Mindfulness and the Gifted
By Linnea Pyne
Those who spend time with, raise, teach, and care for young gifted people agree that these individuals are different from their peers in both wonderful and challenging ways. The stories are anecdotal but the research is clear: The gifted person’s experience of the world is quantitatively and qualitatively different from those we might describe as more “neuro-typical” in their development. If we take a moment to empathetically step into the shoes of a gifted child or teen, it is not difficult to understand the vulnerability of these young people as they grow and develop.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool that can be used to address a variety of the needs of gifted children on several different levels and in different areas of development. I’ll go into this in a bit more detail but, first, what is Mindfulness, and how can it help a gifted child as they grow, learn, and move out into the world?
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with “what is.” It is learning to gently and non-judgmentally guide your attention to the natural unfolding of your own human experience as it occurs – sensory, emotional, and mental – which grounds you in a more direct, and often joyful, experience of life. So, right away, we see that the practice of Mindfulness offers a level of self-acceptance and self-compassion that the world around a gifted child may not.
As parents and educators, we can do our best to find the right environments for gifted children to thrive but, oftentimes, we end up having to accept that there is no “perfect” place for them to grow and learn. The public education system in the U.S. is not designed to meet their needs – socially, emotionally, or intellectually. In addition, each gifted child is different, and the more gifted the child, the more difficult this search can become. So some of the tools in the gifted student’s tool kit must serve to help them become self-aware enough to accept their differences, advocate for themselves, be resilient in the face of adversity, reach out to others for help and companionship, and have compassion for and acceptance of themselves and others. Mindfulness is one such tool that can help in all these areas.
Let’s look at some of the well-documented challenges that some gifted, particularly highly and profoundly gifted, youth can face and how Mindfulness addresses these.
Since gifted children are often asked to adapt to a world, culturally speaking, that they are out of sync with, stress levels can be higher for them from the get go, especially in unfamiliar situations. In addition, the gifted child often has very high expectations both for themselves and others that can lead to self-induced stress. Some gifted children also have an additional layer of what could be called “existential stress” whereby they become chronically worried about, for instance, global concerns like world hunger, war, or global warming.
In clinical studies, Mindfulness has been shown to actually reverse the brain patterns that are activated during biological stress. Mindfulness also helps the child become aware when unnecessary worry is taking place. Mindfulness gives gifted children and teens a “jump start” to begin recognizing when their thinking is driven by unsubstantiated fear and a vocabulary to describe the experience grounded in their physical body. In addition, the practice of Mindfulness itself has no “goal.” There is no one “right” way to do it and no measurement of success, thereby allowing the gifted child freedom from the potential inner tyranny of being “right” or “perfect” or “not disappointing anyone.”
Research has shown that we learn best in a relaxed and open state of being. Ironically, it can often be hard for gifted children to find a relaxed, open, receptive state. They tend to receive the world’s stimulus more intensely and have trouble filtering that stimulus. It is vital the gifted child have some way to return to a mind-body connection to ground his or her experience in the “here and now.” Mindfulness provides just such an anchor. As children begin to strengthen their attention and awareness in the moment, they have a visceral experience of “space” around their intense experiences. They can slowly begin to trust in their ability to “choose” their response when confronting overstimulation, rather than simply reacting to it. Mindfulness empowers them to come “home” to themselves.
3) Asynchronous Development in Executive Functioning
Many gifted children struggle with executive functioning tasks such as organization, study skills, and switching attention. According to a 2006 article published by the NIH, this appears to be attributed to a slower development of the cortex of the brain in certain areas of high IQ kids. The cortical layer starts out thinner and develops more slowly, while other areas of the gifted brain appear to be operating far more efficiently and effectively than their same age peers. And, don’t you know, Mindfulness has been shown to actually thicken the brain’s cortex! It also helps train one’s awareness of their attention, eventually giving a child or teen an increased ability to place their attention where they choose as opposed to operating on autopilot. This may be, in part, why researchers believe Mindfulness helps with ADD and other issues related to attention regulation.
4) Social Development
It is natural for everyone to have some feelings of anxiety in social situations, particularly new ones. However, if a gifted child or teen repeatedly has the experience of being misunderstood, negated or even ostracized, his or her social anxiety may increase over time. We all have the need for connection, love, and acceptance. It is wired into our human DNA. So how can Mindfulness help? First, it helps individuals become more emotionally resilient. As they begin to neutrally observe their own feelings, thoughts, and sensations, they learn about themselves. This learning gives them more perspective about situations they encounter. For instance, they may begin to recognize the internal warning signs that tell them a social situation is not right for them and ask for help to change it. If they feel rejected, they may be able to see that that person was not able to act with compassion instead of feeling they themselves are “unlikeable.” It may give a gifted teen the self-awareness to honor his or her authentic self instead of using a great deal of energy to “be funny” or “be popular” or “be pretty.”
Mindfulness does not take away our pain, emotional or physical, but it teaches us how to navigate it and to notice when we are adding to our struggles with stories like, “I am weird,” “No one likes me,” or “I guess this is because I’m gifted. I wish I were normal.” We create these stories, quite naturally, to understand our world and feel some sense of identity in it. But sometimes they no longer serve us, and Mindfulness can help us see this and open a compassionate space where once there was none. And, interestingly, in my personal experience of working with gifted children, it is that open, compassionate space where gifted children find self-love and the ability to share their authentic selves openly and joyfully with others.
So where can your child learn the practice? If you can find a Mindfulness class for your gifted child or teen, that will provide the best initial experience and a place to practice with others. Since the practice stresses non-judgment and compassion, a seasoned teacher should be able make sure that your child feels safe and welcome even if it is not a class for the gifted per se. Most of these classes do follow a structure, however, with some level of behavioral expectation. So if you child is not ready for this, there are also coaches like myself who will work to tailor at-home classes for your child and/or your family. For very young children, a kid’s yoga class is a great place to start. Yoga offers them an introduction to the mind-body awareness skill set they will use in their Mindfulness practice later on. Finally, a wonderful gift to offer any child is to learn the practice together. As a parent or teacher, I encourage you to take a class yourself, for adults or educators, and then re-teach from your own experience once you have a regular practice yourself. Because the practice is very individual in nature, it is this authentic teaching from one’s own experience that truly brings the practice to life.
Linnea is a regular Mindfulness teacher for IEA’s Academy, leads various Mindfulness classes in the LA area and consults and teaches privately. She can be reached through her company website, www.amindfullifela.com, and followed on Twitter at @LinneaPyne.
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