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Jan 18

What age are you today?

Asynchronous development is the term we use to describe this trait in gifted kids. They are many ages at the same time. Their intellectual, academic, social, emotional, and physical development are all in different places, and the more gifted they are, the bigger those gaps can be. When you are 7 and can talk like an adult but still melt down like a 5-year-old when you don’t get your way, how does your parent or teacher set appropriate boundaries that don’t ask too much or too little of you?

Take, for example, a gifted 4-year-old. Developmentally, typical 4-year-olds live in the moment. They are concrete thinkers and see things as black and white, right and wrong. The difference between fantasy and reality is fluid, so when thinking about something new and unfamiliar, they can imagine all kinds of scenarios – some realistic and some not. When you add being intellectually gifted to being 4, it becomes especially complicated. The child can often imagine lots more possibilities than other kids their age – some exciting and some scary. If they are prone to perfectionism, they may be reluctant to try something new in case they can’t do it well enough. They might intellectually understand a story they hear on the news about a scary event, but they don’t have a frame of reference to know whether that information affects them or their families. They aren’t emotionally ready for the information they are taking in. 

Because of their advanced intellectual ability and their ability to talk like someone much older, it is easy for adults in their lives to misinterpret how much the child understands. 

It’s easy to let our bright, articulate kids fool us into thinking they are ready for more responsibility than they are. In my role, I often see parents wrestling with wanting to give their children voice in decisions at home and school, but inadvertently causing stress for their children when they give them too much responsibility. Or the children may not have enough life experience to truly understand the implications of their choices.  

This isn’t just true for our youngest kids. When our elementary kids argue about whether they should have been called out in four-square, they are highly articulate and logical in their reasoning. But when you examine what they are saying, it’s often a reflection of their emotional maturity. Beneath all the impassioned, lawyer-like arguments is a child’s perspective that is more grounded in their age and maturity. Fair means I get my way. Cheating means you disagree with me. When processing a conflict, they might be able to explain intellectually exactly why they argued with their friend and what they could have done to avoid it. But next time, they still might not have the self-control to implement that intellectual reasoning. 

On top of that, recent research has shown that gifted kids are later to develop the frontal lobe part of the brain, which manages organization, cause and effect, and more, than typically developing kids. For some gifted kids, the process doesn’t kick in until they are as old as 14. During this time of frontal lobe development, the brain goes through a process of pruning neural connections that are not needed. Gifted kids’ brains grow neural connections for a longer period than typical brains, allowing for their continued fast-paced intellectual growth. But they also have less capacity for executive function until they are older. We often joke at the middle school that our kids can do incredible coding and research and writing with their laptops, but every day we have to remind them to not leave them on the floor. Again, this means that we need to set expectations for their high level of intellectual reasoning and also their developmental age at the same time.

This is what makes setting boundaries for gifted kids so difficult, and so important. We want to set the bar high enough that our kids grow in independence and self-confidence. Succeeding at something hard is where true self-esteem comes from. But if we set the bar too high and ask for more than kids are ready for, they can become frustrated or lose confidence. 

So what do we do? 

For me, when trying to work through a problem or set boundaries, I find it most helpful to ask myself, “What age is this child showing me they are right now?” I have to remind myself constantly that a child who can recite 100 digits of Pi might still not be developmentally ready to follow a sequence of directions and may need them broken down one at a time. Our kids can have incredible insights in class but not remember paper and pencil. Boundaries for our kids need to take into account all the ages they are. We do our best when we pay attention to the behaviors that reflect their developmental age as well as what they are verbally telling us. 

It is important to give kids the chance to use their intellect to understand our reasoning in setting expectations or in determining consequences. But it’s also important to remember that they might not yet have the impulse control to act on what they know. That might need more time to develop. Despite our kids’ inclination to negotiate with us, it is important to say when appropriate, “I am the adult. I love you and I’ve decided what I think is best for you.” Our kids need us to shoulder the responsibilities they aren’t ready for. Setting boundaries is a way of showing our kids that we love them.

This is hard. The lines are blurry. Our kids are tricky. Connecting with other parents and teachers of gifted children can help you get the support that raising our amazing, intense, challenging, wonderful kids requires. Be kind to yourself. You’re going to make mistakes. Thankfully, our kids are resilient, and they will grow up in spite of us. I was far from the perfect parent, but somehow I ended up with an amazing kid. You will too!

For more on Asynchronous Development:
Off The Charts, Asynchrony and the Gifted Child. Neville, Piechowski and Tolan. Royal Fireworks Press.

Mellow Out They Say. If Only I Could. Intensities and Sensitivities of the Young and Bright. Piechowski. Royal Fireworks Press.

Sandi Wollum, Seabury head of school

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