There is a great diversity in children’s response to divorce and remarriage. Some experience more adverse consequences and some are more resilient and manage to cope and even thrive following the marital breakup.
The considerable research literature on the effects of divorce on children suggests that the most devastating impact of divorce on children is not the divorce itself, but the manner of how the disintegration occurs, the degree of ongoing conflict between parents and/or lack of cooperation in coparenting.
There is, as well, a growing body of research concerning special populations of children and parents. This body of research includes the impact of family disintegration on medically ill and disabled children, families with same-sex parents, adopted children, infants and very young children. However, there is simply an absence of research on gifted children and how they are impacted by divorce.
There is a constellation of behavioral, intellectual and academic behaviors some or all of which are often attributed to the gifted child and many of these carry over into adulthood. These include such things as unusually large vocabularies and complex sentence structure for their age, the desire to organize people and things, a tendency to be idealistic and perfectionistic. Above all is the almost universal characteristic of intensity; these individuals are intense about almost everything. Those with high intelligence seem to have a heightened response to stimuli. They are exuberant, passionate. This intensity is reflected in one or more of five different areas: Intellectual, Imaginational, Emotional, Psychomotor and Sensual.
Gifted children are likely to be vulnerable to certain stresses that do not affect other groups of children in the same way or to the same degree. As mentioned, greater intensity and sensitivity are among intrapersonal factors that make them especially vulnerable to the particular stresses inherent in the disintegrating family. Other intrapersonal factors may include unusually high standards and expectations as well as uneven development (asynchronous development), idealism and fear of failure.
Keep in mind, the apple does not fall far from the tree. Parents of gifted children often display some, if not all of these same intensities. The parents are struggling to come to terms with their own thoughts and feelings about their failing relationship and doing so with intensity. Gifted parents also have their own intensities that can aggravate an already difficult situation.
In the midst of their parents’ struggles these bright children worry (like other children coping with fears about negative reactions from others) about finding peers and fitting into social situations as well as solving conflicts at home or even accepting authority figures. Their response, however, is often clothed in greater intensity.
Over the course of thirty years of conducting custody evaluations for the courts, I have found that the idealistic and perfectionistic child frequently coped with the breakup of the family by allying themselves with one or the other parent. Perfectionistic and idealistic thinking does not tolerate well the ambiguity of relationships; especially failing relationships. The child who displays intellectual overexcitabilities looks for answers to his parent’s problems, often for which there are no clear cut answers. This is the child who desperately tries to make sense of the dispute between his/her parents and determine who was right and who was wrong.
The legal and psychological professions must be careful not to make the mistake that this population, because of their intelligence, gets overlooked. All too often the assumption is made that because of their giftedness the child will do well; they’ll figure it out. Yet, it is all too clear that their uniqueness and intensity make them more vulnerable.
In a wonderful book, “Cradles of Eminence”, by Victor and Mildred Goertzel (2004), the childhoods of famous men and women were examined. The authors, talking of these gifted children and parents, note that, “normality as evidenced by a lack of internal tension; adequate social, economic, and familial adaptation, and harmonious integration with other individuals at all levels, implies a lack of creativity, imagination, and spontaneity. The comfortable and contented do not ordinarily become creative… (Gifted) Children in these turbulent and explosive homes do not always enjoy life. They suffer intensely at times, and they are deeply capable of suffering since they are sensitive and aware individuals… The homes that cradle eminence, creativity and contentment are not congenial. Both parents and children are often irritable, explosive, changeable, and experimental. They are prone to depression and exultation. They make terrible mistakes and win wonderful victories.”