Liza and Amber

Amber has returned home for the summer from her first year of college. She is an excellent student and completed the year on the Dean’s List. In high school, Amber was successful, socially and academically; she was well liked by both her teachers and peers. Amber’s parents, Dale and Don, feel that public K-12 schooling was successful for their children because they live in a school district that offered plenty of extra-curricular activities and advanced placement options. However, they also acknowledge that for their older daughter, Liza, it may not have been the right fit.

clayDale reported there were many good teachers at her children’s schools over the years, but she often felt her girls weren’t being challenged to work to their full academic abilities. However, they participated in art, drama, dance, debate, environmental and journalism clubs, all of which helped keep them interested and engaged. “I thought being in public school was good for my girls. I thought they would learn how to handle the world because of that. We tried to put them into good school environments, so I thought that it was okay.”

But there were problems. When Liza started middle school, she began to have panic attacks. These attacks were initially about typical middle school worries, such as having to move from class to class, puberty, and moving to a new school with a much larger student population.

At the outset, Dale and Don did not think there was anything unusual about Liza’s behavior. Dale herself had been an anxious child, and she recognized that puberty was a time when many girls struggle to feel confident. As Liza’s sixth grade year progressed however, she began to be debilitated by the stress. Liza would freeze in the hallway between classes and not be able to remember which way to go. She began to have headaches and stomach aches every day. Her concentration and motivation began to slide, as did her grades. Dale took Liza to see her pediatrician and was referred to a child psychologist. Liza began weekly therapy to help her deal with her anxiety, which the psychologist felt was just generalized anxiety at this point. Liza liked her therapist, a young, hip woman, and felt like she could talk to her about her problems.

Dale also explained the issue to Liza’s teachers. They were very understanding and offered a lot of support. “One of Liza’s teachers knew she was struggling, so she just kind of took her under her wing. For example, she gave her an assignment to design a logo rather than write a paper and Liza got involved with her project and did a fabulous job. Because it was something fun for her, it helped her be less stressed. It’s like people at the school did the real thing, not just lip service.” Dale was convinced that having teachers who genuinely cared about her daughter made school possible for Liza.

Over the next year Liza’s symptoms began to abate. Dale felt they had intervened before more serious issues could emerge. Dale’s own perfectionism and anxiety had evolved into an eating disorder when she was in her teens. Consequently, Dale kept a close watch on both of her daughters. She felt that Liza was getting the support she needed and saw Amber was successfully dealing with her stress in a completely different way. “Liza was dealing with lots of anxiety, so she kind of took up a lot of space. Whereas, Amber seemed to manage her anxiety differently, despite having the genetic component of anxiety, I think she figured out a different way to handle it. Or maybe it’s just organic, it’s her nature, but she didn’t go into it headlong like Liza. Which I think was actually good for her, I think her coping strategies worked really well.”

Despite Liza’s high levels of stress about school, both of Don and Dale’s daughters were successful socially. Dale remarked, “They both had great social experiences. They were lucky. I think they both had high social intelligence and always had great friends. There was never any mean girl kind of stuff.” Dale speculates that things might have been much worse if her daughters had not experienced the buffering of close, true friends.

Dale and Don worked hard to advocate for their children and made sure their needs were acknowledged and supported. Their efforts were individualized for each of their daughters. Overall, Amber seemed to need less intervention than Liza, as she was not as driven to please her teachers and parents. Amber also relied on her friends for much of her support and she often resolved her problems through talking with them. In addition, Amber had always had a close relationship with Dale and had no difficulty asking her mother for help. Seeking the combined support of friends and family seemed to be an effective coping strategy for Amber.

Amber was also less concerned about getting straight As or turning in perfect work. School came easy to Amber, and she was considered a gifted student by all of her teachers, yet that was not her focus during high school. Amber spent a great deal of her energy on her art, having fun with her friends, and exploring various passions related to her art talent.

