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Saturday, May 19, 2012

The challenges of a gifted toddler

I've written already about the difficulties of caring for gifted preschoolers, but what about the precociously gifted toddler? The challenges can be pretty daunting when your two-year-old has an astoundingly advanced ability to communicate, coupled with the normal emotional meltdowns associated with this age group. The parenting books just don't deal with this stuff. 
At 18 months, mine already
expressed himself clearly!

I was lucky; when I was parenting my 2-year-old gifted child, I was being mentored by the giftedness guru Miraca Gross through professional development in my workplace. She made me feel sane. Honestly, a toddler who can express himself well enough to argue the point logically while melting down is a pretty crazy-making phenomenon. 

And this is pretty much the problem that confronted "Angelique" when she asked me for help with her 2-year-old, "Julius". (Thank heavens for the new message function in FB Timeline pages!)

She started by thanking me for my post about gifted preschoolers, and describing her 2-year-old son Julius in general terms.

Angelique: ...My son also was one to walk at 11 months. It's actually pretty amazing how broad his vocabulary is, because 6 months ago he had a 90% blockage of his adenoids... I couldn't imagine how much he'd be talking if he DIDN'T have medical issues! ...My family used to think I was crazy because I would explain something to Julius, or I would squat down to his level and explain why he could/couldn't do something. For the longest time he thought we would have to squat together to converse... Now everyone in the family (the ones who thought I was nuts) now squat to his level and ask him to look them in the eyes as I have always done... 

...Also speaking softer than him always caught his attention (since he couldn't hear very well). It also taught him he didn't always have to yell after having his surgery. His psychologist said he could be one of those crazy kids who graduate at 10... Not into that, because the kid needs to have a childhood, however I am trying my best to teach him new things... Today we painted with watercolors instead of finger paint which he has never done and LOVED.... always looking for something new to pique his interest! I truly appreciate your insight and I appreciate the offer to turn to you for help!

So far so good; Angelique is already doing many of the things her little son needs, despite pressure to maintain what society thinks of as 'age-appropriate childrearing strategies', and I try to reinforce this. 

Aunt Annie: You hold your ground- sounds like you are doing all the right things. I found my gifted son made me a good parent because he wouldn't stand for anything else. With a gifted child you HAVE to be respectful, and authentic, and all those things I talk about in the blog. A long as you're paying attention to his actual needs rather than what's expected, you will be fine! But I am here when you want to talk something over.

At Julius' age, mine started to refuse to be
photographed. See him pushing away from
me? There are years in which all I have is
a school photo of him, mostly scowling.
Having been through the gifted-child experience, I could have put money on Angelique hitting a wall at some stage- and a month or so later, this was in my message box.

Angelique: Ok, so you told me if I ever needed advice I could ask you... I'm about to lose my mind and I'm desperate, so here I am! 

I'm not exactly sure how I am supposed to deal with Julius' emotional issues... It seems like they are MUCH more extreme then other 2 year olds his age. His feelings are hurt, and he'll tell you exactly how it has hurt him- and he is now starting to take his frustrations out on his brother. 

Early obsessions: normal.
My son was obsessed with
Thomas the Tank Engine
(here he is as the Fat
Controller for Book Week!)
His OCD and anxiety has been MAGNIFIED with his brother lately (his little brother has been in and out of hospitals the last 3 months so Julius is having problems dealing. I am trying to do things to make him feel special, and giving him special time with just me and him.) But he freaks when his brother touches his things, or does something that he thinks in his little gifted mind is unacceptable. I can't help but laugh sometimes when he tells his brother "No hands, baby Aidan, that's my stuff", like the baby will understand, and gives him a baby toy instead. 

SOOO I guess my main question is, how in the world do you deal with the different emotional issues, and how am I supposed to discipline a 2-year-old who is WAY past the whole time out 

Aughh, being a mom of a gifted kid is hard work.... almost as hard as his baby brother's medical issues! The 3 of us were all crying in the living room the other day, so I'm asking for advice from the best person I know for this! Thank you again for your insight and being an amazing source of info for me!

Poor Angelique. Here's the strategy I dreamed up for her.

Aunt Annie:  Well, the first thing you need is a HUG!


