Family therapy with intellectually and creatively gifted children

Moon, Sidney M

Few family therapists have expertise in the psychology of giftedness, and little research has been conducted to determine the effectiveness of family therapy with talented children and their families. The purposes of this paper are: (1 ) to provide family therapists with information on the unique psychosocial stressors associated with giftedness and (2) to stimulate further research and development on the efficacy of family therapy in alleviating distress and actualizing potential in gifted and talented children and their families. The paper provides a critical overview of the existing research literature on gifted children and their families. First, current conceptualizations of giftedness are described. Then the research literature on the characteristics of intellectually and creatively gifted children and their families is reviewed with an emphasis on the endogenous (individual) and exogenous (systemic) factors that can create or exacerbate psychosocial problems. Finally, we suggest an eclectic, eco-systemic approach to three common concerns that bring gifted children and their families to therapy.

Gifted children, especially the most highly talented, often need specialized counseling services to deal with psychological problems related to their giftedness and actualize their potential (Colangelo,1997; Genshaft, Birely, & Hollinger,1995; Kerr,1991; Milgram,1991; Moon, Kelly, & Feldhusen,1996; Shore, Cornell, Robinson, & Ward,1991). Their families also have unique concerns (Colangelo & Dettmann, 1983; Frey & Wendorf, 1985; Hackney,1981; Keirouz,1990; Moon, Jurich, & Feldhusen, in press) that can be addressed through family therapy (Colangelo, 1997; Colangelo & Assouline, 1993; Moon, Nelson, & Piercy, 1993; Silverman, 1993a; Wendorf & Frey,1985). Although other mental health disciplines have been actively developing publications on counseling talented children (Genshaft et al., 1995; Kerr, 1991; Van Tassel-Baska,1990), only a handful of papers on gifted and talented children and their families have been published in family therapy books and journals (Wendorf & Frey,1985). In 1990, a call was issued by the editor of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy for “papers on family therapy with under-represented populations, such as minorities, the handicapped, the gifted and talented, etc.” (Sprenkle,1990, p. 339, emphasis added). However, special populations have remained an under-represented category in the journal (Bailey, 1996, personal communication; Sprenkle, 1993; Sprenkle & Lyness, 1994). Few family therapists have expertise in the psychology of giftedness (Colangelo & Assouline, 1993) and little research has been conducted to determine the effectiveness of family therapy with talented children and their families (Colangelo & Assouline, 1993; Colangelo & Dettmann, 1983; Moon et al., 1996; Moon, Nelson, & Piercy, 1993).

To work effectively with families of talented children, therapists need to understand the unique needs, resources, and stresses common to these children and their families. This paper was written to address the gap in the family therapy literature on gifted and talented children and their families. Its purpose is to provide to family therapy clinicians and researchers a review of the literature on intellectually and creatively gifted children and to suggest implications of that literature for family therapy theory, research, and practice. The paper shares knowledge developed in the fields of special education, educational psychology, school psychology, and counseling psychology with family therapists to encourage future collaborative practice and research related to talented children and their families among these groups of professionals.


Conceptualizations of giftedness have been developed within several different research traditions; each tradition examines giftedness from a different perspective (Gardner, 1983; Tannenbaum, 1986). Some theorists have synthesized the evidence accumulating from several research traditions into integrated conceptualizations of giftedness (Gardner, 1983; Neisser et al., 1996). A summary of current approaches to studying and conceptualizing giftedness follows.


Researchers using this approach attempt to identify the genetic, neurological, and biochemical underpinnings of giftedness. Neurologists examine structural and biochemical differences in the brains of talented and nontalented individuals using techniques such as EEGs, average evoked potentials, brain imaging, and the study of individuals with damage to specific areas of the brain (Eysenck & Barrett, 1993). Basic neurological research has been used as a source of evidence by theorists such as Gardner (1983) in developing conceptions of giftedness.

Geneticists explore the relative contributions of genetic and environmental influences to the manifestation of high-level abilities (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal, & Tellegen, 1990; McGue, Bouchard, Iacono, & Lykken, 1993; Plomin, 1997; Thompson & Plomin, 1993). The most researched trait in the behavioral genetic field is IQ, and the research conducted on IQ by behavioral geneticists suggests that about half of the variance in IQ scores in the general population is due to heredity and the other half to environment (Plomin, 1990, 1997). Work on the genetic factors influencing high intelligence is in its infancy but suggests that genetic factors operate at the high end of the intelligence distribution in much the same way as for the rest of the distribution (Plomin, 1997).

Behavioral genetic research has also provided evidence of the importance of family environments in explaining the variance in children’s IQ scores. Behavior geneticists believe that similarities in IQ among children in the same family are due primarily to genetic factors and shared environmental factors. However, the influence of shared family environment seems to wane as children age, and it disappears completely by adulthood. The most lasting impact of the family environment on children appears to come through what behavioral geneticists call nonshared environmental factors-environmental influences that are not shared by members of the same family (Plomin, 1997). Nonshared environmental influences appear to flow, in part, from reciprocal interactions between children and their environments-i.e., these influences are actively elicited by children as they interact with family members (Plomin, 1997). This line of research suggests that a systemic perspective is needed to understand the development of giftedness.


