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Gifted Son Never Seems Happy

Gifted and Talented Expert Advice from Mary Ruth Coleman, Ph.D.

Q: My eight-year-old gifted son is generally very happy and has finally developed socially; however, he is very difficult to make happy. For example, at Christmas or birthdays, you could do and buy everything possible and yet he would still be disappointed. He gets upset and tries to tell you that he's happy, all the while appearing quite depressed. He can be very hard to please, and it takes an emotional toll on our family. What can I do?

A: Many gifted children seem to have a heightened sensitivity and even positive experiences, like a birthday or Christmas, can cause undo stress. The main thing is to keep things as calm as possible. Reduce the "hype" and focus on the goodness of the day in a calm way. This should help. The over-sensitivity is not so much "unhappiness," as it is a stress related to both performance anxiety and expectations. Reducing the focus on the day will relieve some of the pressure.

You can also talk with your son quietly about how different things bring out stress for different people and that it's okay to sit back a bit and not "jump for joy" over things and presents. In this way, you might reduce your own expectations of a reaction from him when he receives a gift. Some children take time to warm up to new things; for them, opening a present and saying thank you is a positive response. Let him work with this in his own way. Don't misinterpret his solemn approach to holidays as being disappointed -- he's likely to be coping with his strong feelings in the best way he knows how!

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Mary Ruth Coleman is the director of Project U-STARS (Using Science Talent and Abilities to Recognize Students) at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Coleman has taught in both general and gifted educational programs in both public and private schools.


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