What to Avoid with an Upset Gifted Kid
Gifted kids learn well, but not when they're upset.
Can you remember the last time your gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) child had an emotional meltdown? The last time they seemed overwhelmed by their emotions and behaviorally out of control?
If you're parenting an intense or sensitive gifted kid, emotional meltdowns, tantrums, and out-of-control behavior might be a regular part of your life.
As a parent, these intense moments can be draining, heart-breaking, confusing, or maddening - or all of the above! Many parents are unsure how to handle these meltdowns, or they're tried countless strategies and none of them seem to work.
In my work with parents of gifted and 2e kids, I've developed a framework to give parents a new view for responding to their kids' big feelings and emotional meltdowns. The VIEW framework stands for Validate Intensity, Encourage strengths, and Wait to teach.
The "Wait to Teach" step is an alternative to a common parenting approach that actually makes emotional meltdowns worse.
Do you remember what you said to your child during their last meltdown, or what you did? Take a minute to picture it if you can. When our kids are upset, we often feel compelled to help them understand the situation better. If you're like most parents I work with, you may have said something validating like "I know you're upset" and then tried to help your child understand or resolve the situation so they could feel less stressed.
Here's what's tricky about supporting an upset, overwhelmed gifted kid - we know how smart our kids are, but appealing to their logic does not calm them down.
Why is this tricky? As parents, we can usually see that our upset child is misinterpreting a situation, blowing it out of proportion, only focusing on the negative, or blaming others instead of taking responsibility. We often feel a strong pull to help our child with useful information or a different perspective. We hope they can see the situation in a new light, and thereby feel better. Often, we know they can understand things more clearly, and we think that a clearer understanding will relieve their distress.
Despite our logic and good intentions in these moments, it's usually more effective to wait to teach.
Waiting to teach means that you don’t try to teach your child anything when they're upset.
When your kid is upset, don’t try to help them solve their problem, teach a new coping skill, provide them with new information, point out errors in thinking, or explain how they contributed to the problem.
Think back to how you responded the last time your child was upset. Do you recognize any of these dynamics in your approach? If so, please don't criticize yourself! Literally every parent I know gets pulled into these "teaching" dynamics in the midst of their kid's big emotions. It's human to turn to logic when we're overwhelmed by our kid's big feelings or when we can see they're clearly overwhelmed.
If this approach is so common, why do I encourage parents to wait to teach? Why do I think a teaching approach is ineffective in the midst of the big feelings? Two big reasons.
Reason 1: People don’t learn well when they’re upset. If your kid is upset, it’s unlikely they can truly hear you or take in what you say. If they're emotionally overwhelmed, they are in fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode - they may fight about small details, reject good ideas, or say something untrue - and that’s bound to make you feel more frustrated.
Reason 2: When your kid is upset, the goal is not to fix the situation - it’s to connect with the feeling and your child in that moment. When your kid is in the throes of a big feeling, that is an awesome moment of vulnerability. They are showing you their hurt, pain, sadness, or anger. (They may be whining, throwing things, kicking, saying hurtful things, or acting in a way that seems totally unreasonable - and simultaneously they are being vulnerable enough to show you just how upset they are.) If you try to teach your child something in their upset moment, you risk ruining the mood of warmth and connection you can create by validating their feelings and noting their strengths.
It’s counterintuitive, but the best way to influence your upset kid is to NOT share helpful ideas in the heat of the moment. When it comes to constructive feedback about big feelings, strike when the iron is cold.
Resist the urge to jump into teaching. DON’T say:
If you hadn’t been doing X, [that upsetting thing] wouldn’t have happened
But you know that’s the rule - you don’t have to get so upset
I know you don’t like that, but there’s a good reason…
You have to learn to deal with disappointments - sometimes things don't go the way we want
This assignment wouldn’t feel so frustrating if you organized your work before you start
Why don’t you take 3 deep breaths? (Unless you and your child have practiced this strategy before and agreed to use it in certain situations)
Again, don't worry if you've said similar things to this list in the past. Most of us are using the tools our families used when we were young and upset - and there are few cultural models of how to respond differently.
If you want, you can start now with a new approach. It's not a problem if you've relied heavily on teaching during upset moments until now.
So what can you do in the moment, when they are upset or melting down? Validate their feelings and note their strengths. If their behavior is out of control - if they're hurting themselves, another person, or property - try to set boundaries on their behavior in a validating way.
Then, you can give them space until they've calmed down, or you can help them manage their feelings without teaching or giving feedback (if your child likes to be helped). You could offer a diversion, offer a hug, help them transition to a new activity, or help them finish a tricky task. Or you could improve their mood by reminding them of something they have to look forward to.
So how will your kid learn to manage their feelings? Or learn to avoid some upsetting, preventable situations?
Once your kid is calm, teaching is fair game! They’ll be able to engage with you better, and they’re less likely to argue or act inflexibly. As the adult, you probably often do have a helpful perspective or a good strategy for your child's situation - and when they've calmed down, they'll be more likely to hear what you have to say.
How long should you wait to have these teaching conversations? It depends - on your kid’s temperament, the intensity of the feeling, and the specific situation. Sometimes your kid might be able to problem-solve or take a suggestion a minute or two after they calm down. In other situations, it might be more productive to reflect on the situation with your child at bedtime, the next morning, or even the next weekend.
If a long time has passed, start the conversation with a validating statement to avoid re-triggering your child’s feeling of being emotionally overwhelmed. For example - “Hey, I wonder if we could talk about how stressful that big project was on Wednesday night. That seemed overwhelming to have so much work to complete in one night” is more welcoming and effective than “We need to talk about how you keep track of projects - I don’t ever want to have a night like Wednesday again!”
In my 3-step VIEW framework for responding to gifted and 2e kids' intense feelings, this Wait to Teach step is the simplest step of the framework, conceptually - but very difficult to do!
Waiting requires patience and awareness. I often forget this step myself. Luckily, it can be easy to notice when you’ve unintentionally slipped into teaching - suddenly you find yourself in an argument with your kid, or they get more upset instead of calming down!
If you notice you’ve started teaching, not a problem - it happens! Just pause the teaching and go back to validation.
Remind yourself that a calmer moment for feedback will come. There’s no rush.
If you want more ideas like this directly to your inbox, sign up for Gifted Lab Notes, my weekly email with tips and information for supporting your intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) kid.
Have you tried to help your gifted kid with their big feelings without success? When your gifted kid has a big feeling, are you stuck in teaching mode? Is it hard to think of what else to say? In our small-group coaching program for parents, Parenting Your Intense Gifted Kid, you get help adapting these ideas to specific situations from your life, alongside other parents raising bright kids with big feelings.