Imagine two movies side by side: One has a relatively bright individual walking alone through the woods on a sunny day. There may be some caution, but there is also a whole lot of enjoyment. Imagine the serene look on his face as he casually observes his surroundings and continues along his path. On the other side, imagine an individual who has a catalog of information looped in the back of his mind about poison ivy, venomous snakes, on hiking as the third most dangerous outdoor activity, as well as a vivid picture of every horror movie set in the woods. Now, this individual is quite capable of pushing that catalog of information to the back of his mind, but it takes effort. Then, he certainly can enjoy the woods, but not without some mild anxiety as he watches for signs of trouble. The same "If...then..." logical thinking that makes someone quite formidable in academic situations can be her undoing in social/emotional situations. This kind of thinking may be seen as pathological by some, and, perhaps, it may become so without proper guidance for the gifted student. However, research indicates that gifted individuals may be quite emotionally healthy despite the extra sensitivities and extreme reactions.
As parents and teachers of gifted students, we must realize the potential complexity of social interactions for observant children and help them manage the "loop." If we understand how observant and how fast a child is with social information, then we can mentor him/her through managing social stress:
1. Teach children about themselves. If they are sensitive, teach them to weigh what people say and guard their feelings with an intellectual filter. Teach them to deflect hurtful words, misdirected anger, and insensitive humor instead of internalizing it. However, teach them to trust their intuition and to not excuse bad behavior/abusive behavior because they know that they are too sensitive. If they are extreme, teach them to recognize and moderate their reactions until they have a chance to express themselves without restraint in an appropriate environment. Teach them to ask themselves if they are in an extreme situation or just having an extreme response. If they are keenly observant, remind them that there are many reasons for people's reactions and that they cannot read minds.
2. Teach children that people are flawed. Teach them that the black and white thinking that works in the physical world (on/off) and lower level mathematics does not apply to social situations. Teach them that no one really knows what to do all the time. Teach them to be forgiving of others and themselves. Model mercy AND proper boundaries.
3. Give children a list of appropriate responses to say in awkward situations. Explicitly teach children about different responses in different situations: how to get off the phone, how to disagree, how to acknowledge a faux pas, etc. Offer them a menu of things to say when they don't know what to say, but avoid cliches.
4. Teach children how to offer and accept an apology.
5. Teach children to look for a compassion point and to focus on others. This helps combat the need to be right and self-consciousness.
6. Teach children to NOT model what's on "tweenie" shows or adult humor. Observant children will easily model behavior that "gets a laugh" in order to get a laugh from others or break social tension. Hence, one negative manifestation of gifted behavior is being rude to adults. We have to explicitly teach them that television behaviors are not acceptable for real life. Example: Being sassy to your parent or teacher is disrespectful. They won't laugh. Moreover, adult humor like sarcasm isn't funny out of a child's mouth.
7. Teach global/divergent thinkers to acknowledge the transition. Often in conversation, a global/divergent thinker is inspired by something someone says. The global thinker speaks his idea out loud, and it sounds inapropos, making the speaker seem odd or rude for changing the subject abruptly. Simply acknowledging what was said and that it inspired another line of thinking is all it takes.
8. Explicitly teach boundaries. Allow children to have their own feelings but to express them appropriately, respecting both themselves and others. Teach them that boundaries are flexible based on trust and different for different situations. Model boundaries and talk about social situations in terms of boundaries.
Above all, respect your child's energy limits in social situations and help her to understand that feelings of isolation do not mean that she is, indeed, alone in the world.