“Difﬁcult” or “Gifted?”
A qualitative investigation of parents’ experiences of their
gifted children as infants
Amy Rastogi, M.A. Candidate, Gaby Mitrak, M.A. Candidate, & Macall Gordon, M.A. • Dept. of Applied Psychology, Antioch University Seattle
While studies have been conducted to ascertain the ex-
perience of parenting a gifted child post-identifica-
tion, less is known about the experience prior to
identification, particularly in infancy. Many psychologists and
psychiatrists traditionally equate giftedness with high IQ.
However, giftedness is no longer seen in a unitary manner and
confined to intellectual intelligence alone (Renzulli, 2011). IQ
scores are now often viewed as an inadequate measure of gift-
edness (Renzulli, 2011) and a more robust multifaceted defini-
tion of giftedness has diversified to include atypical strengths
in academic ability, such as an exceptional ability to reason
and learn, leadership, artistic talent, language, memory apti-
tude, observational skills, humor, resiliency, and abundant cre-
ativity (e.g. Beisser, Mehring, & Sullivan, 2015; Gere, Capps,
Mitchell, & Grubbs, 2009).
A body of literature has noted a variety of difficult behav-
iors that often accompany intellectual ability, including hyper-
Procedure. This study was conducted using an interview for-
mat. The only formal question asked directly to the partici-
pants was, “As a parent, what was your experience of your
child in infancy, before your child was officially identified as
gifted?” From there, additional probing questions were asked
in order to assess congruence with common, but anecdotal ex-
periences of early gifted traits..
After completion of the interviews, videos and notes were
transcribed and scrubbed for thematic codes. To ensure accu-
rate coding of themes, a desired checklist of items was created
to guide researchers in data compilation.
All respondents reported
some form of traumatic birth
•Although the symptomology
varied among participants, signs
of traumatic birthing experiences
were a surprise finding among all
•Experiences ranged from inordi-
nately long and strenuous labor to
wrapped umbilical cords, high levels
of activity in utero, emergency
C-sections, and transfer to the
neonatal intensive care unit.
remarked on their
newborn’s early and
•All parents noted prolonged
and focused eye contact
from the time of birth.
•All parents reported that
upon exiting the womb,
their infants displayed an
intentional and direct
•In the weeks following,
some reported their child
was already following movement and registering
familiar faces. One mother commented that her son locked
eyes with her upon first glance and smiled.
sleep was noted by
Difficulty with sleep included:
• Inconsistency in sleeping
through the night
• Refusal to nap
• Vivid dreams and nightmares
• Frequent crying
One mother noted that,as an in-
fant, her son demanded to be swaddled and held at bedtime,
otherwise he screamed through the night.
Another noted:“She would only sleep for about 20 minutes at a
time. She would wake up to feed, we would feed her, and then
she wanted to have a conversation…so much babbling.”
to be extreme ——
big feelings, hard heads.
•Parents reported that children
could be quiet and amiable,
but volatile when triggered.
•Parents remarked that when
upset, their children exhibited
increasingly fussy behavior
until they were inconsolable.
•Despite attempts to deescalate
the situation, most
of the children needed to be left
on their own to settle down.
•Persistence was another
• Intellectual overexcitabilities
were another uniting theme.
The pursuit of knowledge was
described as, “intense,” “per-
sistent,” “determined,” and
• Identified behaviors in in-
fancy included insatiable cu-
riosity, obsessive focus on
favorite objects, and hyper-
attention paid to letters and
sounding out words.
• Often, the quest to know
everything about one topic led to the quest to
know everything about all topics.
Others’ noticed the child
Participants noted that individuals
outside the family unit noticed the
uniqueness of each child.
Frequently cited remarks were:
• Observations of adult
• Preference for adult companionship
• Quiet and aloof demeanor
• Some parents commented that their child was seen by
others as “weird” or “quirky”
activity, withdrawal, heightened sensitivity, insatiable curios-
ity, impatience, intensity, and disrupted sleep (e.g. Beljan et al.,
2006; Geiger, Achermann, & Jenni, 2010). Some of these may
be easily misinterpreted or overlooked as normative.