Researchers in this tradition usually are educators or educational psychologists. They identify the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and environmental characteristics associated with gifted performance in specific domains of human endeavor (Bloom, 1985; Cox, 1926; Gardner,1983; Simonton, 1994). Their conceptualizations suggest that giftedness emerges when moderate levels of intellectual ability (e.g., an IQ greater than 120) are combined with other factors such as creativity, motivation, positive self-concept, environmental support, and chance factors (Feldhusen, 1995; Renzulli & Reis, 1985; Tannenbaum, 1986). These theorists use a variety of sources of evidence to conceptualize eco-systemic models of talent development. Their work often focuses on ways that abilities can be converted into demonstrated talents through environmental intervention (Feldhusen & Jarwan, 1993). The identification of giftedness in this tradition usually requires multiple, domain-specific measures of talent (such as test scores, behavioral checklists, and portfolios of completed work) collected from multiple sources (frequently students, parents, and teachers) (Gagne, 1993). Most public school programs for gifted and talented students identify intellectual, academic, and/or creative giftedness through this type of broad-based approach.


Scientists working from this perspective are usually psychologists. They focus on the cognitive abilities underlying gifted performance. Within the cognitive approach, psychometric theorists use psychological instruments such as intelligence and aptitude tests to assess cognitive abilities and identify talent. Most psychologists agree that intelligence tests provide reliable and valid measures of important mental processing abilities that have predictive validity for school performance (Neisser et al., 1996). However, intelligence tests have been criticized for measuring only a narrow range of intellectual abilities (Brown, 1989; Feldhusen & Goh, 1995; Haensley & Reynolds, 1989; Hocevar & Bachelor, 1989; Sternberg, 1986), many of which are unrelated to real world activities.

After several decades of development, creativity testing is even more controversial than intelligence testing (Crammond & Urban, 1995). There appear to be some mental processing abilities not highly correlated with intelligence that facilitate creativity, such as divergent thinking (Wallach, 1985), ideational fluency (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), and problem-finding skill (Brown, 1989; Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1979). However, the testing of creative cognition remains primitive relative to intelligence testing (Michael & Wright, 1989). Most existing creativity tests have questionable reliability and validity and are difficult to administer and score (Callahan, 1991; Feldhusen & Goh, 1995). Much of the research in the field of gifted and talented studies has used cognitivepsychometric definitions of giftedness (high score on an intelligence, creativity, achievement, or aptitude test) to identify gifted children. Terman’s (1925) seminal longitudinal study of intellectually gifted youth used a cognitive approach to identify intellectually gifted children (a high score on the Stanford Binet intelligence test). The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (Stanley & Benbow,1986) uses high scores by 12- and 13-year-olds on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to identify adolescents with exceptional mathematical and verbal reasoning ability.

The cognitive approach has expanded in recent years to include cognitive abilities beyond those measured by existing psychometric instruments. For example, Sternberg (1986) has proposed that intelligence includes three types of abilities: analytic, synthetic, and practical. Only analytic abilities are assessed by current intelligence tests (Sternberg & Clinkenbeard,1995). Similarly, Gardner (1983) has postulated seven discrete intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. Existing intelligence tests tap aspects of the linguistic, logical-mathematical, and spatial intelligences but provide little information on the remaining intelligences. The work of these scholars has been valuable in broadening conceptions of giftedness among researchers, educators, and clinicians.

In this paper the cognitive approach will be utilized to define giftedness because the cognitive perspective has been used to identify giftedness in most of the existing research literature and has the most heuristic value for therapy. Gifted children will be broadly defined as children who have been identified as being in the top 5-10% of the population in intellectual and/or creative ability through psychological testing and/or observation of behavioral characteristics. Talented children will be defined as children who have been identified, through domain-specific testing, behavioral checklists, and/or demonstrated performance, as being in the top 5-10% of the population in a specific talent domain such as music, art, or mathematics.


Characteristics and Needs of Intellectually Gifted.Children

Historically, the field of gifted education has focused a great deal of attention on describing the unique characteristics of intellectually gifted children. Pioneers such as Lewis Terman (Burks, Jensen, & Terman, 1980; Terman, 1925) and Leta Hollingworth (1926) produced elaborate descriptions of the behavioral characteristics of such children. More recently, scales have been developed to quantify the behavioral characteristics associated with intellectual giftedness (Feldhusen, Hoover, & Sayler,1990; Renzulli, Smith, Callahan, White, & Hartman, 1977). The characteristics of gifted children have been used as a basis for creating special programs in school settings that create an optimal match between the characteristics of the children and the instructional environment (Maker & Nielson, 1996; Van Tassel-Baska, 1994) and for recommending specialized counseling services for gifted youth (Moon, Kelly, & Feldhusen, 1997).

Cognitive characteristics. Intellectually gifted children usually have the following cognitive characteristics: early language interest and development, large vocabularies, voracious reading habits, excellent memory, large knowledge bases, curiosity, ability to manipulate abstract symbol systems, ability to learn new material very quickly, and advanced understanding of principles and relationships (Baska, 1989; Tuttle & Becker,1983). Naturally, a particular child will not display all of the listed characteristics all of the time. However, in most cases the majority of these characteristics will be present and several of the behaviors will have been displayed from a very young age.

