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Teaching gifted students stress management skills to combat stress

Teaching gifted students stress management skills to combat stress

Stress is a very real presence in all of our lives. It can be even more intense for gifted kids because of the nature of giftedness. Specifically, gifted individuals have the tendency to be more sensitive, intense, introspective and emotional. Growing up gifted is a qualitatively different experience. This can manifest itself in the complex way a gifted individual feels and emotes when confronted with stressful situations.

Consequently, it is very important that parents and educators acknowledge the added complexity of stress in gifted individuals and specifically teach these adolescents stress management skills to combat everyday stress.


Do understand stress in gifted kids

According to Baum and Nicols, the top five stressors of all adolescents and teens include school, family issues, relationships, time management and expectations. Also on the list are stressors such as peer pressure, popularity, money issues, responsibilities, competition, self-doubt, wanting to fit in, and worrying about safety and violence.

As if these are not enough issues for the typical teen to be concerned with, there are additional issues that due to the nature of giftedness, can cause added stress in gifted adolescents and teens. These include over-excitabilities, asynchrony, higher expectations because of higher capability, lack of academic challenge, over-scheduling due to being good at many things, perfectionism, difficulty finding true peers, and extreme concerns about justness and fairness.

So in addition to the typical stressors that all adolescents and teens experience, gifted individuals have an additional set of potential stress inducers.

Do be aware of how stress manifests itself

Baum and Nichols have identified five areas in which stress manifests itself outwardly in kids:

*Physiological – headaches, stomachaches, nervousness, insomnia
*Emotional – excessive crying, lashing out, hostility, anger, violence
*Relational – conflicts with family and friends, withdrawal from others
*Mental – anxiety, panic, confusion, feeling threatened or frightened, apathy
*Spiritual – submission, no way out, helplessness

At some point or another, virtually everyone has personally experienced manifestations of stress. Experienced in moderation, these are manageable and even expected. However, too much of any of these feelings, especially over an extended period of time, can be a problem. Extreme symptoms of stress can lead to conditions, such as ulcers, nervous twitches, hair loss, migraines, relationship failures, drug abuse, heart disorders, weight problems, eating disorders, depression and suicide.

As concerned educators and parents of adolescents and teens, we certainly don’t want symptoms of stress to escalate and become extreme, to the point of severe health disorders, dependence on medication, substance abuse or desolation. This is why we must teach children to manage and control their stress in order to prevent it from becoming overwhelming and a painful burden for them.

Do teach by example

It is vital to teach adolescents stress management skills to combat stress. For example, think for a moment about the concept of manners. As parents, we have to actively model and teach our children about using appropriate manners in different situations and scenarios. They generally don’t just inherit the awareness of proper social conventions. This same philosophy needs to be applied to teaching the skills of dealing with stress. Like manners, coping with stress is a learned skill that needs to be taught and modeled. Though children are often told to “chill out,” they are seldom instructed how to actually do it. How can we expect them to successfully go about “chilling out” if we haven’t taught them the tactics for doing so?

A good place to begin is by utilizing ourselves as models. If we, as adults, call attention to and acknowledge our own stress, we can explain to our children what specific strategies we are implementing in order to manage it. This is a perfect illustration of teaching through example. We are giving them more tools for their toolbox. By acknowledging and calling attention to the fact that we are feeling stress, which is a universal emotion, we are also making it less taboo by normalizing it.

Do identify what is causing stress for kids

Galbraith and Delisle advise that in order to manage stress, we must first identify what is causing the stress. While this sounds pretty straightforward, it is not. Many individuals are not as tuned in to themselves and their feelings as others. Not all people think introspectively, master the ability to sift through their emotions, and compartmentalize their feelings to arrive at the realization of what is causing stress.

By modeling this process with children who are not as aware of identifying their feelings, children can learn the art of self-examination when they are feeling unsettled.

Try helping kids identify the stressors in their lives with an activity adapted from a Teen Inventory, designed by Schmitz and Hipp. Their checklist inventory focuses on five common areas: stressors at school, stressors with self, stressors with friends, stressors at home and stressors related to life (or your future).

Put one heading on each of five sheets of paper, give out markers and let kids jot down ideas for each area. This activity helps them identify their stressors, heightens their awareness of the various types of stress they are trying to balance, and validates the fact that even though they are just kids, they do have legitimate issues affecting their lives.

Do take responsibility for stress

Delisle and Galbraith suggest that gifted kids must take responsibility for their stress. According to professor and psychologist, Sal Mendaglio, “With superior intellectual ability (gifted individuals) can pick up on details and nuances of a situation and process them very quickly.” As a result, “gifted persons feel more because they see more.” He goes on to explain that “emotions are created by our interpretation of events, not by events themselves.” From this perspective, it is easy to understand how a seemingly minor incident in one person’s eyes could incite extreme ramifications to a delicate psyche in another person.

In discussing stress management, it is important to remind kids that each individual has choices about how to interpret potential stressors in their lives, as well as how to manage their stress. Identical triggers will elicit a variety of responses from different people.

For example, scoring a B on a paper may be no big deal for one student, whereas it can be a traumatizing event for another. Inasmuch as any individual can control his/her responses to outside forces, it is interesting to consider Mendaglio’s philosophy that “emotions are created by our interpretation of events, not by the events themselves.” This perspective puts the responsibility of feeling and action squarely on the individual.


