Your gifted adolescent is astounding. She learns things so easily. She picks up new skills with ease. She has empathy, compassion, and insight well beyond her years. You think she spends too much time Snapchatting, YouTubing, and laying about. You see that she could be making straight A’s, sitting first chair in band, connecting with friends a lot more often, getting her chores done without reminders, etc.

Sound familiar?

It’s times like this when the P word starts to show up.

“But you have so much potential! If only you’d (insert desired behavior here)…

Your gifted adolescent is adept at critical thinking. That skill can often be firstly and foremostly pointed inwardly. Gifted teens tend to be in a chronic state of self-examination, self-assessment, and self-criticism. Their perfectionism and idealism lead them to feel they are falling short over and over and over. They replay conversations wishing they’d said something different. They frequently internalize others’ emotions – especially if that person is disappointed in them.

That internalization process is fraught with opportunity for cognitive distortions. Taking that perceived disappointment and interpreting it as proof that there is something innately lacking in them? It’s all too common across ages and backgrounds, and it’s especially acute in gifted teens.

Your gifted teen is working hard to figure out how to meet the expectations set up by internally manufactured perfectionism. And when you say, “You have so much potential…”, they hear,

“You are falling short.”

“You are disappointing me again.”

“You are a failure.”

“You aren’t good enough.”

I know that’s not what you mean when you think about their potential. I know you see the inherent possibilities in their lives and want them to be the happiest, most fulfilled version of themselves. But that’s not what they’ll hear.

Doing away with the P word does away with an accidental insult. Instead of focusing on what they might become one day, it can be helpful to focus on what’s most important to them today. If they’re not making the grades, you might find out what their expectations are for themselves. You may be surprised to learn that they have plans they haven’t shared with you. You may find out they haven’t yet considered how current performance affects future options. You may find out that they have a teacher they don’t like, an ongoing problem with classmates, or a set of fascinations with things that aren’t being taught in school.

Yes, your gifted teenager has scads of potential. Yes, you can see possibilities of which they aren’t yet aware. Yes, it’s frustrating and painful to see them struggle.

But the P word isn’t going to help them become more of themselves. It’s going to lead to them feeling bad about themselves.

So. Right now. Commit to doing away with the P word. Your teen will feel better about themselves as a result.

Minerva and Keanu,

It was great to hear y’all talk yesterday about your fascination with the changes you’ve made. Sherm has managed to surprise you with his initiative, and the resulting lighter household mood has created all sorts of opportunities: relaxed conversations with your other kids, pleasure reading, and consistently increasing moments where you realize that everything’s going to be ok.

What a shock when you came home late on Tuesday only to find that Sherm had not only emptied the dishwasher without being asked but had started cooking dinner! Life goal achieved. He has gone four consecutive days without insulting his sister, though he couldn’t resist insulting her shoes when she left them on the stairs. His teachers are reporting that he’s turning everything in. Zero zeroes! And all of this is happening because you made the choice to move from that dark adversarial dynamic into this experimental collaborative relationship with him.

He’s definitely not ready to be turned loose without any more parenting, and I’m sure there are going to be lots of challenging moments in the future. We’ve learned, though, that he is ready to accept more responsibility than you thought possible and that he has big goals of his own that he wants to pursue. MIT?!?! He’s entirely capable. Huge kudos to you for eliminating the word ‘potential’ from your vocabularies and for accepting the simple fact that every time you used it, he felt criticized, demoralized.

He’s got your sense of humor, Minerva, and he’s got your vivid imagination, Keanu. And because of the changes you’re making, he may slough off the other pieces that you never intended to teach – the perfectionism, the tendency to withdraw when stressed. It’s been wonderful seeing all of you practice self-awareness and allow yourselves to breathe, calm, respond rather than react. When Sherm told you to take a deep breath in traffic the other day? Pure gold.

We’re on the right track.

As his ability to manage school, chores, emotions, relationships, and health increase, you’re going to be able to back off more and more. There’s a lot of joy and freedom in that for y’all and for your other two children. Your trust in him can continue to grow, and you can have more fun together.

I appreciate all of your hard work, and I am in awe of Sherm’s talents and insight. Thank you for trusting me to walk with your family through this transition.

Gordon

Sherm,

I’m looking forward to our appointment on Friday. It’s been great seeing you relax, explore your inner world, brainstorm about possible futures, and take the pressure off of yourself to be perfect.

Here’s hoping you got enough sleep last night, because I know you have a lot on your plate today. Your little brother probably isn’t going to be any more agreeable than usual, and your sister probably isn’t going to shorten her marathon mirror sessions. Your Dad is rushing around, and your Mom is hiding out in her bedroom. Not five minutes goes by without someone yelling something, and all you want is some time to chill before going to another day of school.