Regular educational programming is often not well-suited to the cognitive characteristics of intellectually talented youth. Gifted youth need special educational services such as enrichment (Feldhusen & Kolloff, 1986; Renzulli & Reis, 1985), acceleration (Benbow, 1986), individualization (Feldhusen, 1986; Treffinger, 1986), and domain-specific talent development programs (Feldhusen,1995; Gagne,1985; Moon, Feldhusen, Powley, Nidiffer, & Whitman, 1993) in order to develop their full potential. Much of the energy of the field of gifted education has gone into developing differentiated curricula that meet the unique learning needs of intellectually, academically, and creatively gifted children (Maker & Nielson, 1996; Van Tassel-Baska, 1994). Numerous models for gifted and talented programs have also been developed and implemented in both school and community settings (Maker & Nielson, 1995; Renzulli, 1986). Gifted children who are not receiving appropriate educational services are at risk for the development of social and emotional problems. Family therapists need to be aware of the educational needs of gifted and talented students, prepared to advocate better educational programming in local school systems for their clients, and informed about the community programs that serve talented children in their area.

Affective characteristics. There is considerable variation in the affective characteristics of intellectually gifted children. Although there are no affective characteristics universally or uniquely associated with intellectual giftedness, certain affective traits that have been found to be consistently associated with giftedness can create psychosocial vulnerabilities for gifted children. Examples of potentially troublesome affective traits cited in the literature as typical of gifted children are a heightened sense of justice, excessive altruism and idealism, sensitivity, intensity, early concern about death, high expectancies, excessive self-criticism, pressure to meet external expectations, perfectionism, difficulty coping with failure, existential depression, high levels of energy, and strong attachments and commitments (Baker, 1996; Ford, 1989; Kitano, 1990; Lovecky, 1992; Roberts & Lovett, 1994; Sowa, McIntire, May, & Bland, 1994; Webb, 1993). Family therapists need to be aware of the affective characteristics associated with giftedness in order to facilitate healthy social and emotional adjustment in their clients and understand the ways in which the presence of a gifted child may create unique challenges for families.

Characteristics of Creatively Gifted Children

Much less is known about creatively gifted children than is known about intellectually gifted children. Many studies of gifted children do not distinguish one population from the other and few studies have focused specifically on creatively gifted children. Most creativity researchers believe that there is a relationship between intelligence and creativity (Haensley & Reynolds, 1989; Hayes, 1989; Starko, 1995; Tardiff & Sternberg, 1988). The most accepted theory of that relationship is the “threshold theory,” which holds that a certain threshold level of intelligence (usually placed at an IQ greater than 120) is required for high-level creative performance, but that above that threshold IQ level there is no relationship between intelligence and creativity-i.e., higher intelligence is not necessarily associated with higher levels of creative performance (Starko, 1995). What is important clinically are the characteristics of creatively gifted children that may create social or emotional stress. A description of those unique characteristics follows.

Cognitive characteristics. In children, creativity is usually identified by a combination of cognitive, personality, and performance indicators. For example, a child who scores well on a figural test of divergent thinking, who is nonconformist, and who has demonstrated talent for creating original art works would be considered creatively gifted. Cognitive characteristics associated with creativity include intelligence, problem-finding ability (the ability to identify and formulate important problems within a domain), divergent thinking ability (the ability to generate many appropriate responses to an open-ended stimulus), flexibility, metaphoric thinking, associative thinking, visualization, imagination, enjoyment of novelty, logical thinking, evaluative skill, and originality (Starko,1995; Tardiff & Sternberg, 1988; Woodman & Schoenfeldt, 1989). These characteristics enhance the ability of the child to solve problems and/or create original products. However, they can also bring children into conflict with their environments. For example, it is common for schools to value convergent thinking over divergent thinking, verbal and symbolic learning more than visual/spatial learning, and conformity rather than originality and imagination. When the cognitive characteristics of children conflict with the value systems of their environments, social or emotional adjustment problems may develop.

Affective and personality characteristics. Many affective and personality characteristics have been found to be consistently associated with creative performance across domains such as literature, science, and the visual arts. These characteristics include willingness to take risks, perseverance and task commitment, intrinsic motivation, openness to experience, tolerance for ambiguity, intuitive powers, independence, questioning of norms and assumptions, and nonconformity (Amabile,1990; Starko,1995; Sternberg,1988; Tardiff & Sternberg, 1988; Woodman & Schoenfeldt, 1989). Again, these characteristics can bring children into conflict with their environments. Teachers tend to dislike children who display the personality traits associated with creativity (Westby & Dawson, 1995). They prefer students with traits such as conformity and unquestioning acceptance of authority, probably because those traits make children easier to manage in group settings. Similarly, parents may have difficulty with children who are continually taking risks or questioning their authority.

Characteristics of Families of Gifted Children

Research on families of gifted children suggests that these families have unique values, concerns, and stressors (for a review see Moon et al., in press). A brief summary of unique characteristics of these families relevant to family therapy follows.

Values and discipline. Families with high-achieving and/or high-IQ gifted children tend to be child-centered, set high standards for education and achievement, expect conformity to conventional values, value intellectual and cultural activities, and nurture close, supportive family relationships (Bloom, 1985; Friedman, 1994; Moon et al., in press). Parents in these families tend to perceive themselves as successful in their parental roles and to be perceived positively by their children (Strom, Strom, Strom, & Collinsworth, 1994). In contrast, families of creatively gifted children have been shown to value independence (Getzels & Jackson, 1962; Moon et al., in press; Robinson & Noble, 1991) and nonconformity (List & Renzulli, 1991). Parents of these children also tend to have more unconventional and permissive parenting styles and to be open to varied expressions of thoughts and feelings. It is important for family therapists who work with gifted and talented children to assess family values and to be alert for ways that value conflicts between parent and child or family and school may be contributing to distress.