Wow, you really are copping it, aren't you? Look, I'm not a great believer in time out these days. I used to use it myself, but I think its main value was to let ME cool down. 'Time in' is actually more settling for the child- i.e. where you separate him physically from whatever he's doing that totally SUCKS (kicking and screaming if necessary), and then spend time with him. 

So with Julius, who is so advanced intellectually and verbally, you actually have a slight advantage here- you can use more complex 4/5-yr-old concepts when talking him through the terrible twos. Yes, he is being a completely normal 2-yr-old emotionally- bright 2-yr-olds can be VERY out there when they lose the plot. IT WILL STOP. He WILL grow out of it.

If you can hold it together enough to NARRATE what's happening without value judgments, it will help. Set a boundary. Then 
try talking and acknowledging the feelings, plus reinforcing acceptable ways to express those feelings.

So, say the baby has his toy. You stop his hands from whatever inappropriate thing they're doing to the baby, hold him so he can't do it again, but lovingly, and say calmly and firmly "I see that the baby has your toy and I see that you have some big feelings happening. I won't let you hit the baby (or grab things from the baby, or shout at the baby). If you want to hit, you can hit this pillow (or tear this paper, or shout and stamp your feet outside)." 

When the rage subsides a bit... "Can you tell me about the big feelings when the baby takes your toys? Are you angry? Or are you sad?" And let him talk. 

You can introduce the word jealousy, acknowledge that the baby is taking a lot of your time and that he's sad about it, tell him you understand. Maybe you can talk about your own childhood or some other relatives' childhoods, how they had little brothers/sisters and were jealous, but are glad they have a sibling now. Be real. Be authentic.

Another way of letting him release feelings is with puppets. Maybe you could get a baby puppet and act out the baby taking his toys, and let him work out some ways to deal with it. If you can introduce some humour, he will really appreciate it!
Mine melted down if not given
real tools and treated with
 respect for his intellectual age.

It does sound as though he is particularly sensitive. Many very, very bright children share some of the extreme sensitivities of kids with Asperger's Syndrome- my brother is a perfect example. He would melt down over crazy stuff like my mother feeding him peas- he hated hard stuff in his mouth. And me? I still melt down over conflicting noises, like someone talking to me over the TV, or someone who has the radio and TV on at once. Now I am NOT saying Julius has anything like that, but some of the strategies can be very useful with hypersensitive kids.

Try to avoid overstimulating him. Keep your environmental colours fairly neutral, try not to have too much mess around (hahahahaha very funny with a baby and a 2 yr old, I know!), avoid loud music playing, have safe places for Julius to retreat to AWAY from the baby. If the baby is driving him nuts, buy a low-rise playpen and put JULIUS'S TOYS in there, so the baby can't get them but he can. 

It's VERY important that you have firm, clear boundaries around what is not acceptable with the baby, and with you. Have you read Janet Lansbury's page about 'No Bad Children- Toddler discipline without shame'? Go to and look in her most popular posts. Emotionally, Julius is 2. Intellectually, he is way above that, but you need to deal with the toddler emotions in a toddler-appropriate way.

Have a think about all this and get back to me!

Well, Angelique messaged me back within a matter of hours.

Angelique: THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU... So I am going to be printing that blog and putting it on my fridge!

It's nice to know this won't be my life forever and that this will end. Some days it doesn't feel like that, but it's nice to know it won't always be this hard! I guess once we are through this stage we'll go on to a different problem.
Julius DOES have some super sensitivities (that's actually what raised my concern and what got me mentioning something to the Dr, who then sent us to the psych). Noise is a BIG thing- and with a baby who is crying a portion of the day from pain, THIS drives Julius NUTS! He'll yell at the baby "STOP CRYING" constantly, and then freak out when Aidan falls asleep because he thinks he did something wrong- so he'll yell at the baby to "WAKE UP" because he's concerned! Asperger's was something we were looking at. The kiddo is VERY particular in a lot that he does, which I'm trying not to let get too obsessive. 

So it's pretty amazing today... just by saying "I won't let you <fill in the blank> with the baby", it has totally changed the extent to which he tries to push his limits. Who knew those 4 words could change it?! I guess I'm personally struggling with the fact that he understands more then he should, but is doing things anyway (being 2). I guess I just have to remind myself that he's two- even though he acts older, he's still two.