Indeed, misdiagnosis of gifted children is common due to
the prevalence of other neurological and mood disorders that
share similar characteristics, such as ADHD and autism spec-
trum disorder (ASD), and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
(Beljan et al., 2006). Pressure for a diagnosis can be significant
when the gifted child’s maladaptive behavior increases stress
at home (Webb et al., 2005). The implications of misdiagnosis
or non-identification of giftedness can be significant (e.g. Mar-
tinson, 1974; Webb et al., 2005)
It may be possible to detect non-intellect based markers of
giftedness early in infancy. The need for less sleep, unusual
alertness, and stimulation-seeking behavior are all early hall-
marks pointing to giftedness (Bainbridge, 2018). The presence
of early indicators and the deficit in the literature highlight the
importance of identifying early markers of ability so that par-
ents can receive support and guidance.
Participants. A total of seven participants were recruited for
this study. The purpose and intent of the qualitative study was
posted to two separate Facebook sites for parents of gifted
children. A brief phone interview was conducted with each
participant to determine if eligibility criteria were met: 1) par-
ent or primary caretaker role; 2) child with formal giftedness
identification; 3) capability to participate in Zoom video con-
All participants were biological mothers of gifted children
that ranged in age from four 4- to 18-years of age.
Data Analysis. Qualitative data was analyzed and a list of
distinct thematic categories was created. This list of themes
was subsequently used to highlight and extract relevant blocks
“He was making eye contact
and tracking things with his
days starting at three days
old. He would focus on my
face or my husband’s face.
Around one month old, we
had this book that had pic-
tures of babies’ faces and . .
.he would lay there and touch
their faces. I could see the
“She used to have
really extreme mood
swings – she would have
these epic temper ﬁts.
Transitioning into the
next activity of the day
would cause her to
collapse and almost
nothing we did worked
to calm her down.”
“She was stubborn,
there was no
negotiating with her.
She loved to argue,
for no purpose. We
had to tell her not to
just automatically go
Sensory and Emotional Sensitivity
Sensitivity manifested differently in different infants, but were
very commonly reported.
•Many infants experienced an intolerance of loud noises, re-
sulting in severe crying episodes and an aversion to any ac-
tivity that produced loud sounds. Many of the children
would cover their ears to signal pain.
•Some mothers noted skin sensitivities in their infants such as
a preference for soft fabrics and textures, revulsion of cloth-
ing tags, and food/seasonal allergies.
Emotional Sensitivities were also
•Parents reported their child had a
dislike for movies, TV programs,
and books in which animals and
people were hurt.
•A strong predilection for sharing
was also common.
•Many parents noted that their
children did not want to see
other children upset, even at
such a young age.
“People usually com-
mented on his ability to
communicate, the way
he talked, the words he
chose and the depth of
what he was talking
about. The things he
was interested in and
the way he was making
connections was beyond
other kids his age.”
We didn’t let her watch
TV or movies because she
couldn’t handle anything
with dramatic tension;
it made her nervous and
caused her to shut down.
She’s already asking
about women’s rights and
racism and oppression.”
This data expands on existing literature by providing a
snapshot of the unique reported characteristics of gift-
edness in infancy. Results from this study may be used
to inform inquiry into the psychological underpinnings of the
nature of giftedness and its early development. The data can be
utilized as a starting point to investigate early screening, begin-
ning with the creation of a comprehensive checklist of gifted
traits for parents and caregivers. It also may highlight the par-
ents’ need for additional support to help them cope with the
difficulties encountered in parenting a child who is “more.”
“I was in labor
for 36 hours in
the delivery room.
got stuck on the
way out. ”
“Never your typical
child, ever. I always
knew something was
different about him,
but we didn’t know
what it was. Giftedness
wasn’t on my radar.”
“Sleeping has always
been an issue. He never
slept much. He dropped
naps at one-year-old and
hasn’t had a nap since
then. We drove from
California to Oklahoma
and he maybe slept for
30-minutes in the car
the entire drive.”
Physical milestones included:
• Early crawling
• Early walking
• Transition from sitting to walking without crawling
(all before or around 1-year)
• Early motor skills (opens and shuts hands, grabs and
shakes toys, supports head, and turns head to look at
stimulus) demonstrated prior to 1-year
Early cognitive milestones included:
• Reading and writing at an average age of 3-years
• Connection between letters and sound at
• Communicating with gestures and words prior to 1-year
• Following directions at 1-year
early achievement of
physical and cognitive