, when survival mode gets kicked in, it is usually out of desperation after having done everything within their current understanding and abilities to get their needs met by their parents, but to no avail. As a last ditch attempt they decide they will take things into their own hands, they will selfishly put themselves first, they will stubbornly be in charge, they will get their needs met themselves now at any, and anyone's, cost.
So with children acting out or showing a lack of compassion, we shouldn't make the assumption that what we have here is a naturally selfish child, a child without feeling for others. There are very few people, especially gifted people, who do not care very much what others feel. If that natural inclination is being suppressed in our own children, we need to look at where their desperation for self preservation is coming from, what need that is so important to them is not being met? It hurts us adults when someone misunderstands our intentions, it can really hurt our children when we accuse them of being something they are not, especially if it is something opposite of who they truly are. Feeling the good things about them are ignored or misunderstood, will shut down a child's cooperative spirit and communication faster than anything else. I believe many teenagers who are acting out, who are "just being teenagers" as many people say, are actually really good kids who because of not being trusted, instead being accused, judged unfairly, wants and needs ignored for so many years, just finally shut their parents out. Before it's too late, instead of assuming we know what is behind a behavior, making assumptions, accusations or assigning labels, we need to start asking questions. The answers or reasons behind our own children's selfishness, stubbornness, or seemingly lack of compassion, just may surprise us.
You can start by asking questions like, "You seem like you are hurt, angry or frustrated over this situation, what are you feeling or what do you need?" or "Do you feel like your feelings or what you want isn't being considered here, what would you like to happen right now?" It may take some time for your children to trust enough to let go of old patterns and self preservation, but when your children finally do start to communicate their wants and needs, listen. Listen to what your child says, we can never assume we know what they are thinking, or that what we think they need is all they actually require to be whole and happy.
Be open to the idea that they may have unique wants and needs separate from our own, and trust them, trust that they know more about their wants and needs than anyone else. Where we can help is by showing our children ways to better understand and cope with their emotions, and help them to communicate their feelings and needs more positively or clearly, so it will be easier for us and others to listen to and understand them. The more we start to listen and respond to our children's wants and needs, the more they will choose to open up to us and communicate instead of using negative behavior to get our attention or get their own needs met. When I first started doing this I use to make the mistake of assuming that the things my daughter was telling me she needed from me, were only trivial wants. Consequently I didn't take what she was saying as seriously as I should have. After ignoring some of the things she told me she needed, I learned the hard way that those things weren't just wants - they were needs, that weren't only important to her, but to her overall well being and future success and happiness.
Another consideration with gifted children seemingly showing a lack of compassion is that their apparent lack of caring, sometimes expressed as a lack of focus or attention, may at times have more to do with over-stimulation, sensory overload, or a general asynchronous lack of awareness. Gifted children with high sensitivity and sensory perception, especially when out in public or around large crowds, are oftentimes doing all they can to just stay calm and focused on a singular task at hand. Many times they don't have any additional attention or energy to give to anyone or anything else. Gifted asynchrony, the uneven development between intellectual and emotional maturity, can also affect a child's ability to reason on, or be aware of, how their words or actions are affecting another person. With empathy, patience and good communication, parents can help their children become more aware of how what they say or do may affect another person, and teach them new ways to better communicate their own feelings, wants and needs. Another consideration is that at times our children aren't fully in control of their reactions, this is especially true for children with sensory sensitivities. A child with sensory sensitivities may become fearful and reactive in environments where they don't feel in control of their surroundings. Children with sensory perception to sound and touch may lash out when they are around too much noise or they feel their personal space is threatened. Verbal and physical outbursts directed at those around them, may be displayed in an attempt to protect themselves from having to experience the sensory stimuli or sensory overload.
The unique characteristics and special needs of gifted children are complex and often confusing to parents. Trusting in and listening to our children and our own intuitions, can help us to navigate the road to better understanding and cooperation. We need to remember that behavioral intensities are part of who a gifted child is, and that looking at the reasons behind those behaviors leads to better understanding our children. With better understanding, we can help them to better understand themselves, and together we will learn the best ways to meet their very important needs.
Hugs & Happy Parenting!
Julie L Gibson-Vasquez The Proactive Parenting Coach