Roles and relationships. In general, families of gifted children have been found to have close, supportive relationships, clear roles, and an empowering, child-centered culture (Bloom, 1985; Cornell & Grossberg, 1986). They exhibit the high levels of bonding and flexibility that characterize resilient and self-actualizing families (Bland, Sowa, & Callahan, 1994; Frey & Wendorf, 1985; Jenkins-Friedman, 1991). Exceptions to these generalizations have been noted among low-income, creative, underachieving, minority, and clinical populations of gifted children (Exum, 1983; Goertzel & Geortzel, 1962; Prom-Jackson, Johnson, & Wallace, 1987; Reis, Hebert, Diaz, Maxfield, & Ratley, 1995; Rimm, 1995). These families are more like to experience stress and to be disorganized, conflicted, and/or dysfunctional. They are also more likely to seek and benefit from family therapy.

Special Populations

Most of the research on intellectually and creatively gifted children and their families has been conducted with samples of children from white, middle-class, two-parent families. Much less is known about the characteristics of gifted children who do not fit this profile. The existing evidence suggests that the cognitive characteristics of highly intelligent children are fairly similar across ethnicities and cultures, but the affective and social characteristics vary considerably with the cultural context of the student (Ford, 1996; Plucker, 1996; Steinberg, 1996). Subpopulations of gifted children that tend to be at risk for both underperformance in school and social/emotional adjustment difficulties include children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Friedman, 1994; Van Tassel-Baska, Patton, & Prillaman, 1991), children from single-parent families (Gelbrich & Kare, 1989), AfricanAmericans (Ford,1996), the highly gifted (an IQ greater than three standard deviations above the mean) (Janos & Robinson, 1985), and the twice-exceptional (e.g., gifted and learning disabled, gifted and attention deficit disordered, etc.) (Baum 1994; Baum & Owen, 1988; Nielsen, Higgins, Hammond, & Williams,1993; Nielsen, Higgins, Wilkinson, & Webb,1994).

Social/Emotional Adjustment

Most studies comparing gifted children with children of average intelligence or with norms on instruments designed to measure components of psychological adjustment have found that the gifted children are as well or better adjusted emotionally than other children during the elementary school years (Cornell, Delcourt, Bland, Goldberg, & Oram, 1994; Hoge & Renzulli, 1993; Janos & Robinson, 1985). However, clinical sources have suggested that giftedness creates certain psychological vulnerabilities that place a substantial minority of young gifted children at risk for difficulties with emotional adjustment (Genshaft et al., 1995; Silverman, 1993b; Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982). Highly intellectually gifted students appear to be particularly at risk for psychosocial difficulties because they are so different from the norm (Robinson & Noble,1991). The brighter children are, the more they tend to struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness.

The adolescent years appear to be a time of particular vulnerability for many intellectually talented youth (Robinson & Noble, 1991). For example, Baker (1996) found that exceptionally gifted (high SAT scores) and academically talented (high class rank) adolescents experience more stress than their less talented peers around issues such as feeling pressured to do well in school, needing to be exceptional/best, and being expected to know a lot. Gifted adolescents have also been found to experience conflicts between achievement and affiliation needs (Clasen & Clasen, 1995; Gross, 1989; Kramer, 1991). The adolescent peer culture is generally not supportive of academic achievement (Clasen & Clasen, 1995; Steinberg, 1996). Gifted adolescents may develop coping strategies to deal with anticipated peer rejection that involve denying their talents or underachieving in school (Clasen & Clasen,1995; Cross, Coleman, & Terhaar-Yonkers,1991). Alternatively, they may choose to achieve at the expense of social acceptance or experience considerable ambivalence as they vacillate between acceptance and rejection of their talents (Clasen & Clasen, 1995).

Research on social and emotional adjustment in gifted individuals in relation to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideations is mixed. Kaiser and Berndt (1985) found that 12% of gifted students reported experiencing depression, anger, and loneliness. However, Baker (1995) found no differences in depression and suicidal ideation among academically gifted adolescents, exceptionally gifted adolescents, and adolescents average in academic performance. In contrast, several studies have documented a relationship between giftedness and depression and/or suicide (Delisle,1986; Feldhusen & Nimlos-Hippen,1992; Leroux,1986). Conceptual comparisons between identified risk factors for adolescent suicide and the characteristics of gifted adolescents reveal disturbing similarities, and limited empirical evidence suggests that there may be a higher than average percentage of gifted students among completed (as opposed to attempted) suicides (for a review see Dixon & Scheckel, 1996).

Social and emotional adjustment is directly related to self concept. The first studies on the self concepts of gifted students focused on global self concept and found that gifted children tend to have higher self concepts than their less gifted peers (for a review see Hoge & Renzulli, 1993). Studies of the dimensionality of self concept have found that self concepts of gifted students differ across domains such as academic, athletic, social, and physical (Brounstein, Holahan, & Dreyden,1991; Cornell et al., 1990). In general, the academic self concepts of academically talented students are higher than those of average students, but their self concepts in the other domains are either not significantly different from or lower than those of average students.

