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Critical, demanding parents can damage gifted children

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WASHINGTON -- Gifted children and teenagers often are intense about their endeavors, but they're likely to be as mentally healthy as their less able classmates, psychologists reported over the weekend.

All bets are off, though, if the kids have critical parents who demand stellar performance every day; that approach can create nail-biting perfectionists who fear taking risks and fall short of their potential.

"Having high standards is not the problem," says New York City psychologist Linda Hamilton. "It's focusing on external success" rather than a child's effort and how much he has learned. She spoke on a panel at the American Psychological Association meeting here.

Creatively gifted children with overly demanding parents are terrified of making mistakes, says Hamilton, who consults for the School of American Ballet. The school recently started seminars to teach parents positive ways of dealing with their kids' talents, she says.

"I've seen some of these children who are oblivious to their personal accomplishments" because it's always about the next hurdle they're expected to jump, Hamilton says.

In a new study, parents rate their gifted offspring as more prone to anxiety, depression and psychosomatic complaints than children in the normal intelligence range, says psychologist Bruce Bracken of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Although gifted kids often are intense, they can't be distinguished from average-ability classmates in social skills, behavior problems or anger levels, Bracken says.

Some call the perfectionist/maladjusted label a bad rap for gifted children. "People expect these kids to be unhealthy, but it's a myth," says psychologist Wayne Parker of Scottsdale, Ariz.

He has tracked 820 middle-school students in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gifted and Talented Youth program. About one-quarter of them are unhealthy perfectionists compared with one-third in a matched control group of less able children.

Also, there's a cultural bias against intellectually driven behavior, Parker says. "We applaud the same perfectionism in young athletes."

Parents can tell whether their child has crossed the line into self-destructive perfectionism, Parker says. "If a kid has high standards and it leads to greater happiness and achievement, he's fine. If the standards get in the way of his being successful and happy, he's not."

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