I truly do appreciate your insight and cannot thank you enough... I actually have one of those big round play pens that have a door, that I bought after I had the baby. I took it out this morning and Julius has LOVED it! He has played in there (baby free), and I set it so the door is on the inside so he comes and goes as he wants and yet his things are "safe." He loves it, so I think I'll just keep it out for him.

I'm printing out what you wrote and sharing it with my husband and mom... you are amazing at what you do thank you!

Whew. I was just gobsmacked that this worked so quickly! Toddler parents, if you haven't read that Janet Lansbury post, skedaddle over there right now. Between Janet's understanding of respectful parenting and my understanding of giftedness, I reckon we've got this one nailed.

I replied to Angelique:

Aunt Annie: Oh Angelique, you made me cry. I am so pleased that what I said to you worked- though I'm not surprised!
The divide between emotional and intellectual maturity is probably the hardest thing to grasp about many gifted children. He still needs you to be a strong guiding hand on the boundary fence, regardless of his ability to talk and think in a somewhat precocious manner. 

Later on, this will become an ability to reason and manipulate and argue in a frighteningly logical and assertive way, and you will need to be on your toes. Get ready to say "My job as your mum is to make sure you are able to be happy when you grow up. I know from experience that if I let you do this, it will make you unhappy later on, so I won't let you do it." (Followed by real examples, real stories- always give your evidence.) That strategy saved me on several occasions with my strong-willed, argumentative son. Be ready!

Also I want to congratulate you for your perception and calmness in seeing that Julius' sensitivities are beyond the 'average' and seeking professional help. Denial that there's a problem has never been helpful for a child- you have done the best and bravest thing for your son. Learning how to handle his sensitivities early will be so helpful for his development and give him the best chance to realise his amazing potential. Well done, you!

And she came back almost at once with this:

Angelique: Haha... well, reading what YOU put made ME cry! It's always nice to know that I'm not the only one going through this and that this stage WILL end!

His ability to argue & manipulate situations at 2 scares me because he can already get his point across... I'm in deep trouble when he's a teenager.

I have to confess... I'm totally one of those moms who will put my kids and their needs WAY before my pride & feelings. But we knew Julius was "different" when he was rolling at 2 months & crawling at 4 months, putting his toys away in the correct spots at 8 months etc... It just got more apparent when he could talk, so I took him to the Dr's. I would rather do what I can now to be able to get the best future for my kid. Thanks for everything!

And thanks to Angelique too, for letting me share her problem with other readers. She is so right about the gifted teenager- if you haven't nailed the relationship with the gifted child before puberty, your learning curve will be sending you backwards at a million miles an hour. Boundaries, parents, boundaries! Don't let that silver tongue fool you! If you label the gifted child 'cute' and allow him/her to get away with murder, you are asking for trouble.

Just sayin'!


  1. Wow, thank you, Annie, for recommending my "No Bad Kids" post so highly! (When you said on FB that you "gonged" me, I thought it would be about disagreeing with the way Rick Ackerly and I presented "gifted"! And I was going to say, "so glad we finally disagree about something, the mutual admiration society is getting a little dull.") ;)

    But seriously, Annie, your advice to Angelique is FANTASTIC! And it is so helpful to hear about your interactions with your son. I truly believe that every child deserves this level of respect and sensitivity. Yes, the brighter the child, the more sensitive he or she usually is...but ALL children need this...don't you think?

    1. Janet, I absolutely agree that every child deserves this respect and compassion. I think the things is, when you have a gifted child it really throws you. They behave in such an atypical way that you forget- you actually forget- that they're just 2, or 4, or whatever. They press your buttons more efficiently than other children. You can very easily find yourself trying adult strategies on their emotional problems and giving them more freedom than they want (despite what they say) or need. It's a matter of merging your approach so that you give respect at the right level, and boundaries at the right level.

      And that is HARD!

