High Anxiety in My Gifted Child

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

Which of the following is a symptom of anxiety in a gifted child?

a. An eye twitch
b. Pacing in circles
c. Fighting with her mother

The answer?
All of the above.

The eye twitch and the pacing were easy for me. My oldest son’s eye began to twitch in fifth grade, around the same time he started to disengage at school. Our middle child began pacing in circles around the bathroom in second grade. That was the year that his teacher wrote his name on the blackboard with the word “teacher” before it because she thought he was too bossy.

My daughter is the one who fights with me. She is in an ideal educational environment. We fight because I am annoying.

If you met my daughter, you would find her to be an adorable, Justin Bieber-loving 11 year old. And she is. She is also super critical of me. According to my daughter, I clear my throat excessively. I use the word “sweetie” when I’m irritated and I make squishing noises when I chew. When I do these things, she tells me to stop. Sometimes she even imitates me.

My daughter’s need to correct me leads to terrible fights. I can’t understand why she won’t overlook my annoying behavior. She doesn’t know why I keep doing things that irritate her. Usually, I just walk away. That enrages her. She hates it when I walk away.

I don’t tell many people about my daughter’s criticism because it makes both of us look bad. It’s disrespectful. It’s insensitive. It’s evidence of my bad parenting skills. And, according to a psychiatrist I know, it’s a symptom of high anxiety.

About a year ago, I was talking with a psychiatrist about anxiety issues of my own. She went down a laundry list of symptoms. At one point she asked me if I get annoyed easily. I said no, and she seemed surprised. She said that highly anxious people are often irritable. Then I remembered my daughter. I thought about how she hates it when her younger brother cracks his knuckles, when her older brother chews ice or when her father talks with food in his mouth. It occurred to me that my daughter is irritable because she is anxious.

I am the first to admit that I might be fooling myself by thinking that my daughter’s behavior reflects anxiety instead of permissive parenting because I don’t want to take responsibility for the behavior. Having said this, I can’t escape the genetic component of her anxiety. After all, I’m anxious, and so is my husband. Our sons? Anxious and anxious. Any genetic predisposition she might have received was certainly nurtured by my anxious parenting.

Okay, maybe I lied to the psychiatrist. Sometimes I am irritable. Early in our marriage, I told my husband what to do when I behave this way. When I am at my most unlikable, what I really need is a hug. I need some physical reassurance that I am not bad despite my bad behavior.

We tried it with our daughter. Or more accurately, my husband tried it. In the middle of a particularly bad fight, he waited for her to catch her breath and then asked her if he could give her a hug. Surprisingly, she said yes. Eventually, she would ask for a hug after she made a snarky remark but before we would get into a full blown fight. Those were hard hugs for me to give. It seemed like I was rewarding bad behavior. It did, however, prevent the fight and hasten an apology from her. She always expressed genuine remorse for her behavior after we fought.

I found support for our hug therapy in a blog by Dr. Claudia M. Gold, a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World through Your Child’s Eyes. According to Dr. Gold, this behavior has to do with the underdevelopment of the higher cortical centers of the brain. Our daughter didn’t experience early trauma, nor does she have sensory processing problems like the children discussed in her blog. She is, however, intense and highly sensitive like many gifted children. She has almost all of Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities. The way she externalized her intense nature felt like a personal attack, but it was no different from the boys’ eye twitching and pacing.

I can’t say that I’m entirely at peace with the way our daughter expresses her anxiety, and if I’m wrong and I am a poor parent, please don’t tell me. I have found a solution that involves holding my daughter close and giving her a squeeze. My hope is that the memories of the fights will disappear and what she will remember are the hugs.

In what ways do your children exhibit anxiety? How do you handle these expressions of anxiety? Please share with us in the comment section below.

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5 responses to “High Anxiety in My Gifted Child

  1. Oh my goodness!! this is our house as well!!! DD’s 11 and 7 need the hugs during the fights. I too felt like I was rewarding the bad behaviour.
    Thank you for reinforcing the fact that a. there are others like us, and b. my parenting isn’t way off track!

  2. My 8yo will ask for tickles still, but to keep his lanky knees from my eye sockets I pin him down in what really becomes a hug as much as tickles. I realized the sensory need for tickles when he was a tiny one. It has always helped him relax and break from his anxiety and stress. Recently he’s been so argumentative that I don’t want any contact with him, but maybe it means I need to have more, not less. Just yesterday I all but locked him out of the house, insisting on exercise to try to stop a meltdown over homework. Eventually his dad came home and participated in some ball tossing and he mellowed. Trying to get him to intervene with his own calming methods isn’t working yet. Maybe he’s still too young.

    All this rambling b/c this post is timely for me. I will try to step in sooner, with hugs or tickles and see if I can prevent more of the meltdowns.

    • Thank you for sharing! Because every child is so different, it is important to look at what is working for your child and what isn’t. The process can be long and frustrating, though. Sometimes it is just good to know that others are going through the same thing you are.

  3. I want to assure you that it’s survivable for all of you–parent and child alike. To witness our grown gifted daughter, if you’re in Palo Alto on a Sunday morning, stop in at First Pres. Church to see Abby, who is serving her residency there, after M.Div. + M.Th. & fellowship to work on her Ph.D. When I do presentations to parents at Northwestern U. Center for Talent Development, I tell them that the struggle raising their gifted children won’t be easy…but it WILL be worth it! As you mentioned, it helps to know you’re not alone.

  4. This is brilliant: “When I am at my most unlikable, what I really need is a hug. I need some physical reassurance that I am not bad despite my bad behavior.” I’m going to tell a few people this is what I need. And I’m going to keep this in mind the next time anxiety grips one of my children, or me, or my husband, and dole out a hug! Thanks for sharing this, Lisa, incredibly helpful.

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