Once you’re there, it’s car doors slamming, teachers pointing, and you wondering, “Do I have my ELA homework in my bag?”, “Is Louis going to give me hell again about my acne?” That sinking feeling inside while you compose your face and posture in an effort not to draw attention. Jostling, peals of laughter, what’s ups, and the bell.

Of course you have the math figured out. You had it figured out before you even started ninth grade. Ms. Lawrence wants your full attention though, so you stare in the correct direction, pencil poised above paper, maybe doodling, maybe dutifully note-taking, and let your thoughts drift. Fantasy realms – characters who are actually living their lives – places where you actually have some control over your day and your destiny – adults who aren’t constantly crying about your potential. If one more person talks about your “potential”, you’re going to throw them through a window. Enough with the Potential talk already!

The day blurs into every other day – lots of boredom, self-analysis, self-criticism, anxiety, micro and macro humiliations, the occasional laugh with Spencer, Lucas, or Greta, and then, finally, Mr. Walther’s class. He’s the only teacher you can stand, and he’s awesome. You’re huge into science anyway, but Mr. Walther really gets why science is cool, and he loves talking with you about time travel, plasma, and Foucault once you get done with lab. It’s so great that you have science and band at the end of the day. They’re total lifesavers.

It must be hard squeezing into your chair in the trombone section. I say that because you always leave room for the demon critic who chastises your every note and intonation, who excoriates your tempo, and who tells you just to quit because you’re never going to be Wynton Marsalis. When demon critic takes the day off, band is hella fun. Demon critic needs to take more days off. And there are friends here, people who don’t poke and tease and make drama.

Riding the bus home, when the other kids will leave you alone, is often the best part of the schoolday. The earbuds go in, and the metal comes on. The brain takes a break, drifting. Unless MacKenzie or Raven looked your way, in which case you float into different thoughts altogether.

Once home, it’s the usual. Grab a snack, watch some YouTube, and start on homework. Every day, Mom is over your shoulder, asking about your day, demanding some kind of something from you – maybe to do a chore, tell her about your math homework, or give you a hard time about calling your sister’s neon shoes stupid. The work gets done, but it’s hard to stay focused. You’d rather be doing so many other things. Sometimes you get the work done, and sometimes you pretend you did, and sometimes you just can’t care. Then it’s dinner, with all the chatter and the food you have to eat even if you don’t like it. Then comes the only time of day when you can do your own thing.

In your room, if your parents haven’t taken away your phone and computer again, you finally get to open Fortnight while texting with Brandon and Spencer. Snapchat is so over, but you still check it out for a front row seat to the worst dramas high school has to offer. And while you aren’t being named or attacked, you still get caught up in it. Your anxiety pulls you in.

Eventually one of your parents is going to barge in and tell you to stop enjoying yourself and go to bed. Like you’re a child. You can sometimes shrug it off and just go to sleep, but other nights you’re lying there for hours – replaying conversations from the day and reexperiencing the embarrassments, playing out fantasies, worrying about what isn’t finished for math in the morning, or just picking yourself apart, demon critic tearing at you like a saber-toothed surgeon until you don’t want to be you anymore.

Sleep, wake, repeat.

The good news is that change is happening. All of this was much worse only a few weeks ago. You weren’t sleeping nearly as much. You were missing school WAY too much. You almost lost first chair. You hadn’t had access to the internet since Christmas, when you told your parents to fuck off before locking yourself in your room and hurting yourself to release the pressure. Hard to believe that was only 12 weeks ago. It feels like a totally different person did those things.

Now you’re paying attention to your feelings as they rise and fall. You’re aware of demon critic when it shows up, and about half the time you can make it disappear or at least quiet down. As unbelievable as it is, your parents are on board with this new way of doing things – If you’re managing your own life, then they will leave you alone and let you do what you need to do for yourself. It’s been a challenge to put yourself in charge of managing school, chores, emotions, relationships, and health, but you’re doing an amazing job if you may say so yourself!

You are taking advantage of the opportunities counseling offers, and you’re on your way to becoming the person you want to be. You have identified your values, strengths, and challenges. You have figured out a ton of strategies to get through the rough parts of the day and to enjoy the shit out of the good parts. Your parents don’t even know about your art project, and it’s going to be fun to surprise them with it.

You’re feeling, for the first time you can remember, like your life is on the right track, like any day can be a good day. You are dreaming of bigger things – college, moving out, an AlienWare computer, visiting Peru, and building your own life.

I appreciate you, Sherm, and I think you’re a phenomenal human. Thank you for trusting me to do this work with you.

Gordon