  2. I have struggled with my Daughter for a long tie i have been trying to test her to see where she was lacking. The only spot lacking was social emotional miles stones. every one told me i was crazy my daughter is smart. I never thought she wasn't smart I just saw the struggles me and her were having at hoe and felt this can not be normal. I have just started to realize she is ahead in all areas but the social emotional. she is not even overly low. My daughter rolled over at 3 months from belly to back. she crawled at almost 7 months and walked at 8 almost 9 months old. she was talking two word sentences by a year. she has now tryed to understand complex ideas like why my step son goes back and forth to him mom's house. she wants o understand family postions mom dad brother sister is accomlished so she wants to know every one else and extended family members and how their momies and dadies are and how do they all connect. she can not read yet i fear she will be pleged with my dyslexia as well. Me and her Dad have extreamly high IQ's but were never nutured the right way so our disablities covered up out gifts. I do not want that to happen to my daughter. I want to know her learning curve and how to get her engaged rather than bored and out of control. She to had adniod problems I am not she what her hearing was really like had her tested but the only thing they said was shallow vibrations in her ears. thats when we found the adnoid problem. this little girl is my world and you know i want her to have the best chance at life and what it truly has to offer I had to fight for all the education i got. I am working to become a teacher to hopfully bring new light to the education world. but i want to know more about Gifted kids. do they all have socail emotional problems like my daughter. she gets so frustrated when her friends do not understand her, she is bossy and some tomes down right mean. I feel at times that i am raising a bully. She is very OCD and has to have things a certian way and she gets upset when things do not work her way. she is still trying to figure out how to play with others and not be overly rough. she also want to be an adult all the time be just like mom and do everything mom does. this makes things complicated when it comes to her brother because she want to be his mom to. I let her help where she can she loves changing diapers she is three and can almost do it all by her self. I think she stuggles with pretend play at time becasue she know that it is not real. she struggles to play alone she wants me there to most the time just watch and validate what she is doing. but it is an all day chore to just care for her. I am in an online school and have my step son and my son then house work to do. she just make the balance not work. i wish letting my house go a little was an option but sadly right now i am low income and subject to inspection. we have three really bright people in a house and all three have orginization problems. it is a struggle daily in our house hold. have any suggestions our comferting words.

    1. I want to deal with each point you've made.

      First, have you heard of 'asynchronous development'? It's very common in gifted children. Their social milestones are way behind, while their intellectual milestones (and often their physical ones too) are way ahead.

      So it sounds like your daughter is fitting that pattern.

      The struggles you describe are also common very early. Gifted kids learn how to press your buttons and manipulate you very quickly. I feel your pain, my son was the same!

      Don't worry about the reading. The important thing at this age is to read to her as much as possible and play games with letters and words. There's a book called 'Reading Magic' by Mem Fox which will set you on the right path if you can fight your way through your own difficulties with the written word.

      A lot of the questions you ask are answered in different blog posts I've made, which I've put together here:

      The curiosity about big, complex questions is also typical. To keep her from getting bored with learning, it's important to know what she's currently interested in and then feed that with the books you read her. Membership of your local library is vital!

      But at the same time, encourage her to hypothesise, in other words ask her why SHE thinks something happens. You need to encourage her creativity too. Don't be afraid of letting her get bored enough to find something to entertain herself! Encourage her imagination, and if she's into drawing or making things or music or ANYTHING creative, encourage it.

      It's VERY important to have firm boundaries. You MUST know why you're saying no, and be prepared to explain that to her. Don't be afraid of her rage when you say no. Any time you're saying NO, be firm and explain why and then just endure the fallout.

      You can say things like 'I hear that you're cross with me because I said no. It's okay to be angry but it's not okay to hit/kick' (or any other physical behaviour that comes across).

      Gifted children often do have issues with perfectionism which can come across as OCD, but those issues can also be a sign of high functioning autism ie Aspergers Syndrome and other syndromes. If you feel she's becoming overly concerned and obsessive, it would pay to take her to the GP for a referral to a child psychologist who might be able to give you more strategies and find out if a diagnosis applies.

      Gifted kids also tend to want to be leaders, but rarely have the social skills to make people want to follow them! You can guide her with this to some extent by teaching her how to enter play but she will probably only learn through hard experience. It can be tough socially for a gifted child.

      I do urge you to read all the entries on my Gifted page. I'm sure you'll recognise your child there!

