Christmas: An emotional time.

Inga was five years old when she told her parents she had noticed poor children seemed to get fewer presents from Santa. She was particularly upset at the unfairness of this as she ‘knew’ parents didn’t give children Christmas gifts – that was Santa’s job! So she decided, “she would give away her gifts, she already had enough toys”. No-one knew where Inga had got hold of this idea but after several days of her insisting, her parents agreed she could give away her presents. *    

Parents of gifted children know that when their children show advanced thinking, knowledge, speech, drawing skills, creativity, etc. these abilities come in partnership with other emotional and social behaviours that are often different from those of more age-typical children. It is accepted as characteristic of gifted children that they have heightened emotions which can be out-of-sync with their ability to cope. Such emotions are more than the obvious ones – love, frustration, sadness, etc., – they include, shyness, excitement, empathy, indignation, etc.

Heightened emotions though can make this time of the year challenging. The end of the year in Australia brings the excitement of Christmas and whether you celebrate this festivity or not, children are aware of the build-up of anticipation that surrounds it. As well there are warmer days and nights, and changes in everyday life — daily routines relax or change and for some the security of a predictable day and familiar setting is lost. Some children also experience uncertainty about ongoing friendships and relationships with teachers as classes come to an end. Children are often tired whether they are young, primary age, or teenagers. While everyone looks forward to a chance to slow down and relax at the end of the year and beginning of summer, children’s resilience to cope with these changes may be lower than usual. The resulting combination of excitement and changes can result in behaviours that seem ‘over the top’, immature, or markedly out of step with what others expect of children of that age.

How do you respond?

As with all children it helps greatly if adults name the emotion and help children or young people to know, the adults they know well accept and understand feelings which are leading to behaviour that is different or possibly seen as inappropriate. ‘I can see that you are feeling …. and this makes you  do …(behave like this)’.  Describing emotions is also relevant when emotions are positive and resulting behaviour may be different to expectation— others of your age may not think of doing that, but I think it is a great idea.   

However, in the case of difficult behaviours you can also explain to this child that although you understand, this does not mean the behaviour is acceptable, particularly if it hurts or worries others. Gifted children  may be able to think more deeply about matters or concerns but this does not mean they also have an equal ability to know how such behaviour will affect others  or possible outcomes.  Providing an explanation of why certain behaviours are not accepted allows children to build their social and emotional knowledge about consequences and how to interact with others. 

The next step is to help children find a solution to behaviours that are causing concerns – whether these are simply behaviours that are markedly different to usual, or behaviours that are creating difficulties. Having a ‘store’ of possible solutions helps children build resilience — ability to face difficulties and find ways to overcome them.  Gifted children are usually good thinkers and it helps them mature in a number of ways if adults give them the opportunity to find alternative behaviours — adding adult suggestions only if needed. Suggest a trial of these solutions and a chance to review them later.

Responding to the emotions and ideas of gifted children can also be a matter of trust and respect. As in the anecdote about Inga, gifted children can draw upon their distinctive intellectual and emotional development in ways that can be enriching for everyone. So the  end of the year and Christmas can be a time for a range of emotional responses. Accept that gifted children can express this characteristic in many different ways and be available to reassure them if needed, celebrate with them if appropriate, and support them in being confident about managing their feelings.  

Dr Anne Grant   *Anecdote, in part, from Lovecky: Roeper Review, 1992.

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