Research on the social characteristics of intellectually gifted children is also mixed. Group comparison studies suggest that young gifted children are well-liked, get along well with their peers, and have better than average social adjustment (Cohen, Duncan, & Cohen, 1994; Janos & Robinson, 1985; Robinson & Noble, 1991). Gifted students have also been found to have greater social competence and more valued positions in the peer network than other children. Yet, clinicians who have worked with this population paint a different picture. Intellectually gifted children who are seen in clinical settings often seem to feel isolated and friendless and to have difficulty with interpersonal relationships (Genshaft et al., 1995; Silverman,1993b; Webb et al.,1982). Highly intellectually gifted children (IQ greater than three standard deviations above the mean) are more likely to have problems with social adjustment than moderately gifted children (Dauber & Benbow,1990; Janos, Marwood, & Robinson, 1985; Janos & Robinson, 1985; Robinson & Noble, 1991). Other groups of gifted students who may be at risk for problems with social adjustment include gifted children with high levels of verbal ability (Dauber & Benbow,1990; Swiatek, 1995), those who feel different (Freeman, 1979), gifted females (Kramer, 1991; Luftig & Nichols, 1990), and, as noted above, adolescents. Inadequate school environments can also precipitate social and emotional problems in intellectually gifted, creatively gifted, and/or academically talented students.

The existing research literature on the social and emotional characteristics of gifted children has many limitations. Except with respect to the literature on self concept, studies tend to be isolated, rather than programmatic, and are methodologically simplistic. Samples have been drawn almost exclusively from middle to high socio-economic status, white cultures, and have defined giftedness by high scores on tests of intelligence or achievement and/or by participation in a gifted program, so the findings can not be generalized to other populations of gifted children. Few studies have focused on differences between creatively and intellectually gifted children or between children who are talented in different domains such as science, the humanities, or arts. Little is known about the ways that the social and emotional adjustment of gifted children changes over time or about the efficacy of interventions designed to enhance the social and emotional adjustment of gifted children. The discrepancies between the clinical and research literatures may be due, in part, to these inadequacies in the empirical literature. Alternatively, the clinical population of gifted children may differ in important, and as yet undetermined, ways from the nonclinical population. In either case, the clinical literature suggests that there is a substantial minority of gifted children who have difficulties with psychosocial adjustment that are related to their giftedness and could be alleviated by family therapy.


Since family therapists are trained to view presenting problems from an ecosystemic perspective, they are especially well equipped to work with gifted children and their families. The presenting problems of gifted children can be characterized as endogenous and/or exogenous in origin (Webb, 1993). Endogenous problems are grounded in the characteristics of the child. An example of an endogenous problem is internal dyssynchrony-a discrepancy between rates of development within an individual child such as might be experienced by a child with precocious intellectual development coupled with below-average emotional development. Exogenous problems, on the other hand, are created or exacerbated by the individual’s environment. Many of the social and emotional problems experienced by gifted children are exogenous in origin-i.e., they stem from lack of understanding and support, or even outright hostility, from the child’s social environments. The ecosystemic perspective utilized by most family therapists provides a framework for examining the complex interactions between the endogenous and exogenous factors that influence social and emotional adjustment in gifted children and their families. The purpose of this section of this paper is to review research related to three common presenting problems that bring families of gifted children to family therapy and to suggest eco-systemic treatment approaches for each area of concern.

Parent and Family Stress

Definition and etiology. Parents of gifted children have a number of unique concerns about their children’s development that can cause them considerable parenting stress (Keirouz, 1990). These concerns include: asynchronous development (Genshaft et al., 1995), the meaning and impact of having a child labeled gifted by the school (Colangelo, 1997; Cornell,1984), feelings of parental inadequacy (Colangelo & Dettmann,1983; Hackney, 1981; Silverman, 1993a; Wendorf & Frey, 1985), helping the child balance social/ emotional and cognitive development (Windecker-Nelson, Moon, & Melson, 1996), and confusion about the role they should play when schools are not meeting their child’s needs (Colangelo & Dettmann, 1983; Hackney, 1981).

Giftedness can be an idiosyncratic stressor on the family system that creates pressure for adaptions in family lifestyle (Moon et al., in press). In some families the giftedness of one or more children becomes an organizer for understanding behavior and structuring family activities (Colangelo & Assouline,1993). The tendency of giftedness to organize the family system can be stressful if it overwhelms family resources, skews family relationships, or creates pressure to change communities or lifestyles in order to maximize the potential of the gifted child (Bloom, 1985; Hackney, 1981; Moon et al., in press).

In some cases, the presence of a gifted child can have a negative effect on family relationships. For example, gifted children can easily assume an authoritative, parental role, gaining power in the system at the expense of the parents (Cornell, 1984; Hackney, 1981). Gifted children are also easily parentified in families where one parent is absent through death, divorce, work, etc. When parental perceptions of the child’s giftedness differ (Cornell, 1984; Keirouz, 1990) or one or both parents are less gifted than their child, or parents have different values systems for issues like creativity, conformity, or achievement (Rimm, 1995), parental conflict may ensue. Weakness in the marital subsystem and family conflict are common in families of gifted children who are underachieving in school (Frey & Wendorf, 1985; Rimm,1995) or who have AD/HD (Moon, Zentall, Grskovic, & Hall, 1996; Moon, Zentall, Grskovic, Hall, & Stormont-Spurgin, 1997).

