Q: My son is a junior in high school and struggles with significant depression and anger problems. He has been labeled twice exceptional. He is gifted in math and goes to the city college for math classes, but he is still in resource class for language arts due to dyslexia. He often says that he doesn’t fit in or he wishes he could skip high school because the kids think he is ‘weird’ (his word, not mine). As a mom, how do I help him understand that it’s okay to be different?
A: As a mom to two twice exceptional (gifted + learning challenges) boys, I would say it is super important to start early in life talking to your child about being different. They are different, even if they are in a gifted program with other kids, their gifts are likely unique. They know they are different, and as adolescence and high school creep in, that difference often shows up socially.
I have worked with twice exceptional kids who did fine in school and suddenly in sophomore or junior year of high school began to really struggle emotionally. Depression and/or anxiety from years of feeling on the outside suddenly come to a head. The parents often acknowledge their gifts, but the peers and teachers can make them feel ostracized. This is particularly true of gifted visual/spatial learners whose greatest strengths do not show up academically. They can feel useless because they do not excel in a traditional school environment. I’ve heard kids say, “I’m only smart at things that don’t matter in the world.”
How can I help my child accept his differences?
I think as parents we have to take the lead on this at home. What I have done that has worked with my kids is talk to them quite frankly about what it means to be twice exceptional. We always talk about what makes each of us unique and how those can be gifts, but then everybody also has struggles. We help our children see that everyone has things that make us different, but some people could be more different than others. We also talk about kids being jealous when my kid shows they are superior in math, or kids teasing when my kids struggle with writing. We talk about prejudice and how it is based in the fear of differences, and that is what we see when somebody rejects us because we are not like them.
From a young age, about 6, we’ve also talked about what they might be when they grow up. This helps them see the benefits of their talents. One of my kids is a gifted visual spatial learner and he wants to be a toy designer when he grows up. My other child is gifted in math and he wants to design a solar hover board. Who knows if they will do these things, but it helps them see that their talents can be used in real life.
We also help them understand the psychology of bullying. If someone is mean to my kid, we help them understand that someone was mean to that kid which made them hurt or angry. In this way my kids learn to understand that bullying is more about the bully than them.
My older son is in 8th grade and tells me he likes being different. Even though there are few kids in school who share the same interests, he’s okay with that. My younger son is still getting used to the idea. Both of them are gifted in math but have dysgraphia. My older son struggles with executive function issues too. Both of them required speech therapy and OT for handwriting, so they have had years of difference in school. They have some big hurdles, but they are managing it quite well.
What helps my son accept his differences?
I asked my 8th grade son what it was that I taught him that has made him okay with being different. He actually embraces his uniqueness and likes that he is different from most of the kids at school. He told me it was because I taught him that while he may not always fit in, he could find niches where he did fit in. He said he likes the idea of having those niches, and so he doesn’t care so much that he’s not like the majority of the kids. So that is interesting to hear.