The wisdom that Alice Miller shares with us in her famous book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, is something that every therapist who works with children revisits more often than we would like. Miller’s main point in the book is that the gifted child—the child who is more intelligent, more sensitive and more emotionally aware than other children—can be so attuned to her parents’ expectations that she does whatever it takes to fulfill these expectations while ignoring her own feelings and needs. In becoming the “perfect” child of her parents’ dreams, the gifted child loses something very precious. She loses her true self. In becoming her parents’ ideal child, she locks away her true feelings in a kind of “glass cellar,” the key to which is thrown away.
According to Miller, the gifted child in this type of situation stops growing. Because he cannot develop and differentiate his true self, he feels empty, emotionally isolated, and “homeless.” In adulthood, the child who has always tried to please his parents is constantly looking to others for approval.
The role of the therapist, according to Miller, is to help the adult rediscover the child in the cellar. And this revisiting of childhood can give the patient back a sense of vitality and aliveness. However, sometimes a child therapist witnesses this drama playing out in front of her eyes, when she sees and child and parents together in the therapy room. Sometimes the therapist is able to change the script of the play; but sometimes she cannot.
A few weeks ago, a mother called me because she wanted me to help her twelve-year-old daughter Katherine learn how to be more “resilient.” I asked for both parents to accompany Katherine to the first session, so I could get everyone’s perspective on the problem. When they took their seats in my office, Katherine sat on the couch between her parents. She was a pretty girl, her pale face framed by a tangle of blonde curls. Katherine had started a new school in the fall. It was a small private school with an excellent reputation for academics. Although Katherine’s grades were excellent and she liked her teachers, she said she was terribly unhappy because she had no friends. Sadly, she related what lunch time was like for her. She would sit down at a table in the cafeteria all alone. When the other girls in her class came in, they would squeeze together at another table to avoid sitting with her.
When I asked Katherine if she would prefer to attend a different school, her face lit up. She said she would love to attend the public school in their neighborhood where she had a few friends. As Katherine’s story unfolded, her mother’s face took on a hard look. Finally she said, “public schools are not on the table” for Katherine. When Katherine protested, her mother countered that friends could move away at any time and then she would be in the exact same situation at a school with worse academics. Katherine’s father had expressed sympathy for his daughter’s isolation, but when his wife started to protest a change of schools, he remained silent.
I proceeded slowly, trying to get the parents to see their daughter’s pain and loneliness. Couldn’t Katherine take enrichment classes that would supplement her academic work at a public school? Katherine liked this idea, but her mother immediately thwarted it by saying there that with her daughter’s dance and gymnastics classes there was no time for other classes. By the end of the session, I had made no progress in getting the mother to be sensitive to her daughter’s pressing need to have friends at school. The mother was invested in having her daughter at “the best private school” in the area and nothing would change her mind. The father remained helplessly silent. Although Katherine asked her parents if they could come back to me for another session, they did not make another appointment. After the session, I inevitably thought of the drama of the gifted child. It is a story that so often plays out in the therapy room. Sometimes a therapist can help the child, if her parents allow therapy to continue. Often she cannot if parent resistance is as strong as it was in this situation.
Of course not all parents of gifted children are like Katherine’s mother or the ones Miller describes in her book. Many parents do not expect their child to fulfill their own dreams and expectations at the expense of becoming who they truly are. They allow their child to grow in their authentic selves, instead of putting on a false self for their parents’ sake. Miller observes that it is those parents who felt like they had to put away their own authentic selves to meet their parents’ needs that pass on this pattern to their children. These parents were not conscious of how their parents subtly manipulated them. So pervasive was the manipulation, Miller comments, that it was like "the air they breathed." The children took it in unconsciously, and it was the only air there was.
I think Miller’s story is a good reminder. If we want our children to be mentally healthy as adults, we need to be sensitive to their sensitivity to our own dreams for them. It’s a delicate balance between wanting our children to actualize their gifts and talents to their fullest potential, while attending to their unique feelings and needs. In the case of Katherine, her mother only wanted what was best for her academically gifted daughter. But unfortunately this blinded her to Katherine’s intense emotional pain and need for friendships at school.
Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.
Marilyn Wedge's new book, A Disease Called Childhood, is forthcoming in March from Penguin Group (Avery).
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