Suggested interventions. Psychoeducation is one of the best ways to alleviate parental concerns stemming from the unique developmental issues associated with raising a gifted child. Self-help books that might be recommended to parents include Guiding the Gifted Child (Webb et al.,1982), Keys to Parenting the Gifted Child (Rimm,1994), Parents’ Guide to Raising a Gifted Child (Alvino, 1985), and Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It (Rimm, 1995). Self-help books for gifted children that can also be helpful to parents include the Gifted Kids Survival Guide series (Delisle & Galbraith,1987; Galbraith, 1983, 1984; Galbraith & Delisle, 1996), Gifted Kids Speak Out (Delisle, 1987), and Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good? (Adderholt-Elliot, 1987). A national organization called SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) has been active in developing guided discussion groups for parents of gifted children (Webb & DeVries, 1993), and both SENG and NAGC (the National Association for Gifted Children) have strands for parents at their annual conferences. Family therapists can lead SENG discussion groups, create their own support groups for parents of gifted children, or encourage parents to attend existing groups in their region.

An ecological perspective is essential when conducting family therapy with families of gifted children because external systems such as the school, the neighborhood, and peer networks can have a tremendous impact on both the child and the family (Moon et al., in press). Schools that lack appropriate programming are a common stressor on the family of a gifted child. Family therapists working with families whose children are not receiving an appropriate education may need to help parents advocate more appropriate educational programming for their child. When parents are feeling pressured to move to a new neighborhood to foster talent-development opportunities for their child, family therapists can help the family evaluate all the ramifications of such a decision. When peer rejection is a concern, family therapists can help families develop a supportive emotional environment to counteract the negative effects of peer rejection and can encourage the family to provide opportunities for the child to associate with more similar peers through participation in community- or university-based programs for talented youth.

Family therapists need to intervene with families of gifted children in ways that will build satisfying couple and family relationships across the life span and help all family members to develop their talents. One way to work with families of highly gifted adolescents is through an integrative approach to family therapy (Moon, Nelson, & Piercy, 1993), using multiple frameworks such as family life cycle (Cartern & McGoldrick, 1988), structural-strategic (Haley, 1988; Minuchin, 1974; Minuchin & Fishman, 1981), and the psychology of talent development (Bloom, 1985; Colangelo & Davis, 1997; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993; Tannenbaum, 1983). The family FIRO model (Doherty & Colangelo, 1984; Doherty, Colangelo, & Hovander, 1991) has also been used for case conceptualization and brief intervention with families of gifted children (Colangelo,1988). This model categorizes family issues into a hierarchy of inclusion, control, and intimacy. Resolution of issues at the lower levels of the hierarchy are targeted for intervention before resolution of issues at the higher levels. The family FIRO model helps therapists to categorize the concerns of families of gifted children and prioritize them for treatment (Colangelo, 1988).


Definition and etiology. Underachievement is defined as a discrepancy between a child’s performance and some indicator of ability (Raph, Goldberg, & Passow, 1966), where opportunity to learn and motivation are already present. In determining whether a child is underachieving, it is necessary to distinguish between underachievement and nonproductivity. A nonproductive child is mentally healthy but simply chooses to underperform; in contrast, an underachieving child is upset because a commitment and an effort to perform are present, yet he or she is not doing well (Delisle, 1992). Underachievers, but not underperformers, tend to develop poor academic self concepts. Both underachievers and underperformers can benefit from family therapy.

Underachievement in gifted children can be caused or exacerbated by both endogenous and exogenous factors (Silverman, 1989; Webb, 1993). Endogenous factors that can contribute to underachievement include learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, hearing impairment, nontraditional learning styles, and emotional problems (Dowdall & Colangelo, 1982; Gallagher, 1991; Silverman, 1991). The most critical exogenous systems in underachievement are the family, the school, and the peer group. Family characteristics that have been found to be associated with underachievement include: dependence upon the mother; a rejecting father; weak or conflicted relationships between parents; unrealistic parental goals; inconsistent parenting; unrewarded achievement; emotional problems within family members; poor family relationships; lack of parental involvement in schools; parental feelings of inadequacy or threat due to their child’s gifts; and an authoritarian parenting style (Bricklin & Bricklin,1967; Daniel,1960; Dowdall & Colangelo, 1982; Kimball, 1953; McGillivray, 1964; Morrow & Wilson, 1961; Pierce & Bowman, 1960; Raph, Goldberg, & Passow,1966; Rimm,1991; Rogers & Nielson,1993). However, the most common exogenous causes of underachievement in gifted children are boredom and anti-intellectual peer pressure (Gallagher, 1991). Mind-numbing boredom has been said to account for the underachievement of half of all gifted students (Marland, 1972; National Commission on Excellence in Education,1983). There are still many school districts where no special programming for gifted students exists or where the programming that does exist is not a good fit for a particular child’s talents. When gifted and talented children are not challenged in school, underachievement and nonproductivity are common. In addition, the American peer culture is generally not supportive of achievement, especially in adolescence (Gallagher, 1991; Steinberg, 1996). Anti-academic peer groups can influence gifted students to minimize their talents or choose to underachieve in order to be accepted by their peers (Clasen & Clasen, 1995).

Intervention. In working with families of underachievers, the first step in helping them is to identify the area of underachievement, the contexts in which it occurs, and possible endogenous and exogenous factors that are contributing to the underachievement. The second step is to develop a plan for intervention using an eco-systemic theoretical framework. The final step is to ensure that the family is able to negotiate affiliation and structure functions so that the family environment is positive and supportive.

