Ask the Experts

Your Child Is Intelligent. That Doesn’t Mean He’s Rational.

Children with ADHD and high intelligence — twice exceptional kids — can often articulate a persuasive argument, but that doesn’t mean they are making rational judgments or smart choices for themselves. It’s up to parents to differentiate opinion from fact, and to understand how anxiety manifests in some 2E children.

I met “Sean” because he attended my camp for a few weeks one summer. Sean was diagnosed with an inattentive profile of ADHD, he was also intellectually gifted.

Sean exhibited anxiety from a young age which was expressed as negativity and at times, oppositional behavior. (This is very common.)

What compounded this was the fact that, like many intellectually gifted kids, Sean had been told how smart he was his whole life. He possessed a level of intellectual arrogance which made it difficult for his same-age peers to relate to him.

Sean’s parents admittedly accommodated his anxiety for most of his life. This reached it’s “tipping point” in 7th grade, when Sean became school avoidant to the extent that he missed almost the whole school year and was put on home-bound instruction.

During the brief time I knew Sean, I noticed a pattern that many parents of intelligent/articulate kids fall into: Sean’s parents misinterpreted his ability to construct a compelling argument as rational judgment when in reality it was his way of avoiding anxiety or initial discomfort.

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?]

During Sean’s time at camp, he would complain about camp to his parents. They would take whatever he said as fact without asking me for clarification. In this sense, Sean’s parents were still accommodating his anxiety by reacting to his anxious thoughts as facts.

The night before Sean’s last week of camp, I received an email from his mother saying, “Due to the functioning levels of the other boys attending camp this week Sean will not be attending.”

I can only surmise that Sean told his parents that the other boys were “weird” or not functioning at his level and again they took what he said as fact. I figured that was the last time I would ever hear from them.

About two months later, Sean’s parents reached out to me and wanted feedback about the time I spent with Sean. I shared that I thought it was important for them to keep in perspective that Sean’s intelligence and ability to articulate himself does not equate to maturity or rational judgment. I was candid with them that I felt that the week they allowed Sean to skip camp was enabling his avoidance and it would have been helpful to ask me about the other kids, rather than just relying on Sean’s perception.

[[Self-Test] Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) in Children]

To my surprise, they signed up Sean for my social anxiety group comprising boys his age. Again, Sean made it noticeable that he thought he was intellectually superior to the other boys. Eventually he stopped coming.

While Sean’s parents thought they stopped accommodating his anxiety, they actually did not. They misinterpreted what he shared with them as rational judgment rather than seeing it for what it was: his anxiety or discomfort. This was compounded by Sean’s intellectual arrogance because he thought that he was smarter than the other kids both at camp and in the group.

I have come across quite a few families (and even health professionals) who mistake their son’s ability to make a compelling argument as mature and rational judgment. Unfortunately, I find these parents unreachable because they tend to be so enamored with their son’s intellect that they have difficulty hearing that their son’s perception is often based in anxiety, not reality.

[Your Free 13-Step Guide to Raising a Child with ADHD]

6 Comments & Reviews

  1. Interesting. I can completely see myself in this article. But now what? The author points out something that makes a world of sense but offers no constructive suggestions to help.

  2. I am so saddened by this article, the articles here are usually constructive, understanding and positive. For some reason this is missing here. We have a 2e child with anxiety and I read the title with some hope, because he certainly can make a great argument to get out of things and we need to stay solid with our choices despite this. Before his adhd diagnosis our son’s behaviour was written off as arrogance. He doesn’t think he’s the smartest kid in the class, he has great friends, is known to support others and finds the roller coaster of feeling smart and then “dumb” in class extremely distressing. Our main problem is how to help him with his anxiety after he’s had a long hard day at school and is exhausted, I would have really appreciate some constructive advice on that.

  3. Well said, KrisB. While it makes sense, the tone is arrogant and judge mental rather than helpful and constructive. It’s very hard as a parent to understand all the ways anxiety can present in our kids. This article could have been so helpful but fell far short.

  4. “I can only surmise that Sean told his parents that the other boys were “weird” or not functioning at his level and again they took what he said as fact. I figured that was the last time I would ever hear from them.”
    I read that the author is frustrated that the parents took the child’s words without clarifying with the LCSW. But the LCSW didn’t follow up on the exit e-mail, so there was a lost opportunity for clarification. Without that, what did he learn about the parents and the situation?
    I read what was ‘figured’ or ‘surmised’.
    No parent can stuff a 13 year old into a car and make them go anywhere unless the child is being forcibly institutionalized.
    The last action we know of the parents is they enrolled their child into the social anxiety group. That’s a good thing. When the child quit coming, some follow-up with the parents to find out what happened with them and their child would have made this article helpful.
    I did get these ideas from the author: Some parents have intelligent and arrogant children, it’s probably their own fault that the children are arrogant, and it’s a mistake to let an intelligent child give reasons because they may merely be avoiding anxiety and discomfort by using intelligent arguments.
    I got a little lost on what were specific accommodations for anxiety.
    I feel for the child. He’s still a child, even if his attitude is off-putting to adults and peers. I feel for his parents. They didn’t get follow-up from a licensed professional.

  5. I agree with the others. I myself had (have) some of the same issues Sean has and I feel the author could have offered advice or at least not had such a negative judgment of the boy. Seems maybe the author was triggered or “threatened” by this very intelligent kid!

  6. Ryan, Can you suggest some ways to handle this, “They misinterpreted what he shared with them as rational judgment rather than seeing it for what it was: his anxiety or discomfort.”? I am just now understanding the excellent speech and debate skills my 21 year old son has and uses to counter much of what we as parents try to tell him. We have taken away the phone, the laptop and the gaming computer very recently (last month). And, made house rules that he has to adhere to. Is it just a waiting game at this point? I’m in California so any referrals would be helpful.

Leave a Reply