Smart Kids Face Challenges Too

How parents foster true potential in bright children

Posted Oct 19, 2011

Do you have a smart child? Then you probably know that smart kids face many challenges - that raising intelligent children is not as easy as it may look from the outside.

We often think that smart kids have unlimited potential to achieve their dreams. But sometimes our definition of potential is limited by a narrow vision - a notion that success can be measured by impressive accomplishments like school grades or test scores. In our eagerness to support children's achievement, we sometimes forget that potential is not a lofty end goal but the capacity to grow, learn, and adapt to change throughout life. It is about discovering a fulfilling and meaningful life, one that cannot be measured by numbers.

Reinforcing this broad view of potential, Smart Parenting for Smart Kids is a new book by  Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, and Mark Lowenthal, PsyD, that provides well-researched guidance for parents of bright children. Suggesting that it takes more than school smarts to create fulfilling lives, they highlight some of the special challenges facing smart kids and provide helpful parenting strategies to support children's positive growth and development. The following describe three common challenges some smart kids face.

Driven by Perfectionism

Many bright children are perfectionists. Because they are capable of doing well, they come to believe they must execute all tasks perfectly. They become distraught over minor mistakes, focusing on what's wrong rather than on what's right. When learning doesn't come easy, they make excuses or give up at the first sign of difficulty - often with tears or anger.

Mistakes Improve Children's Learning describes Carol Dweck's research that shows praising children for their intelligence can actually make them less likely to persist in the face of challenge. Rather than responding with praise, parents need to meet kids where they are. Kennedy-Moore and Lowenthal call this strategy "reflecting but downshifting," a way of acknowledging children's emotions, offering affection, and shifting the reaction in a more positive direction. Parents are also encouraged to help children identify what went right, helping them recognize that success is not black or white.

Difficulty with Peers

Friendship is at the heart of childhood, yet smart kids can struggle to make friends. Why? Children with advanced intellectual skills may not share common interests with other kids. And sometimes they try to impress peers, causing them to push away. Avoiding uncomfortable social situations, smart kids may also shy away from normal group activities.

Learning friendship skills is not unlike learning academic skills, like math word problems. Parents can help children by teaching them strategies to observe and analyze social situations, then to act appropriately. The authors describe this process in an effective model that involves "seeing, thinking, and doing." First, kids need to be able to see what is going on with other children. This means picking up on social cues, understanding the situation, and noticing how others are behaving. Second, they need to think before they act - interpreting feelings and predicting responses. And last, they need to practice over and over again until they feel comfortable in their own skins.

Emotional Sensitivity

Some researchers suggest that emotional sensitivity is an intrinsic part of people with high abilities. Smart kids often have strong emotional reactions, cry frequently, or overreact to what others might consider a minor event. They may have meltdowns or tantrums, or seem wounded by criticism. This kind of sensitivity can make smart kids targets of bullies who know they can be easily provoked.

Children can learn to manage disappointment and discomfort through the development of coping strategies. Rather than helping kids vent their anger in an attempt to let go of it, Kennedy-Moore and Lowenthal recommend helping children understand their feelings, alter their interpretations, learn to better tolerate frustration, and respond in productive ways. The authors refer to John Gottman's research on emotional coaching. This type of coaching involves empathizing with a child's emotions while, at the same time, teaching them to cope with negative feelings. Children who were coached using these strategies were better able to regulate their emotional states and grew up to become what Daniel Goleman refers to as emotionally intelligent.


Having raised a highly intelligent child myself, I easily relate to all the parenting challenges in this book. In addition to the three listed above, the authors discuss how to help smart kids learn to compromise, deal with authority figures, and turn incessant complaining into opportunities for motivation. The Fallacy of Good Grades emphasizes how grades and test scores are only one measure of success - that the things we can't measure by numbers matter most in educating our children. Smart Parenting for Smart Kids not only echoes this approach to growth and development but provides very specific and helpful strategies that parents can put to use immediately.

I only wish this book had been available when I was parenting my daughter. If it had, she may have grown up to be less perfectionistic and able to better appreciate her amazing gifts! So if you have a smart kid - get the book! A contributing writer to Psychology Today, co-author Eileen Kennedy-Moore also writes a column called Growing Friendships, where her articles focus on children's social and emotional development.


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement. 

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Photo Credit: Victor Bezrukov

©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.