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Surviving the Middle School Years with your Gifted Child

We can't "fix" the biochemistry elements, but we can affect the behaviors.

A fair amount of my job involves conferencing with parents, typically to address their concerns, to answer questions, or to help them in some other way as they navigate their way through the each new grade level’s expectations. Never is the latter more true than when a child moves from the elementary school world to that of middle school. A few days ago I received this email from a reader of my PT posts here.

Dear Mr. Taibbi: My son is a new middle schooler in sixth grade. He is a gifted student and, as such, we signed him up for the pre-AP classes. I knew there would be greater challenge for him there but I did not expect the kind of challenge we have encountered. It’s like he’s a different kid. We argue all the time. He wants us to be less hands-on than we were in elementary school, and I think that is a good idea. But then he complains about having to do any homework at all which is something I don’t recall happening much in elementary school. He’s never been a really organized kid, but when we were more hands-on, we were able to help him compensate for that. Now the arguing about school work is driving us crazy. I don’t know how much of this new attitude is just his becoming a “typical teen” or a conflict of differences in our personalities that both of us will have to work through. Any suggestions?

The content of this email—the seemingly sudden change in attitude toward school, a child insisting (perhaps a little too confidently) on a more independent approach, and the associated parental frustration—is altogether familiar to me. Middle school is often a tough transition for all involved: the gifted child who sailed through elementary school is suddenly challenged, and in some cases quite flummoxed, by the increased number of teachers and each ones teaching style; parents are left to negotiate a new and not altogether clear role in their child’s academic life; and both are surprised as the changing expectations and a new school force a realignment of family time at home. Throw into that mix the very real biological changes that are simultaneously taking place within the body of that middle school student and, well,… emails like the one above surprise no one.

We cannot do anything to change the biochemistry aspects that are at play here as the child enters puberty, but we can do something more about the behavioral components of that change. The key to surviving the middle school years with your gifted child lies in a few surprisingly simple things you can do to support your ‘tween’.

Accept that parts of your own child’s personality may not be at all like your own.
Your child keeps a desk in his room that is a haphazard mess of piled papers, school supplies, assignment pads, and old graded work. His bookshelves are a littered conglomeration of stuffed animals from his childhood, dusty albums of old Yu-Gi-Oh cards, novels stacked at odd angles, and maybe even an unwashed sock or two. Your own home office space, on the other hand, is meticulously organized; should the need arise, you could easily place your hands on any important house file, past credit card receipt, or newly received (and likely already paid) bill.

Then again, maybe you’ve noticed that your son cares a great deal about more about being punctual for any occasion more than you do. For example: The two of you have agreed to go see a movie at the mall. A full ten minutes before the time you must leave, he is already dressed and waiting at the door. When you take the time to put on your own shoes, check on the dog, make sure the lights are turned off, and grab the keys from that bowl near the door, he huffs aloud and mumbles. From your child’s point of view, you are lolly-gagging and ‘time’s wastin’’ but, frankly, you see time in a more fluid way than he does. The movie’s advertised “7 o’clock showing” is really more of guide to you, not a written-in-stone start time. “7:00 or 7:10… it will make little difference,” you reason, as you’ll likely miss none of the actual movie. Often it’s these kinds of stark, opposite personality traits within a family that drive its members a bit batty.

The reason this happens is that you the parent—and perhaps even both of you, parent and child alike—are using logic as a part of your thinking about the other’s behavior. You reason, for example, that your child would spend half as much time on his homework if only his desk were more carefully organized. This way, you argue, he would not have to spend fifteen minutes simply finding the assignment’s directions. He counters that he: “…knows where stuff is, but sometimes it just takes more time to find it!” Your child gnashes his teeth when you explain why arriving on time for a movie is rather unnecessary given that the previews and advertisements typically last upwards of twenty minutes. (Even though he makes a good point about being what you say is “early” because it gives the two of you “… more time to find a good parking space and decent seats in the theater.”

In the examples above, logical thinking as we typically define it has no place. Read that sentence again. Arguing about how different each of you is fruitless. You are a tidy organizer, great; your child organizes by piles. You like to feel unrushed, fine; your child views time with a different sense of urgency. The two of you are different. Period. No amount of clever rhetoric or use of logical argumentation is likely to change either one of you.

So then what are you to do when your child leaves his socks on the living room floor for the fiftieth time, or he starts to become frustrated when he cannot find out when that book report is due?

When the personality differences between the two of you become irritating (as they most certainly will at some points in time), try smoothing a resolution by…

Stating the behaviors you’d like to see… as favors
Most people enjoy making others happy. Use this to your advantage. If you want your child’s room picked up before the realtor arrives, try stating that demand in terms of what you want rather than as something you dislike. Put it out there as if your child’s cooperation would be a real help to you, an act of kindness even. Instead of: “I hate it when people come over and your room is such a wreck,” you might try, “I’d love it if the open house guests could see how welcoming our home is.” Furthermore, couple that with…

Voicing aloud your appreciation and approval… with lots of specifics

Giving your child positive reinforcement sounds simple enough, but when genuine personality differences cause sparks, family members often neglect to recall the power of positivity. Employ the ol’ trick that teachers use: catching him being good. Your child held his tongue this time when you got to the movie a few minutes late? Say more than “Thanks” as you pull into the parking spot. Be specific: “I appreciate your patience tonight. I’ll get the sodas while you find us the seats.” Similarly, rather than saying “Your room looks nice,” you might point out how much easier it was to dust when the bookcase was stacked neatly. In this way, you are training yourself and modeling for your child what it is like to…

Really focus on the positives
We find in others what we look for, and so it’s easy when you are unhappy with another person to get stuck in that rut of negativity. If you search out only those bits and pieces that your child is doing “wrong,” you will find them. On the other hand, if you look at what your middle schooler is doing right, you'll find it too. And the more you practice, the better you become. When you find yourself getting exasperated, find something he does that makes you recall the wonderful parts of having a gifted, albeit precocious, child. Lastly, to be as supportive and as patient a parent as you can, it’s a good idea to…

Recognize your child’s sincere, real calls for help
Middle school really is a different place, and even for your capable and typically successful gifted child, it can prove a tough transition. It’s okay to allow to a certain amount of trial and error but when it becomes aimless floundering, it’s time to step in. You know your child better than anyone. You probably know the difference between complaining about school and true struggling. And if you are not sure, ask! “You used to love math but now it seems like you dread every problem you have to do. What has changed? Are you having trouble with it?” Gifted students often find middle school to be a shock because what came easily in elementary school is now not as straight forward: the material got hard; you stepped back a bit more; the teacher changed and so did expectations. If your child throws out a call for help, be sure to respond but do so without reverting to coddling.

In summary…

These middle school years, for so many reasons, can be trying on you and your child. Still, the relationship you’ve nurtured through elementary school is bound to help. Be patient, listen, ask questions, and support. You can do it.