Assessment of underachievement is complex and may require a multidisciplinary team of professionals trained in diagnostic techniques. Multiple methods of assessment, including testing and clinical interviews, are needed to identify endogenous and exogenous factors that may be contributing to the underachievement. Assessment of some of the endogenous factors contributing to underachievement, such as hidden learning disabilities or AD/ HD, may require referral to a neurologist, clinical psychologist, school psychologist or other professional with specialized training in psychological assessment.

Most families who come to therapy with an underachieving child come with a history of pain, conflict, frustration, and helplessness. There is some evidence that families can help their child reverse patterns of underachievement when they support out-of-school interests, stay calm, and continue to encourage their child in spite of academic failure (Emerick, 1992). It is important for family therapists to understand the history of perceptions of failure of both the child and the parents in relation to the problem, to find out what has been tried but has not worked, and to help the child work with his or her parents to find some new things to try. The first author has found that a solution-focused approach (Miller, Hubble, & Duncan, 1996), which engages the child in setting and achieving his or her own goals for school performance while simultaneously encouraging the parents to support the child’s efforts, is effective in reversing underachievement.

Environmental and social interventions with gifted underachievers include doing what is necessary to ensure that the school provides appropriate guidance and that the child is placed in learning situations with intellectual peers who can work at meaningful tasks in a dynamic, complex, challenging classroom environment (Whitmore, 1980). If family dysfunction is contributing to underachievement, standard family therapy interventions for improving family functioning can be used. The first author has found structural-strategic interventions (Haley, 1988; Minuchin & Fishman, 1981) helpful in addressing dysfunctional interaction patterns that have developed as families attempted to cope with the stress of underachievement.

Social, behavioral interventions are a hallmark of family therapy and are most effective in reversing underachievement when they target multisystem change and when they stimulate personal growth within social contexts (Rimm, 1995). Interpersonal skills need to be nourished (e.g., the ability to generate and maintain positive relationships within the family and outside of it) because they have great impact on academic achievement and can prevent the deterioration in self-esteem and learned helplessness that can develop in children with poor grades. Personal skills (e.g., locus of control) also must be nourished because they can have an even greater influence on outcome than family, school, or teacher, especially in adolescence (Lafoon, Jenkins-Friedman, & Tollefson, 1989).

In summary, family therapists can help underachieving family members if they identify target problem areas associated with low performance in one or more talent domains (Green, 1989), design interventions that recognize a person operates within multiple ecological systems (Butler-Por, 1987; Gurman, 1970; Rimm & Lowe, 1988; Whitmore, 1980; Zuccone & Amerikaner, 1986), and address needs in affective, cognitive, and behavioral domains (Pirozzo, 1982; Supplee, 1990).

Dual Exceptionalities

Families commonly seek therapy for children who are both gifted and disabled. Intellectually gifted individuals with specific learning disabilities or developmental challenges need sensitive interventions from family therapists because they are among the most misjudged, misunderstood, and neglected people in our communities (Boodoo, Bradley, Frontera, Pitts, & Wright, 1989; Minner, 1990; Suter & Wolf, 1987; Waldron, Saphire, & Rosenblum, 1987). Their superior intellect, combined with their inability to perform in one or more areas, can make them vulnerable to social/emotional problems (Yewchuk, 1983). In fact, the entire family system may be experiencing grief over the ongoing and ambiguous loss of normalcy that results from chronic disability. These families often feel helpless and frustrated.

Definition and etiology. Developmental exceptionalities include, but are not limited to, the following disorders: autistic sauvant syndrome; developmental delays or deficits (academic skills, speech, language, and motor coordination); disruptive behaviors (AD/ HD, conduct disorder, and oppositional-defiant disorder); anxiety (separation anxiety, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder); and other childhood disorders (eating disorders, Tourettes) (Halgin & Whitbourne, 1994). The focus of this section will be on gifted children with learning disorders (LD), attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), or both. Developmentally, learning disorders are defined as a specific delay, deficit, or discrepancy of two standard deviations between a person’s achievement and intellectual ability. This discrepancy can be seen in one or more of the following areas: oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skill, reading comprehension, and mathematics reasoning or calculation (American Psychiatric Association, 1994; U.S. Office of Education, 1977).

The most common behavioral disorder in gifted children is attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that is present in at least two settings (e.g., home and school) and interferes with social or academic functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). AD/HD is known to have both neurological and psychosocial components. For the neurological aspects of this disorder, medical intervention is often warranted. For the psychological aspects (such as a disturbed family environment with inappropriate amounts or kinds of structure, closeness, and communication), family therapy is recommended.

For gifted persons with LD or AD/HD, testing profiles will reflect distinctive patterns of both consistency with giftedness criteria and inconsistency across talent areas (Barton & Starnes, 1988). Individual testing by a trained psychometrist, rather than the group testing typically offered in schools, is needed to assess dual exceptionalities. Also, multiple testing methods are needed; interpretations should be made with the child’s known disabilities and talents in mind; and subtests rather than aggregate scores must be examined in order to target individual strengths and weaknesses (Moon & Dillon, 1995).

The developmental challenges facing gifted children with LD and/or AD/HD are different from those of underachieving children, because the former are presumed to have some type of organic disturbance, whereas the latter do not. However, gifted LD and AD/ HD children are at risk for underachievement. They also experience considerable internal dyssynchrony and are vulnerable to problems with social and emotional adjustment. Their families are also at risk. For example, families of children with giftedness and AD/HD have been found to be more stressed than the families of children with only one of the two exceptionalities (Moon et al., 1996).

