Updated: Feb 11
For some children, the usual milestones and recommendations rarely seem to apply. Whether because of disability differences, gifted ability differences, or both, parents and educators gradually learn to expect the unexpected.
Because of these differences, children can also surprise adults with early worries about big-picture, life-and-death concepts. In some cases, this can be the first sign of high-ability needs. How do you cope with a two-year-old’s concerns about death, heaven, and an infinite universe? How can you handle a student so concerned with social justice that she argues with her peers, or an emotionally sensitive child who cannot sleep because of stress over homelessness and foreign wars?
When the usual parenting and teaching advice doesn’t help, consider checking out the below resources to help young children with mature worries.
Living With Intensity. Danels, Susan and Piechowski, Michael (2009). Living with Intensity explains Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration and the “Overexcitabilities” (types of emotional and physical intensity), and it offers perspectives from a number of professionals on coping with intensity in children and adults. Learning about the imaginational and emotional “overexcitabilities” may help parents better understand the thoughts and emotions behind a child’s concerns. Much of the book focuses on the gifted population, however, anyone with a child or student experiencing extreme or advanced worries may find the coping strategies helpful.
Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope. Webb, James T. (2013). Like Living with Intensity, psychologist James Webb’s book discusses giftedness, but it offers help for anyone struggling with discouragement over weighty questions. Webb tackles the subject of existential depression with compassionate, thoughtful perspective and a number of ways to cope. Though geared toward adults, several strategies can be used by parents and educators to support children, such as focusing on ways to live in the present moment, bibliotherapy, journaling, and helping children to feel they can make a difference through causes related to their concerns. (Parents and educators can help children get involved – check out Hoagies’ Blog Hop on Child Activists for ideas!)
The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes them Stronger. Lombardi, Kate Stone (2013). Mothers with sensitive sons can find both relief and validation in this well-researched book. Lombardi debunks stereotypes and misconceptions about close mother-son relationships and sensitive boys, and she shows how nurturing the emotional sensitivity of male children can actually benefit both the child and our society as a whole.
Some of My Best Friends Are Books: Guiding Gifted Readers. Third Edition. Halstead, Judith Wynn (2009). Books and workshops on parenting gifted children frequently recommend bibliotherapy as a technique for coping with life’s stresses, and it can help adults, as well. Halstead’s classic book offers a number of suggestions that can appeal to the interests, strengths, and struggles of gifted-identified readers. (For a few additional gifted bibliotherapy recommendations, check out the NuMinds Vodcast on this topic!)
Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth. Prober, Paula (2016). This recent book by Paula Prober, a licensed professional counselor and former teacher, can support parents with all types of sensitivity in their families, including the emotional sensitivity associated with creative abilities. Prober’s Rainforest Mind metaphor reassures and validates readers as she guides them through strategies to both cope and reframe negative associations they may have formed about their sensitivity.
Though our first instinct is often to protect our children and students from pain, under Dabrowski’s theory, experiencing certain intensities can lead to the development of empathy and altruistic behavior. Stress about current events can also provide opportunities for discussions about essential topics, such as conversations about racial bias, equality, and the importance of truthfulness and peaceful problem-solving. Parents of young children with extreme worries may find it necessary to filter or restrict certain adult topics in news or fiction, however, even when a child is capable of grasping the concepts. The AAP has released recommendations on the impact of violent media and video games on children, and websites such as Kids in Mind, Common Sense Media and Compass Book Ratings can help screen adult content in films and books, which can be helpful for young children with high comprehension levels. In any discussion with children, but especially those involving life’s big questions, children will learn by example and appreciate an adult’s honesty with them.
For educators: parents and experts agree on the importance of understanding individual differences and diagnoses when helping children through difficult behavior. For example, classroom strategies which work for typically developing children could trigger panic instead of compliance in a child with certain disabilities. To work through behaviors influenced by big-picture worries, both parents and educators will want to start with a compassionate understanding of how a child may process his or her world differently.
As adults, we play an important role in helping children to learn from their pain. According to counselor Vanessa Sanford, “the way for kids to be wise, kind, resilient, and brave is to learn from pain and worries and struggle, not run from it. Kids need to see parents allow the compassionate space for kids to make meaning out of struggle and believe they are capable of hard things instead of fixing or protecting kids all the time.” She explains that this “doesn’t mean we want kids to get hurt, but we do want to send a message, ‘I am here, I see you, I know this is scary, but you are brave and we can do this together.’”
How can adults create this space? Sanford explains, “courage must be a component… Courage to hold a safe space for kids to express their worries and not shut them down… Courage to not have the answer, but to just allow kids to explore their own way around worries. Courage to ask for help when an adult feels over their head with the struggles. Courage to believe the adult is capable of handling this and that the kid is too. Courage to practice empathy and compassion instead of just running to logic and cognitive space. When kids have grown up worries, they need to know the ones they are trusting with this are safe and allow enough space for emotion. Logic can return into the conversation once emotion is seen, valued, respected, and [it is] explained that we all feel messy and complicated feelings. Normalizing this for kids is so powerful and invites them to continue opening up about these worries,” she says.
According to Sanford, parents need the empowerment and encouragement to know “that they can do hard things. Their kids can do hard things. That if their kid has existential questions, the most important thing to consider is how brave and vulnerable the parent [must be] to role-model so the kid can feel safe, respected, valued and loved.” Though we cannot stay forever at their desks or bedsides, when our children and students struggle with their first existential questions, as adults, we can model empathy and provide those safe spaces for them to process their feelings – which can help them for the rest of their lives.
Note: Some worries are too big for children, parents, and educators to handle on their own. If a child’s worries are interfering with his or her quality of life, or if adults see warning signs of mental illness, it is important to seek professional help, just as we would for physical injuries or illnesses. Parents may find it helpful to search for counselors and psychologists familiar with known conditions or diagnoses impacting their children.
For more help, this video from Dr. Brené Brown explains the benefits of empathy and the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Many thanks to Vanessa M. Sanford, LPC for her invaluable contributions, interview, and video link. Ms. Sanford practices in Frisco, Texas, and specializes in multiple areas of counseling for children, teens, and adults.
What strategies have you found successful in helping your child or students cope with existential stress? Let us know in the comments below.
The Fissure Blog is proud to participate in blog hops from Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page! For additional posts in the Philosophical / Spiritual Anxiety Blog Hop, please click on the below image (credit Pamela S. Ryan!).