Do not assume all stress is negative

We have all experienced the negative feelings associated with stress. But a healthy dose of stress can actually go a long way in inspiring us to perform at our highest level of ability, propel us into action, and provide an emotional gauge of how important something is to us.

Highly stressful situations are generally areas of great importance to us that demand our attention. Examples might be a performance, a deadline, a test, an important gathering of significant others, an overabundance of work piling up on our desk or friends pressuring us into doing something we have been putting off.

We all feel stress, but as basic a human behavioral response as it is, many of us try to hide the fact that we are feeling stress from our children. Why is this? It could be that we don’t want to burden them, or we don’t want them to think we can’t handle it or we feel it is too personal an experience.

If our reaction is to ignore it or allow it to consume us, this is what our children see as a viable response to stress. If they see us reach for a glass of wine or a bowl of ice cream saying, “I need to unwind” or “I need a pick-me-up,” they may internalize these responses as practical ways to cope with stress.

However, consider the implications of handling it differently. Envision acknowledging our stress as opposed to ignoring it. What if we talked it through with our children as an emotion to be dealt with and managed, as opposed to being embarrassed? What if we implemented healthy strategies, as opposed to burying our head in the sand and hoping it will all go away soon? Which of these demonstrates the capability of controlling and being in charge of our stress?

Do not fail to take positive action to successfully manage stress

Students must understand and manage their stress. To help them become more aware of their stress level, try having them keep a daily Stress-o-Meter log (Romain & Verdick, 2000).
Draw an illustration of a thermometer, make multiple copies and create a personal stress log booklet, with a couple of week’s worth of duplicate thermometers. Ask kids to write the day’s date and color in the “mercury” to reflect their current level of stress.

An example of a thermometer by Romain and Verdick includes captions that read: Cool As A Cucumber, Kind of Stressed and Way Stressed, reaching all the way up to Yikes! After kids have colored their thermometer to reflect their level of stress that particular day, reflect and share what is going on that is causing them to feel that way.

There are many valuable lessons that come from this activity. It allows every child to experience firsthand the realization that his or her stress levels vary from day to day. Sometimes, the variation is highly significant. This reassures them that even when they are having a “Way Stressed” day, there’s always hope that tomorrow will be better. Additionally, it encourages kids to have healthy conversations about stress, as opposed to ignoring the feelings and emotions that inherently come with it.

In order for it to be positive rather than oppressive, personal stress disclosures should be restricted to reflect awareness of stress and not preoccupation with it. We want to help kids positively manage stress but not become obsessive about it, lest the learning experience becomes counterproductive.

Do not overlook the importance of coping strategies and life skills

Once you have established a climate of understanding and support about the topic of stress, the next step is to help kids get familiar with the terms, coping strategies and life skills (Hipp, 1995).

Hipp explains that coping strategies are short-term stress fixes that help us get by. Life skills have more of a long-term benefit in that they help us build up resilience and help us actually manage our stress. And it is important to note that we all need to implement both short- and long-term strategies to successfully cope with the assortment of stressors in our lives.

Coping strategies—the short-term fixes—have a time and a place in our lives. But if we are constantly procrastinating, avoiding or escaping our stressors, as opposed to trying to manage them, we won’t be taking control of our stress. Rather, our stress will be taking control of us.

Life skills are long-term character builders that boost, rather than drain, our energy. If we have a command of several healthy life skills under our belts, the way we view our lives becomes more focused on our ability to regulate any negativity that comes our way. So what are examples of these life skills? The answer would be your response to the following question: Over the years, what have you learned in life that has helped you to manage and control your own stress?

Several examples include:
*Incorporate humor wherever you can in your life. Be able to laugh at yourself.
*Get adequate sleep. The exact amount varies among individuals.
*Make time for your hobbies and passions. They recharge your batteries and make life more meaningful.
*Take care of your body with good nutrition and regular exercise.
*Use positive self-talk. Why should someone believe in you if you don’t first believe in yourself?

Do not underestimate the need to become organized

It is important to implement methods that help you become better organized. Whether this is accomplished with a calendar book, computer software, a PDA, a checklist or sticky notes, organize your life so you can be more in control of it. Prioritize your list and then set out to accomplish your goals one by one. Break tasks down into manageable parts.

Do not forget to allow some form of spirituality to help guide your life

Spirituality means different things to different people. Author Stephanie Tolan said, “Kids need to know that there is some sense of higher power, or else they feel that they are infinitely responsible for the desperation of the world.” We need to decrease burdens wherever we can.

Jumping cartoon

Stress, in some form or another, will always be present in our lives. And it is not all negative. We need to model for our children and actively teach them positive ways to think about and live with stress. We need to remind kids that they have many short-term and long-term choices in how they deal with stress and that there are many “right” ways to do so. Through trial and error, each of us can find out the most helpful combination of coping strategies and life skills. Stress doesn’t have to overwhelm us. Within each of us, we have the means to manage it.

More expert advice about Raising Gifted Kids

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Terry BradleyGifted Education Consultant

Terry Bradley is the Gifted & Talented Advisor at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado, and the President-elect of the Colorado Association for Gifted Children. She provides workshops to train educators to lead discussion groups for both st...

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