Intervention. At the outset, clinicians must understand that a family systems approach, when used alone, will not be as effective as family therapy used in conjunction with other interventions. Family therapists must work closely with other professionals in helping these children and their families. Specifically, when biological or neurological contributors are present, medical interventions may be needed along with family therapy and the family therapists will need to stay in close contact with the psychiatrist or physician prescribing the medication. For accurate assessment of neurological disabilities, referral to a specialist will be required.

Mandated special education services for severely learning-disabled gifted children usually include the development of an individual education plan (IEP) by a team of professionals including teachers, principals, school psychologists or counselors, and parents. Family therapists with clients eligible for an IEP should be invited to participate in IEP case conferences. Gifted children with AD/HD and/or mild LD are usually not eligible for mandated special education services, but they are entitled to accomodations for their disability under section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (P.L. 93-112) and/or the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990 (P.101-476) (Wood & Lazzari, 1997). Family therapists can play an active role in requesting case conferences with school personnel to secure such accommodations.

In their more traditional role, family therapists can help parents to understand that gifted persons with learning disabilities do not simply lack motivation (Baum & Owen, 1988). Instead, their learning problems flow from neurological, biochemical, or physical causes. These neurological realities cannot be eliminated through a better attitude, more exposure to material, or more time on task. Nevertheless, coping strategies can be learned that maximize the child’s talents and minimize his or her handicaps. A major focus of therapy needs to be on helping children and their parents to understand the child’s exceptionalities and develop coping strategies that maximize the child’s gifts and minimize the effects of the child’s disorder. A secondary focus needs to be on the prevention or amelioration of dysfunctional family interactions related to the child’s exceptionalities.

Empirical studies suggest use of interventions that address self concept (Baum & Owen, 1988; Nielsen & Mortoff-Albert, 1989) and help clients to develop the following coping strategies: academic skills (Ganschow,1985; McGuire &Yewchuk,1996; Montague,1991); organizational skills (Sah & Borland, 1989); and metacognitive skills (Hannah & Shore, 1995; McGuire & Yewchuk, 1996; Wong, 1982). Of these, it is believed that interventions targeted at increasing metacognitive skills may be the most promising, because an increase in metacognitive skills predicts an increase in all areas of learning related to behavioral deficiencies (Howard,1994; Manning, Glasner, & Smith,1996; Miller,1991). Metacognition is the prerequisite skill required in order to maintain control over the behaviors that lead to achieving target goals (Flavell, 1976).

The first author uses psychoeducation, solution-focused problem-solving, and structural-strategic interventions in her therapy with families of children with dual exceptionalities. She provides psychoeducation to inform the family about the typical cognitive, affective, and behavioral characteristics of twice-exceptional children and normalize the family’s frustrations. Then she helps the child and family to identify areas of concern, set goals, and develop creative strategies for achieving those goals. Once some progress has been made in developing and applying effective coping strategies, she alternates 30-minute coaching sessions designed to facilitate clients’ progress toward their self-selected goals with longer sessions designed to: (1) generate solutions for new areas of concern or (2) change distressing family interaction patterns through structural-strategic interventions. Dual exceptionalities are stressful for families, and family dynamics are known to influence the outcomes associated with children who demonstrate abnormal behavior (Barkley, 1990; Polson, 1996). Family therapy is appropriate for any twice-exceptional child whose neurological or biological disorder is contributing to behavioral, affective, or cognitive problems within the family.


In sum, in order to work effectively with families with a talented child, family therapists need training in the unique cognitive, affective, and behavioral characteristics of gifted children and the unique family dynamics that can occur when a family contains a gifted child. Family therapy can be a powerful method of intervention with families of gifted children if family therapists are trained to assess and treat the endogenous and exogenous factors associated with social and emotional distress in these children and their families. Whatever interventions or models of therapy are used in working with families with gifted children, family therapists should do two things simultaneously: increase the likelihood that the child will be able to fulfill his or her potential and increase the mean level of family-system functioning. To effect desired changes in families with gifted children, an eclectic, eco-systemic, multidisciplinary approach to therapy is recommended. Family therapists can and should be working to strengthen relationship support systems within families of gifted children and to strengthen ties between those families and their schools and communities.

The research base on family therapy with families of the gifted is extremely limited. Programmatic research is needed to determine the models of family therapy that are most efficacious for gifted and talented clients and the interventions that are most efficacious in helping clients cope with stressors related to giftedness. Research is also needed to determine the effectiveness of family therapy with specific subpopulations such as twice-exceptional children, underachievers, minorities, females, and families in poverty. Methods for training family therapists to work with families of gifted children need to be developed and evaluated. It is hoped that this paper will stimulate the development of family therapy theory, research, and practice with families of gifted and talented children.


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Sidney M. Moon, PhD, is Associate Professor and Director, Gifted Education Resource Institute, Department of Educational Studies, Purdue University, 1446 LAEB, West Lafayette, IN 479071446. E-mail:

Alex S. Hall, PhD, is Director of Guidance and Counseling, Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School, Lafayette, IN 47905, and is in private practice at 208 Forest Hill Drive, West Lafayette, IN 47906.

Copyright American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Jan 1998

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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