Liza, on the other hand, was noticeably stressed out about getting into a good college, from as early as her middle school years. She worked extremely hard to do all the necessary AP classes, charitable work, extra-curricular activities, and outside experiences that would help her create a stellar college application. Dale had encouraged Liza to apply to small, liberal arts schools where she would most likely experience less pressure, comingle with like-minded people, and be in an intimate, safe environment. Liza took her mom’s advice and applied to several schools that fit the profile.  She was accepted into most of her choices, based on her high grades, excellent SAT scores, and a winning college application. She ultimately accepted a college on the East Coast that met all of her criteria and offered her a very good scholarship.

Liza left for school that fall and was excited about going to college. But she was never really able to relax and enjoy the experience.  Right from the start, she felt a high degree of pressure to produce at a “gifted” level, all the time. She admitted that her own sense of perfectionism weighed heavily on her. As her freshman year progressed, she began to obsess about getting each assignment perfect, and consequently, began to turn her work in later and later. This caused her to lose points on assignments, which began to send her into a spiral of self-doubt and criticism. Dale and Don spent many hours on the phone trying to help their daughter, recommending her to the college counseling office, and even flying out once to support her, in person.

Initially, Dale believed that their parenting strategies and the public school experience had done a good job preparing her daughters for success at college and beginning their adult life. “I think by high school I finally got it, like who they were, what they needed. And I saw that they were succeeding in school, but I didn’t understand the depth of Liza’s anxiety until it really got bad in college. Then she kind of talked about how she had felt anxiety even when she was little, but she never let on how bad it was, and it was hard to tell that because she was super quiet about it.”

By the end of her first semester, Liza was at a breaking point. She came home for Christmas and didn’t return to college. Dale revealed, “She just had such high expectations of herself. She felt like she needed to be the top student all the time. Even before she started to fall behind on her work, she felt like she was struggling. I don’t even think she needed to struggle that much, but for her, she feels like she is struggling if she gets a 95% on a math test.”

bed2Dale and Don racked their brains, trying to find a way to help her regain her confidence and overcome her anxiety. With support from her parents, Liza withdrew from college and began to see a psychiatrist who specialized in anxiety. “The situation was completely disastrous for her. Her anxiety just peaked, and she just crawled into bed and was not willing to come out at all. She wouldn’t join us for meals, or even talk about anything with us, it was just no food, no conversation, nothing.”

At their psychiatrist’s request, the whole family began therapy. That brought up many of Dale’s feelings about her own struggles and opened a lot of wounds. Don’s stress was high, too. He battled with the desire to support his daughter, and the disappointment that she had dropped out of college. Amber was the only family member who seemed to be able to stay positive. They were grateful that Amber did not appear to experience the levels of anxiety that debilitated Liza. They felt she had much better coping skills, so they could concentrate on Liza.

As Amber’s senior year wrapped up, she started preparing for college and appeared to be doing fine. Amber was very clear about wanting to pursue her art, in her own way, and entered an illustration program at a local art college known for its individualized approach to learning. Her application and entry into college was very low key and did not cause anyone in the family an undue amount of stress. Amber assured her parents that she didn’t care about going to a renowned art school and refused to get caught up in any competitive admissions processes.

Even though Amber’s college path was very different from Liza’s; Dale still had immense fear that Amber would have similar problems. “I think there’s a certain amount of pressure that comes when you’re so gifted. People see these kids who are straight A students in all their classes and they think, ‘Oh, you have so much potential, you must use it.’ I think lots of kids who are real prodigies never get the chance to do the thing they’re passionate about because there are gatekeepers who think they know how best to capitalize on that ability.”

In a way, Dale and Don feel that Liza’s crisis is helping them all confront their own issues. “I think one of the hardest things about parenting my extraordinary children has been to see my own issues super magnified in them. I have to look at it in myself and I just cringe and say, ‘Oh my god!’ It is very humbling.”

Dale acknowledges, despite her and Don’s best efforts, that in some ways they have dropped the ball. “Liza’s anxiety is so big, and I have come to realize that she has never experienced what it’s like to not have it.  Now as an adult, this is what feels normal, and I wish I’d given her a baseline, a chance to know what life would feel like if she didn’t wake up in acute anxiety every day, because to her that is her norm.”

Dale is motivated to expose her own history to her girls and hopes that her honesty will help Liza to see that she will be able to overcome her anxiety and have a full life. “I’m trying to work on changing things about myself that I think I could improve upon in order to be a better example for my girls. I want to show them that even at my age, you can always look back and do a self-check, sort of look and decide what you can do to move forward and be better, and what will help you be happier right now.”

