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Handling the Emotions of a Highly Gifted Child with Suspected OCD

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: My 7 year old daughter was identified as moderately gifted at age 4. She displayed a number of gifted characteristics and text-book challenges of gifted children, which led us to have her tested. We attended therapy sessions to help her deal with her high anxiety around the issues of heaven, death, dying, burial rituals, world poverty, right and wrong, etc. Upon the recommendation of her therapist, we also started her in a variety of different activities a bit earlier than other children and sought to provide a more dynamic learning environment for her through a private school. She responded tremendously well to all of the approaches and within 24 months we went from having six or seven full-scale meltdowns per day (she was struggling to deal with daily life) to less than two a week.

She handles stress much better, she has learned wonderful coping mechanisms for some of her hyper-sensitivity issues, and now that she's mastered reading, she can take full advantage of the library to satiate her need to find answers to her never-ending, fascinating questions. She has made tremendous progress and I couldn't be happier that she finally seems "happy." However, we still have two persistent issues and I am wondering if you could shed any light on the subjects. 1. My daughter seems to have some form of "OCD" and it manifests itself in the form of asking a strange question over and over.

She will latch onto a question (beyond her "regular" inquisitive questions) and ask it over and over and over. For example, she is currently concerned/worried about getting a splinter. She will ask me at least 5 or 6 times a day to check an area of her body to make sure she doesn't have one.

On some days, she will ask up to 15 to 20 times. If she stays true to form, she will eventually get over this question and move on to another one within a month or two. The pattern is always exactly the same. She only asks me (her mom), she always whispers the question or asks in private, and all she needs is me to say "No, you don't." If I answer differently, it causes her to get very upset. I understand from reading on-line that I have likely unintentionally become a part of her "ritual”, however, she gets extremely upset if I don't answer or try to "talk" it out. I am able to set a limit for her - I just can't seem to stop it. Any help or assistance would be greatly appreciated.

By the way, since therapy her questions do not seem to affect her daily life other than having to stop what she's doing periodically to come ask me the question. 2. Another stressful situation is her excessive dislike of her brothers (ages 4 and 1) getting praise or achieving anything she sees as putting them "ahead". She seems to be on a constant quest to out-do them in everything, even in things which she couldn't possibly have control over (like who was the biggest or smallest when they were born, etc.). She is otherwise a kind and caring child - almost to extremes when it comes to other people. For example, she made and sold greeting cards all on her own to raise money to send to starving children in Africa and then gave away her entire piggy bank to help someone who was homeless - she does these amazing things. Yet, when it comes to her brothers getting a compliment about their artwork, she pipes in, "Well, that doesn't mean he's better than me. It just means you like his picture." She also struggles to see her friends "win" ribbons in gymnastics class even though she's won more than anyone there.

It's very confusing to us because she is otherwise a wonderful friend, very popular, and not surprisingly noted as a "natural leader" and "compassionate/empathetic classmate" at school. Could you possibly offer the best way to guide her through these kinds of behaviors? They go very much against what our family values are (in terms of us wanting our children to be gracious about other's successes, being kind, and to be blunt... not so selfish!). I know she struggles with what she is feeling and what is expected, too. Thank you in advance for your help!

A: It is amazing what you have done for your girl so far and you are definitely on the right track. Parenting a gifted child is hard enough; but handling on with such emotions and perfectionism is a real challenge. It is indeed rather common for gifted children to get obsessed with subject of passion in the form of deep and extreme interest. On the other hand, obsessions in OCD are unwanted, anxiety producing thoughts which lead to further struggle for the individual and significant others.

According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (2005), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a condition that is characterised by the presence of either obsessions or compulsions, but commonly both. Symptoms can cause significant functional impairment and/or distress. An obsession is an unwanted intrusive thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters the person's mind. Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that the person feels driven to perform. These can be either overt or observable by others, such as checking that a door is locked, or a covert mental act that cannot be observed, such as repeating a certain phrase in one's mind.

It is possible for a gifted child to be misdiagnosed with OCD because some gifted children tend to enjoy organising people and things. And when things do not go as planned, they get upset. This is seen as intellectualising, sense of urgency, perfectionism, idealism and intolerance for mistakes in gifted children. Unfortunately, this could very easily and possibly be misinterpreted as signs of OCD.

Having said that, I think you may want to check with a clinical psychologist if indeed she has OCD. From your description, I believe she has some unhealthy obsession that warrants further attention and intervention from a specialist. OCD obsessions are unwanted distressing thoughts that impact on everyday life as in the case of your daughter. Furthermore, it is very possible to be gifted and have OCD as the same time, which is termed as being twice exceptional.

It is best to seek help face to face with a professional. I will try to suggest some ways that may be helpful. However a lot of it would depend on trial and error as different methods may suit different people. The one important thing to note here is the understanding of such a condition by parents (family included), significant others, school and the community in general. Understanding would create tolerance and make the child acceptable and not seen as weird (this usually happens at school). As a parent, you need to help your daughter learn to live with giftedness and OCD in a positive way, with acceptance on behalf of the parents and the child. You may want to encourage her to further share how she feels. At the same time, you, as a parent would also need to share what you are feeling. This will increase the mutual understanding and empathy between yourself and your daughter.

On the next concern, more than her siblings getting praise, I believe it is your attention she is fighting for. She appears to have an extremely close feel for you and for all we know, there may even be a constant fear of losing you to anyone (for that matter, even other family members become rivals) and this stresses her further. She is definitely a perfectionist and may even be obsessed with her achievements, so anyone who comes even a little close to her would probably make her feel threatened.

For now, I would advise further therapies for her. She is still young and even though cognitively she is far ahead, her emotions are not developing at the same pace as her mental ability. Thus, she may not be capable to handling some of the sensitivities she faces from time to time. Therapies usually help here (for e.g., cognitive behavioural therapy by a qualified therapist) but if the symptoms get worse, medication may be required.

It is not going to be a smooth journey but it would surely get better with timely intervention and as she grows older. What is essential is for you to work in partnership with her school and others to ensure she gets the best support possible for both giftedness and for OCD (if diagnosed, that is). Additionally, make sure that the support she gets is consistent with treatment or strategies that you use at home.

Hopefully that helped a little and here's sending you my best wishes.

Subsequent Reply: Thank you very much for your extensive, thoughtful, and insightful response. It has helped tremendously and we've decided to pursue further help with a therapist for our daughter. I think she will benefit from some assistance with managing the unwanted thoughts and I'd like to find ways to help her not feel so threatened in regards to getting my attention. I believe that is exactly what is happening! Your explanations were very eye-opening. Many, many thanks for your time and help. We are truly grateful.


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