Taking Off My Armour
Belonging and the Awkward Anxiety-Provoking In-Betweens
Every single one of us wants to belong. We seek to be understood, accepted, valued, respected, loved. It is, as the saying goes, part of the ’human condition’. Without this sense of being connected - to others, to culture, a place and time - we are left adrift, wondering who we are, and inevitably questioning, “What is wrong with me?” ensued by a hollow sense of shame. Relatable right? Personally, for me, this screams work Christmas functions of past where I have struggled to make small talk with my husband’s colleagues and their respective partners. It’s awkward and embarrassing, and quite frankly, also a little perturbing knowing that for everyone else in the room this seems to come so naturally. Perception can certainly be an undeniably powerful agent!
For kids in particular, this sense of being misplaced can very quickly turn to self-doubt, a low sense of self-esteem and negative self-talk. We can see how this evolves into anxiety soon enough! It is only by way of cradling our youngsters through healthy attachment and on-going (and fitting) serve-and-return interactions that we can provide a mirror that enables our children to begin to see who they are, to develop a strong and positive sense of self, and be equipped with resilience that will carry them through. So the questions then become: what does this mean for our kids, what does this look like, and how can we, as Captain Picard of the Star Trek Enterprise would say, “make it so”. But before we get to these very important wonderings, I want to drill down a little further.
Our children build a sense of self through their environment and, in particular, through the responses of others. More to the point, it is a personal interpretation of what is being sensed that has repercussions for development. So what happens when our very astute young people have the added impact of advanced development with regards to Theory of Mind or perspective taking, coupled with higher levels of sensitivity and early self-awareness? I’m talking about our gifted kids; not all, but certainly many, are super aware, not only of their own selves and the differences in their interests and ways of being to their age peers but also of the reactions of others towards these differences.
Gifted children are often considered to be more sensitive than their same-age peers, experience more intense emotional reactions, and often have a better understanding of communicative nuances or subtleties. As a result, these children are often more vulnerable to criticism. - Walker and Shore (p. 657)
It means that we as adults need to be super attuned to our own responses. That little flippant comment that slips from the mouth in discovering the two-year-old that can read ... “you don't need to know that until you're at school”... yeah, that comment, three years to come back from that, reading secretly just to be sure to fit in and be accepted. I wish I could say I was the only one to have witnessed something as dramatic in response to a comment so seemingly innocuous, but sadly, it’s far more common than one might like to think.
All too often the knee-jerk response to this is, and hold for the irony, to use the word ‘too’. These unusually precocious youngsters are often seen as ’too sensitive’, ‘too intense’, ‘too out-of-sync’ (within themselves or compared to age peers - take your pick). Quick to sense disapproval and discord through emotions, body language and the spoken word, these kids intuitively pick up on how we perceive their interests, abilities, qualities, and behaviours. At this stage it might be easy to think that we can bluff our way through, right? I mean, how often do we talk in code over our children so that they don't understand what we adults are actually talking about? We might believe that we can smile and make small talk about the intricate bridge structure a child has built and is attempting to explain with great elaboration, and all will be fine. Let's be honest, we've all been there, done that when it comes to being tired, preoccupied or just plain over whatever it is that is being babbled on about. I know I have! But, here’s some food for thought ...
Gifted children tend to infer others mental states more accurately due to their enhanced ability to make better use of self-collected observational data, providing them with a more comprehensive base of information from which to draw these inferences. In other words, these children are more sensitive to incoming information. - Walker and Shore (p. 657)
In yet other words, we must be vigilant when it comes to being genuine, both in the way in which we view our children and in how we respond to them. If not, we risk seeing our kids disappear into their shell, putting on a mask and for some, only coming out again with great reluctance, in the very safest of spaces. We also need to honour our children, by supporting them to understand themselves - the way they feel, think, learn, respond - as gifted kids, and as, dare I use the word, ‘normal”!
Gifted kids' intensity, sensitivity, and unique quirks aren't just 'different'; they're part of a perfectly normal, albeit uncommon, way of being and behaving in the world. - Anamaria Call
It also means that we need to give great care and attention to ensuring gifted kids get regular time in amongst gifted peers as means to helping them to recognise, through the mirroring of other young people and specialist teachers, that they are indeed just like them; that their sensitivity, intensity, and unique ways of being, are indeed not ‘too much’ or even just ‘okay’, recognised and accepted, but are indeed a valuable and valued part of who they are, their true selves and a big part of their identity - as a gifted person. Being in community with like-minded others (such as within the Small Poppies, MindPlus and Gifted Online programmes run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education) is empowering, promoting a positive self-concept and the all-important courage to, simply, ’be in one’s own skin” and feel safe there - in a place of true belonging.
So to conclude, as we draw to a close this blog, the year 2019, and my contributions as blogger for the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education ... I implore, let’s make it so!
See you at the upcoming national conference on giftedness and wellbeing in March 2020.
'What's the Story?' is a blog section which is written for the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education, with posts being added regularly. The purpose of this space is to share musings and anecdotes relating to giftedness and gifted education to provide a form of information and support for those living with and/or teaching gifted learners. Please do share them along.
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