Dale explained that she and Don both come from a lineage of extremely gifted, perfectionistic, highly competitive people. She told me that watching Liza is like looking into her past. “I had to do everything right. I was very successful in high school. Before you had to have a GPA above a 4.0, I had one. But looking back, I realize that drive had nothing to do with me. It really had absolutely nothing to do with me. It wasn’t until I dropped out of an Ivy League school after my second year, and came home to piece myself back together, that I realized that I had no idea who I was.” After this breakdown, Dale abandoned intellectual pursuits.

Dale was determined to raise her girls without the family pressure she had experienced. Her whole family went to top tier schools, one brother at Harvard, one at Yale, and one at UC Berkeley. Her family was so competitive that the brother at UC Berkeley was considered to be the “stupid one,” despite the fact that he got admitted without finishing high school. He was considered stupid because he had to take some remedial classes when he first started at UC.

She told me she wanted her girls to follow their passions and she hoped they would be able to get a degree, but she viscerally remembers her own anxiety and wants to make sure her daughters don’t have the same experience that she did.

Dale and Dan both wish they had realized the extent of Liza’s anxiety disorder earlier. “You know, it should have been on our radar. We know we have our own issues, we have the family history, but Liza just never showed how much she was really suffering.” They realized they should have sought intervention much sooner and believe that might have prevented Liza from reaching her current level of disintegration.

Dale just wants her girls to have a fulfilling life. “In the end I think I like what Freud said, if you can play well, love well, and work well, whatever that means, then you can have a life.” Dale tries not to put pressure on her girls, to assure them that they don’t have to change the world. She resents people who put that on gifted and 2e children, because those expectations are toxic. She thinks that they should be allowed to explore options and grow just like any other child.

“You change the world by just being you. The more you accept yourself, the more peace you bring to everyone. The more you resonate passion and inspiration, the more you raise our shared consciousness. The more kindness and compassion you show yourself, the more you recalibrate our common reality to one that resonates with peace and love.”

anxietyThis is especially poignant in Liza’s case, because she is at an anxiety level at which she doesn’t feel safe enough to venture out into the world. Dale explained, ”It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy, when you’re still way down here trying to figure out, ‘Am I going to die today?’ You don’t think about, ‘How do I self actualize?’ I don’t want my kids to feel like they have to be somebody that they’re not; but I also see, with Liza, she has a set of incredible gifts, but she cannot access them unless she’s in the right place emotionally and feels safe to do so.”

Dale has deep empathy for Liza because Dale is also a highly sensitive person and knows that people with extreme emotional sensitivity are easily overwhelmed and influenced by the environment. “When I was younger, I struggled at times with depression or anxiety because I often would pick up other people’s feelings and not even know it.”

Dale doesn’t think people are open to hearing this, she feels they would think it was New Age nonsense, but she attests that it is a real issue, one which has affected her throughout her life. “I think it’s harder to make a living when you’re highly sensitive because when you are overwhelmed emotionally, you cannot function.” Dale hopes that her girls will find occupations that allow them to utilize their emotional sensitivity, rather than be debilitated by it. She admits that she sees Amber being much more likely to be happy and successful, because she seems better at coping with the world. “She channels her emotion into her art and it is a healthy outlet for her. And I think the world is more accepting of a sensitive artist, it fits their expectations, so there is less pressure on Amber.”

They are grateful that Amber is doing so well and appears to be headed toward a career that she loves. Don and Dale hope they haven’t overlooked Amber in their efforts to help Liza. Dale confesses that she worries Amber might have worked too hard over the years to be the less needy daughter, but Dale didn’t have enough energy to deal with anything more. She hopes that Amber won’t resent their focus on Liza and that Liza will eventually heal and progress. “I see her getting stronger and I see her managing her sensitivity better, but I still worry. At some level it is comforting to know how much pain I went through and, in the end, I came out okay. Liza has better support than I did, so I think she will be all right, eventually. You know, I have come to realize it is not about being gifted or disabled, it is just about being.”