Dr. Webb is co-author of four award-winning books: A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults, Grandparents’ Guide to Gifted Children, and Guiding the Gifted Child.
When should one seek counseling? Is it worth it? How do I find a counselor/therapist? Such questions often are asked by parents of gifted and talented children. Here are some helpful tips.
Preventive guidance is certainly the best, and the most helpful counseling often comes through talking with other parents of gifted children. Parents worry whether their child’s experiences are normal, whether they, as parents, are providing adequate stimulation, about how to react to the exhausting intensity which their child shows, about how to avoid the power struggles, and so on. Gifted children often do not fit the developmental norms published in the parenting handbooks; they tend to reach developmental stages earlier and more intensely than other children.
Parenting a gifted child can be a very lonely experience unless one seeks out other parents. Sometimes this can be done informally just by meeting other parents of gifted children in your school district or neighborhood. Sometimes it can be done via the Internet through online discussion groups. Perhaps the most helpful are SENG model support groups, in which parents share common experiences and “parenting recipes” under the guidance of trained facilitators. Information about how to set up such groups can be found in the book Gifted Parent Groups: The SENG Model (2nd Edition) (DeVries & Webb, 2007).
Sharing ideas and concerns with other parents who have experienced similar problems can prevent problems from escalating and can provide solutions that have worked for other families. This kind of preventive guidance can also come from books written specifically about the social and emotional needs of gifted children, such as A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, Smart Girls, Smart Boys, or Some of My Best Friends Are Books, as well as videos like “Is My Child Gifted?” “Do Gifted Children Need Special Help?” or “Parenting Successful Children.” Ask other parents, check with your librarian or bookstore, or search the Internet.
Parents are often reassured that they are not alone when they learn more about the characteristics of gifted children from reading and talking with others. Even with these resources, parenting gifted children often is a challenge, and emotions and interpersonal interactions are not only intense, but also are continually changing. When is professional assessment and guidance needed? If a problem such as anxiety, sadness, depression, or poor interpersonal relations continues for longer than a few weeks, it is worthwhile to consider professional consultation. Even if the problem turns out to be minor, you will at least receive reassurance and some guidance.
Some families consult with a family psychologist in the same way that they regularly see a family physician—someone they can go to regularly for checkups or for assistance if things seem not to be going well. I have often recommended this, particularly to parents of highly or profoundly gifted children, not only because the intensity and sensitivity are so much greater than even that of other gifted children, but also because these children tend to be more asynchronous in their development and therefore even more of a puzzlement to those around them.
Some parents are concerned about the cost of seeing a psychologist. A thorough professional may take several hours over two or three appointments to get to know your child and to understand your child’s daily home and school environment. The cost, ranging from $600 to $1,200, may seem high. However, consider what you would pay for a thorough dental examination with x-rays or to have your child’s teeth straightened. Most parents say that a psychological consultation, including testing, is very helpful, not only because of specific recommendations they receive, but also because the assessment results provide a yardstick with which to gauge the severity of the problems and to assess what is reasonable to expect of the child. Certainly, many sources have confirmed the effectiveness of counseling.
Regrettably, it will likely be difficult to find a counselor or therapist who is knowledgeable about gifted and talented children. Few psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, or counselors have received training in the unique social and emotional needs of gifted and talented children. Like many others, they may believe that giftedness is only an asset and that high ability seldom is associated with problems.
So how does one go about finding a psychologist or counselor? I suggest that you shop around. Ask other parents of gifted children for their recommendations or if they know counselors who have been helpful to them. Most often these other parents are quite happy to share their information and experiences, and many of them will have sought professional help somewhere along the way. As a colleague of mine once said, “There are two kinds of people: those with problems, and those you don’t know well enough yet to know what their problems are.”
Perhaps other parents cannot recommend a qualified professional who is already knowledgeable about gifted children. In that case, you may be able to find a well-trained counselor or psychologist who simply is open to learning about gifted children, and that may be sufficient. Ask the counselor or therapist about his or her experience and background with gifted children and their families. Then, ascertain if the counselor or therapist is open to learning about gifted children by consulting with colleagues or by reading a few publications. You might mention continuing education programs for psychologists about the social and emotional needs of gifted children and their families, such as those offered by SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted).
You—the parents—may have to educate the professional about the characteristics and needs of gifted children, and you may even have to supply the professional with reprints of articles or suggest books to read. For example, you may point out to the psychologist, psychiatrist, or pediatrician that the book Guiding the Gifted Child (Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982) received an award from the American Psychological Association Foundation, or you may give the counselor copies of ERIC Digest articles on the social and emotional needs of gifted children or provide copies of downloads from websites such as www.SENGifted.org or www.hoagiesgifted.org. Another excellent resource is the book Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults (Webb, Amend, Webb, Goerss, Beljan, & Olenchak, 2005), which has been endorsed by many leading physicians and psychologists.
