(Reprinted from the April/June 2008 issue of Outlook, a publication of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented)
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
~ H.L. Mencken
Adolescence is a time of daydreaming about the future, sometimes fearfully, but usually with great optimism. This is developmentally as it should be. The job of adolescents is to leave home and begin their own adult lives. If they fully appreciated the magnitude of managing life solo, they would cling to home like limpets.
Instead, teenagers are cushioned through this transition by the conviction that they will do it better than you, and they are often happy to share this observation with you. Teenagers assume that they will live longer, remain married, take more expensive vacations, and have a gifted child (Weinstein, 1980). Adolescence is a bit like Lake Wobegon (“Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”)—only a singular version of it. Teenagers are perfectly able to see that others, by definition, are mostly average—just that they are not. They underestimate risks, although only for themselves. They correctly predict the risks of pregnancy, substance abuse, car accidents, etc. for other teenagers—but they perceive themselves as the exception to the rule. Even teaching them about these distortions only improves their guesses about their peers; they remain, yet again, the exception.
High intellectual ability often feeds into this slightly delusional set of perceptions because there is objective evidence that these young people are above average. Rules don’t always apply to them, and they may have correctly noted this: grade skipping, single-subject enrichment, and pull-outs all involve bending the normal school routine to accommodate them intellectually. I am not criticizing the need for this; often it is essential. The unforeseen byproduct, however, is that it feeds into teenage distorted thinking. Since we don’t want to be serving them their Cheerios while they fill out their AARP application, these grandiose ideas about their future are a mixed blessing.
What Parents Can Do
Let teenagers know that their “eye-rolling” behavior does nothing to inspire you to chauffeur them or give them money. Teenagers tend to tune you out after three sentences. Say it immediately. Say it in one or two sentences, and then say nothing.
Repeating the same argument isn’t a new argument, but teenagers often don’t realize this. Repeat their argument back to them accurately. Let them know that you heard it, understood it, and it didn’t change your mind. If they have a new bit of information, they can let you know.
Know that teen logic isn’t personal. The problem is that the person with bad judgment lacks the judgment to recognize that they have bad judgment. All of this storm and fury is exactly why we don’t let them vote, buy liquor, or get married yet. Just breathe and keep reminding yourself that one of you has to be the grownup.
Diffuse the power struggle. For example, get a tutor to help with homework so you can have more evenings to enjoy your children. (You might be amazed by the maturity and hygiene your teen will develop in order to impress a 22-year-old tutor!)
You may also find that family therapy is the narrow end of the wedge for getting professional help. If the family is in distress, it is a problem—even if the teen disagrees. By getting family help for a family problem, no individual is identified as the “person with the problems.”
For more information, Rudolph Dreikur’s book Children: The Challenge is the best book that I’ve found for guiding parents of gifted children through power struggles.
Dr. Nadia Webb is a practicing neuropsychologist, college professor, and step-mom. She is also a SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) board member and chair of SENG’s Development Committee. She is co-author of the book Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults.