How to Interview a Mental Health Professional
Before you make your first appointment with a licensed counselor, psychologist, or social worker, request a 10-15 minute phone interview to assess if the therapist has a basic understanding of the needs of gifted children.
Here are some questions you can ask. Listening closely to a therapist’s answers can clue you in to whether the person truly “gets” the essence of gifted.
In an ideal world, teachers, counselors, and other professionals who work with children would be required to have at least one semester long course in the needs of the gifted. In reality, however, the topic is generally relegated to, at most, one section of one chapter in one course on exceptionalities.
Keep in mind that state laws require all psychologists, social workers, and professional counselors to take continuing education courses in order to keep their licenses valid. At the very least, therapist can expand their knowledge and understanding of gifted clients by participating in any number of professional development opportunities, including home study courses offered by Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG).
An inability to objectively answer this question may indicate an unconscious need to engage in competition with a client. Determining whether a counselor has worked through their own issues related to giftedness becomes highly subjective. However, you can keep an open ear for certain giveaways of defensive behavior. One give-away is the need to talk about their own personal achievements. During an initial appointment, defensive body language, such as arms crossed over the chest, clenching their pen, or staring intently, may also indicate discomfort with a child’s high level of intelligence.
Experience comes in many forms. A therapist parenting their own gifted child may have some of the best on-the-job training with the challenges faced by precocious youth in the 21st century. However, just as you want to be sure a therapist has worked through their own baggage related to personal identification with the gifted label, you’ll want to be aware of an underlying need to compete with achievements. Anecdotal stories from parents suggest the more moderate the level of a child’s giftedness, the more competitive some parents become when discussing their children. A well-trained counselor should be able to keep an objective distance within their client-therapist relationship.
One of the keys to understanding gifted children lies in the idea of asynchronicity, or the way in which a gifted child’s intellect may outstrip other areas of development, such as emotional and physical dexterity. For example, a gifted child may be able to tell wonderfully imaginative and emotionally evocative stories, but not have the mechanical ability to hold a pencil long enough to write it down.
People who work with the gifted know the dangers of forgetting a child’s chronological age. You can find yourself listening to an 8-year olds precise logical argument regarding biological conundrums before finding yourself abandoned to the lure of glowsticks at a birthday party. Does the child have an attentional disorder? Most likely not. Glow sticks are cool and fun to play with, especially since you usually only get them on special occasions. Chances are, the kid just wanted one before they ran out.
Plenty of myths continue to exist about social-emotional problems and gifted kids. Research shows that gifted children are neither more nor less likely to suffer from mental illness than normally developing children. Nor do highly and profoundly gifted kids commit suicide more often than the general population. High intelligence, in and of itself, may not be the reason why a child is seeking mental health services. Gifted families experience divorce and abuse the same as other families, however, poorly developed coping skills can lead to problems.
Understanding the nature and level of giftedness, however, may provide insight into how high intelligence may help, hinder, or cause a problem. Perfectionism and lack of a true peer group are two such areas worthy of exploration in a counseling relationship.
Sudden-onset versus long-term underachievement may have very different causes. Figuring out the cause is necessary, but rarely will you find that pure laziness is at fault. Instead, you may want to explore the need for social peer approval or how pride interferes with completing too-easy work.
Regardless of the cause, the treatment plan is also important to discuss with the therapist. Behavior contracts, popular with mental health care providers, can be used with gifted kids. Keep in mind, though, in most cases it would be unfair and counterproductive to put the entire responsibility for change on the underachiever.