Once you find a professional, enter counseling on a trial basis to see if the counselor’s approach and style fit with your needs. Sometimes a very competent psychologist may have a personal style that simply doesn’t fit with yours. If you are uncomfortable with the initial findings and recommendations, consider getting a second opinion. Second opinions have been accepted for a long time in medicine, and they are also accepted in psychology and education.
How do you tell your child that you are going to see a counselor? Most often I suggest that you describe the consultation as a professional “look see” to get help you plan so that family and school experiences can be as enjoyable, challenging, and worthwhile as possible, and to figure out what is reasonable to expect of your child. Generally you will want to suggest to the child that the consultation will be a family endeavor. You may say that you are going to get family counseling to learn how to be better parents or how to get along better as a family. Of course, you don’t want to suggest that the child “has a problem” that the counselor will “fix.” You may wish to talk to the professional ahead of time to get suggestions for your particular situation concerning the best way to approach your child.
What can you expect? Probably the counselor or therapist will want the parents, as well as the child, to fill out questionnaires or brief psychological tests to get an understanding of the family setting. Since children live in a family system, the therapist may want to work at times with other members of the family. The counselor will probably want to see the parents and the child together, then the child alone, and then the parents alone. The counselor may want to talk to the teacher or even visit the school for observation. A psychologist may wish to talk to the child’s pediatrician. The psychologist may also want to do formal testing of intellect, achievement, and emotional functioning. All of this will take time. The testing alone may take three or four hours, and the psychologist will probably divide that into two or three sessions to make sure the child is not fatigued, and also to have the opportunity to see the child on at least two separate occasions to look for any behavior changes.
A counselor or psychologist will do a lot of listening and asking questions. This is good. You want thoughtful suggestions and advice based on a thorough assessment, not a casual or sloppy approach. Try to be patient, but ask the counselor questions as well as answering them.
When the assessment is finished, you should expect to have a meeting of at least one hour with the counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist to learn what the findings are and to plan what should happen next. If there is a significant diagnosis, ask how it was arrived at. Make sure, ahead of this appointment, that the professional was made aware of articles such as Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children (Webb, 2000) to try to minimize the likelihood that gifted behaviors are not misdiagnosed. For example, some gifted children, if they are in an environment with few intellectual peers, are misdiagnosed as suffering Asperger’s Disorder. Others with their intense moods may be misdiagnosed as Bi-Polar Disorder. Also, however, be alert to the possibility that gifted behaviors may mask real diagnoses. For example, more than one gifted child or adolescent has been able to put on a happy face to conceal significant depression, and sometimes children suffering Asperger’s Disorder are mistaken as simply “quirky gifted children.”
If therapy is needed, insist that the counselor or therapist meet with the parents as well as the child—at least once for every three or four times the child is seen. For pre-adolescent youngsters, rarely is it appropriate for a therapist to counsel the child for several sessions without also consulting with the parents. You are a key part of the child’s world, and you need to know how to assist the counseling process. Most therapists will suggest specific behaviors for you to try at home or at school.
Medication for children—including gifted children—should be used only when really necessary. Try to ensure that the medication is not being prescribed to treat characteristics of giftedness, such as the child’s intensity, curiosity, divergent thinking, or boredom in an educationally inappropriate placement. All too many highly gifted children have been misdiagnosed as ADHD or as Oppositional Defiant Disorder and placed on medication when what they really needed was more understanding, appropriate behavioral approaches, or an educational modification.
If you conclude that a modification needs to be made in the educational setting, talk to the counselor or psychologist about this. These professionals often can provide significant support and assistance in negotiations with school personnel since their assessment information will be highly relevant. This is true whether your child is in a public, private, or charter school (Rogers, 2001) or is being home schooled (Rivero, 2002).
Finally, believe in yourself. You are the parent, and the one in charge of the family. Professionals are “hired help.” Seeking counseling or therapy may not be easy, but, particularly when you have an exceptional child, the benefits are worth it.
Devries, A. R., & Webb, J. T. (2007). Gifted parent groups: The SENG model. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Halsted, J. W. (2009). Some of my best friends are books: Guiding gifted readers from preschool through high school (3rd edition). Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Kerr, B. A. (1997). Smart girls: A new psychology of girls, women, and giftedness. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Kerr, B. A., & Cohn, S. J. (2001). Smart boys: Talent, manhood, and the search for meaning. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Rivero, L. (2002). Creative home schooling for gifted children: A resource guide. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Rogers, K. B. (2001). Re-forming gifted education: How parents and teachers can match the program to the child. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Webb, J. T. (2000). Misdiagnosis and dual diagnoses of gifted children: Gifted and LD, ADHD, OCD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder. ERIC Digest, 448-382.
Webb, J. T. (2000). Is my child gifted? If so, what can I expect? (Video). Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Webb, J. T. (2000). Do gifted children need special help? (Video). Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Webb, J. T. (2000). Parenting successful children. (Video). Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Webb, J. T., Meckstroth, E. A., & Tolan, S. S. (1982). Guiding the gifted child: A practical source for parents and teachers. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Webb, J. T., Gore, J. L., Amend, E. R., & DeVries, A. R. (2007). A parent’s guide to gifted children. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.