      It's a hard road for us as parents, but hang in there. Gifted children become spectacular adults if we can just help them navigate the difficulties of being way older in their heads than their peers all through school.

      Hope this helps!

  3. HI Aunt Annie,
    As I am reading these posts, I can definitely relate. My daughter is not quite two years old just yet (she turns two in May), so her communication skills mentioned above are still a little behind. Although she is definitely intelligent. She rolled over at 3 months, started saying "mom" at 4 months, walking at 10-11 months. She can now count to 15, she knows to count when picking up items to put away. She knows her main colors, she talks in 3-4 words sentences (I can't reach it. Leave Malena alone. I see Nina, Natalie again. Malena get dressed too. I don't like it. Mommy/daddy, whats that sound?), things like that. Which is awesome. I have a niece, Natalie, who is 10 weeks younger that my daughter, and a nephew who is 2 1/2 yrs old. When she is around them, it is definitely pretty obvious that she is advanced. And like those other little ones, she's also sensitive to certain loud noises- loud cars/trucks, motorcycles, she HATES public bathrooms with all the flushing and hand dryers.

    Anyways, my main concern is how do I effectively discipline her? Like Angelique, I get down to her level to look her in the eye in order to talk to her and let her know what she did wrong, why she shouldn't do it, etc.I always felt it was important to explain why she was in trouble, so she understood. Rarely, would I have to put her on a time out. Just the threat of a time out would be enough. But lately, (the last two weeks) my tactics have not been working. Now she screams when I tell her no, and gets louder if I try to talk to her. If I take something away from her (i.e. my makeup or a fork and tries running with it), she just screams. I know she is trying to get my attention, because she will usually get close to me and scream. And I can see out of my peripheral that she is giving me that "look at me" sad look on her face. I don't want to reinforce her screaming, so many times I try to ignore her. If she keeps screaming, and my talking to her doesn't work, then I have put her in the room, close the door a little and let her finish screaming. The first instant that I hear silence, is when I go into the room and I ask "are you done screaming/crying?" She says yes, and I let her know that's not ok, and I get her to repeat "no screaming". I then give her a hug, hold her for a minute then put her down to play. In cases, when she screams a demand, I firmly tell her to stop and that "screaming will not get you what you want," and I tell her how to say/ask nicely, "can I have water, please?" (I can't stand kids who don't have simple manners). LOL There are times, that I KNOW she is pushing me, because if I ask "do you want a timeout," She will tell me "yes." If you ask, you shall receive, right?! LOL

    I know follow-through is important when it comes to discipline. So I, at least, try to keep that in mind. As well as just simply explaining what she did wrong, and why she can't do that. But what do I do NOW that she is TESTING me. There are many times when I just want to cry because I don't know how to get her to respond to me, and I KNOW that she just needs ME to respond to her a certain way.

    How do I get her to stop screaming? What does she need from me? Is there a more effective way to get her to respond positively?

    P.S. I really hope that I made sense =)

    Thank you!!

  4. Hi Danielle. You sound to me like you're doing a great job. Toddlers of this age are hell bent on testing us; yours is doing this very thoroughly!

    With the screaming, I suggest a script like this. The moment she starts to scream, carry her to her room as you've been doing, very calmly. Then leave. When the yelling stops, go back and say quietly 'I won't let you scream in the same room as me because it hurts my ears. If you need to scream, you can take yourself to your room or I will help you go there like I did today.'

    On future occasions, try to anticipate the problem. When you say or do something that you sense frustrates her, remind her IMMEDIATELY - even before you say or do what you know will upset her - that if she gets frustrated and needs to scream, she can choose to go to her room by herself or you will take her there. 'You might feel cross or frustrated by what I'm going to say next. Remember, you can go to your room or I can take you, but I won't let you scream in the same room as me. No, you can't have another bowl of ice cream because you have had your share and there won't be any left for tomorrow.' (Or whatever.)Keep explaining, but try to anticipate and short circuit her response.

    It WILL pass, but it's torment while they're in this very normal, testing toddler phase.

    I recommend Janet Lansbury's book, 'No Bad Kids - Toddler Discipline without Shame' to help you navigate this difficult time. Giftedness will make her extra-good at pressing your buttons, so you have to be extra-good at cutting her off at the pass. Good luck!


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