By Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach
In my world of working with gifted homeschoolers and 2e children in gifted schools, and of being a mother to one, I am seeing a pattern with some of the boys. It’s a feedback loop that seems to start in a typical school, but when strengthened, can seep into the relationships with parents and even educators. Here’s how it works:
The boy has a behavior that is understandably misunderstood. It is a behavior that scares us. It can look like bullying or something violent, biting sarcasm or even just a little meanness. The adults react (or overreact) and the child, in turn, reacts to the adults and these behaviors grow stronger and can manifest in more and more extreme ways. As can be expected, the adult’s reactions then become stronger as well. Because the boy feels that no one has faith in his goodness anymore, eventually he begins to internalize the adults’ perceptions of him and sees himself as a “bad kid”. Even when the adults are not saying, “you’re a bad kid,” or even when they are saying the opposite, the child knows by their reactions how he’s being perceived. He feels that he is essentially bad. If the feedback loop continues he may fall into a self-fulfilling prophecy and by high school age, perceive himself as a hopeless case. He throws in the towel and begins not to care.
But, let’s rewind and take a look at a first-grade boy who is just beginning this pattern.
Mathew, (name has been changed), a first grader in a typical school, scored extremely high on the emotional overexcitabilities (OE’s) as well as physical and intellectual. His behaviors related to this OE were beginning to show up in more obvious ways.
Mathew’s high sensitivity shows up in ways that are interpreted in reverse – as him being low-sensitive and uncaring. In fact, he cares very much how he is perceived, and especially how his parents see him, as well as his peers and adults whom he admires. But he hides this through silly behavior and sometimes anger when his parents become upset at him. In addition, he has a certain rigidity over how people should behave. He has a strong sense of social justice, and when he sees anyone treated unfairly, especially by adults, his feelings of anger are quite big. When combined with his yet-to-be developed ability to see a problem from another’s perspective, it can lead to huge misunderstandings about his intentions.
In one incident, when a boy in Mathew’s class was in trouble for hitting another child and faced with expulsion, Mathew became very upset. According to Mathew, the child who was hit had said something extremely hurtful to the boy who hit him. In Mathew’s eyes, the teachers overreacted to the incident, shaming the child who did the hitting. Parents were involved and boys were asked not to interact with the boy who did the hitting. He felt both boys were in the wrong. In fact, Mathew later interviewed the boys, and both admitted to being in the wrong.
Mathew’s mother tried to explain that physically hurting someone at a school has to be taken seriously by the school – it’s “just the way it is, especially in the public school system.” This made Mathew madder. That an arbitrary rule would overrule a social justice issue was his hot button. He didn’t have the emotional space to step back and see the problem as a larger issue, as most adults reading this probably can.
His reaction was strong, and mostly in his body, as though he needed to fight someone. He said he wanted to fight the school. His mother tried to explain how things are done, and that he wouldn’t be solving anything were he to take action in an angry way. To this, he cited various tyrannical governments and asked what the difference was between them and his school. (Yes, this is first grade, but maybe you know the type?)
At one point, one of his friends reported that Mathew had talked of blowing up the school. When his mother asked Mathew about the people who would be hurt, he replied that he would make sure no one was hurt. Mathew has never carried out a plan such as this, and his mother was certain that his words were from his realm of imaginary. It was his way of expressing frustration. In our current atmosphere of fear of security in our schools, Mathew’s words understandably trigger alarm from adults — which tends to make him respond even more strongly. From the outside, Mathew’s behavior might be labeled as sociopathic by some, but in this case, it is his OE that needs to be understood and tempered by the adults. This type of behavior could turn into defiance after some time. Some of this depends on how the adults treat the behavior, and of course, some depends on the boy.
After speaking with me and understanding how Mathew’s OEs are impacting his ability to respond to situations like this, Mathew’s mother wasn’t sure she could help the school understand where Mathew’s rebelliousness was coming from. This was a busy public school, with bigger problems to deal with.
Knowing that Mathew’s mother and teacher had a good relationship and that Mathew had found this teacher’s daily mindfulness exercises relaxing, I suggested they have a meeting. There, Mathew’s mother explained her son’s motivation behind the threat and succeeded in getting his teacher to understand the depth of Mathew’s feelings around the perceived injustice to his classmate.
The teacher was able to have a heart-to-heart discussion with Mathew from which things shifted for Mathew. While he continues to be an advocate for social justice, he has dropped his fantasy of blowing up the school. Mathew’s mother told me that his teacher had a lesson plan on Martin Luther King, Jr, and explained how he had been a fierce advocate for social justice, “like Mathew is.”
While this is likely to be an ongoing theme in Mathew’s life, I truly believe that his teacher, in her mindful and non-reactive way, was instrumental in helping him through one major level of understanding, not only by what she said but by how she handled and responded to him. It took great skill for her to accept some responsibility in understanding the cause of Mathew’s stress and to change her reactivity. My hope is that Mathew can internalize his teacher’s ability to react thoughtfully when under stress.
In this way, a mindful adult can help interrupt this feedback loop that many of our boys get into. The emphasis is on the feedback loop – the reactivity becomes stronger and more defensive as the child feels the authority figure’s negative reaction to him. This is a common conundrum for this type of intensity.
If you would like to read more, I highly recommend Todd Rose’s book. “Square Peg: My Story and What It Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries, and Out-of-the-Box Thinkers.” It is a poignant and insightful story of one man’s journey from trouble-maker to Harvard professor.
Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, school therapist and parent coach by phone at Help My Child Thrive Coaching. She specializes in giftedness and twice exceptionality and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son-who- really-wants-a-dog. You can find more articles on her Facebook page, fb.me/TeresaCurrivanCoaching. Have a question about your child? Email her at TeresaCurrivan@gmail.com and ask about a free 20-minute phone consultation.
© 2018 Teresa Currivan
This is part of a blog hop over at the amazing Gifted Homeschoolers’ Forum. Click here to read other articles on the topic: Discipline and Your Gifted Child.
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I’m working on writing more about gifted girls. Meanwhile, here is my personal story that I think captures some gifted girl (and boy) experiences: