The Parents’ Pain: From disenfranchised to franchised.

Layers of complexity exist around the pain and the root of that pain for the parent of a struggling gifted child. Everything from the disenfranchised nature of their pain experience (who am I to have pain?) to the belief that I somehow created my child’s circumstance. When a parent is faced with their gifted child having a serious mental health problem or serious academic disturbance like a sudden decline in academic performance and/or motivation, shock and denial can be the result. What lies beneath that immediate reaction for the gifted parent fluctuates between everything from anger to a deep sadness, a whole range of emotional turmoil. Here, beneath that shock and denial lies the uncovered story of that pain and how that pain continues to be disenfranchised for the parent (disenfranchised pain refers to a sense that I am not entitled to have these feelings i.e. my pain is not valid).

There comes a time in your professional career, usually after many years, when certain skills, experiences and understandings sort themselves out in terms of priority. One key awareness for me as a counselor for the gifted and talented emerged around the complex, often denied, disenfranchised, deep and incredible pain experienced by the parents of gifted children. And I am not limiting that painful experience only to children presenting with a significant mental health concern or a severe achievement problem. That struggle exists for many parents of these exceptional children regardless of how severe the child’s struggle appears on the surface. And I am also not saying that the realization of a parent’s suffering escaped me over the years. For me the parent’s pain subsisted along with a host of other seemingly equal challenging issues – let’s say a mountain of them (which is a contributing factor to the disenfranchisement of their pain). So, for me, prioritizing that pain and its relevance to change and growth for those parents shifted over time. Parents of the gifted have a lot to contend with, so when they seek help it’s not usually just one simple pressing issue. These parents are often dealing with problems related to many systems like school, family, health, financial and mental health concerns and of course their child’s gifted nature. These struggles all being a truly exceptional child experience, overwhelming parents and they not knowing where to begin. And even not knowing where to begin for me, the counselor, too at times.  I won’t deny that experience.

For me, working with families of gifted children is an exceptional experience, not a normal counseling experience. I am talking about working with human nature in an extreme. And I believe the process of counseling the gifted must adjust to that extreme. This becomes a specialized and deliberate experience for all people and systems involved. So, sorting through these complexities, nuances, and the needed adjustments to the counseling process in and of itself can mask which issues are of the highest order. These parents, often intense and vulnerable people, live without compassion and understanding not just from the external world but from their own internal awareness and/or lack of awareness of their struggle.  I say this not as a criticism as some would, but as a validation to their extreme experience and their situations as parents with the highest of regard for what they must endure.

With all this complexity and exceptionality in mind, here exists the dilemma. Buried under this avalanche of issues, the parent of the gifted child, not unlike any parent of a child with special needs, is not readily going to acknowledge their own pain when their child is struggling. Parents of exceptional children usually are desperately trying to meet these exceptional needs in many systems of life for their child. This rat race of meeting needs exhausts the parent. In today’s world parents of any child can be exhausted. Now add on having an exceptional child with complex special needs. What parent has time to feel their pain, let alone feel entitled to that pain? And for the parent of the gifted child being entitled to pain regarding your child has its own convolution. In many cases the gifted child doesn’t manifest significant life struggles in the early years (although that does occur and brings another host of issues). The myths that occur surrounding a gifted child’s vulnerability and nature are plentiful. Statements like “why does your child need any help, they are gifted?” Doing it on your own is a badge of honor for the gifted child. Being perfect is the world view of these children. Parents of the gifted are often seen as demanding and elitist at times. Parents of gifted children can have an inherent extreme desire to meet all of their child’s needs (that alone can decimate a parent). I could go on here, no need. The point being, the discrepancy between what a parent contends with in raising a gifted child extends far beyond what they or the public can conceptualize.

These myths are all part of the gifted experience and how giftedness intrinsically creates this paradigm of mythology. Here remains the dilemma for a parent of a gifted child when dealing with their pain. If a parent has come to believe that because their child is gifted they have no right to experience pain, basically because they should be thankful, then how do they validate their pain? If a parent has come to believe that their child should be able to do this…and at the same time are overwhelmed with meeting needs, then what? If a parent constantly hears that they are elitists and demanding because they want to challenge their child appropriately, how do they reconcile? In my experience, these conflicting beliefs, experiences, and challenges all add up and the result manifests as nothing short of pain, and pain that is not easily justified or identifiable i.e. the disenfranchised pain.

This disenfranchisement becomes a terrible and painful bind. The parent caught between a child with complex needs and a belief system coming from both the external world and their internal world of beliefs that this pain is not legitimate. Ugh, yes I mean ugh. The parents’ suffering is now lost in a barrage of issues confounding the situation. Enough! I said one day, I will get nowhere in my work if I don’t raise the priority of this parent’s pain to the forefront of our process together. And why?  Because the parent is central to the child’s wellbeing. They are the primary person in that child’s life. Yes, we all say this truth, but we don’t practice this belief. How do I know this? I know it from experience, and that matters. I know it from how the parent suffers and makes self-sacrifices. I know it from what I have seen happen over 30 years of learning, that when I go to that painful place where the parent most likely is alone and I stand beside their pain, everything changes. They feel valid, they feel empowered, they open themselves up to the process of change and working together. Oh, and trust me it’s not easy to go there with a parent sometimes. They fight me, they don’t believe me, they struggle with having to face this pain themselves. But I know now there is no other way, these parents of gifted children must be understood and supported. You know, when I first started writing this piece, I really wanted to write something that would shed light on how complex and difficult it is for these parents to be understood, not just by the gifted community but by the world. Not sure I got there, but what I did receive from sharing this struggle confirms what I hold dearest in my belief system about change. That no change can occur without a deep understanding of our mutual and unique struggles as human beings. With this understanding being fostered only through a relationship of awareness and empathy. And the result of prioritizing the pain of parents of gifted children can be best summarized in the dictionary definition of the word “Franchise” as follows: “Freedom or immunity from some burden or restriction vested in a person or group” “The right to be…”.