Problem of Pain

Stephanie S. Tolan

The Problem of Pain

by Stephanie S. Tolan

            When Guiding the Gifted Child was published (more than twenty years ago now) parents of exceptionally and profoundly gifted children began calling me, pouring out their stories and asking for my advice.  At that time there was very little information available anywhere about the needs of children at the highest ranges of human intelligence and though our book hadn’t focused on that population specifically, the last chapter told the story of my own exceptionally gifted son and the profoundly gifted son of my closest friend.  That chapter served as a kind of lifeline to parents who had been struggling with the issues alone.  When parents called, they usually cried or cursed as they told their stories -- often both.  They were desperate.

            Today much has changed.  There is a great deal of information available to parents and there are also a number of internet lists which connect parents (and children) with others facing the same issues.  Parents are no longer alone.  Thanks to the internet lists I get fewer phone calls than I used to.

            Unfortunately, the calls I do get make it clear that neither more information nor a greater sense of community has eradicated parental desperation.  Life for highly gifted children and their families can still be enormously difficult.  What the parents who call me are dealing with is pain -- often intense pain -- their children’s and their own.

            Pain isn’t a subject that we often address directly, and that may be one reason why we don’t cope with it very well. Our culture’s attitude is anything but helpful.  Watch a little commercial television and you’ll see the two most common responses to pain.  The first is “Have a pain?  Take a pill.”  That response used to focus on physical pain, but lately it has grown to include emotional or psychological pain.   In a culture that claims to want to keep children off drugs, drugs are pushed to adults at every turn.  Pharmaceutical remedies are now promoted not just for headaches, stomach aches, sore muscles and heartburn, but for depression (often loosely defined), extreme sensitivity, and shyness (now dubbed social anxiety disorder).  Worse, these pharmaceutical remedies, without studies to prove either their safety or effectiveness for adolescents and children, are more and more being offered to adolescents, children and even toddlers.

            The second response is, “Do something to fix the situation that causes pain and if it can’t be fixed, hire a lawyer and sue someone.”  If it can’t be fixed, the reasoning seems to be, the perpetrators should be identified and punished and we should be monetarily compensated.

            While either of these responses might be appropriate in certain situations, the idea that all pain can or should be addressed by one or the other suggests that pain is an aberration, that we somehow have an inalienable right to a pain-free existence. If we encounter pain there is something wrong, someone to blame, and a critical need to stop the pain immediately.

            But the truth is that life includes pain.  For everyone.  And the truth for the families of highly gifted children is that there may be a considerable amount of pain caused by the degree of giftedness itself.  It comes with the territory. 

The Pain of High Range Giftedness

            The first most obvious source of pain for the highly gifted is that they don’t fit our culture’s expectations, norms and institutions.  They are different in a culture that dislikes and fears difference, in a culture that more and more defines difference as pathology.  The term normal is too often used to mean average.  That leads to the belief that what is not average is abnormal.  In this climate whether a child chooses to be true to herself and risk ostracism or whether she denies important aspects of herself and adopts protective camouflage in order to fit in, pain is likely to be involved in her choice. 

            We are a communal species; we need each other.  But it can be difficult or even impossible for exceptionally gifted children to find other children with whom they can share their deepest thoughts and most passionate interests.  They can come to feel like aliens in an alien land.

            In addition, their difference can lead to attacks from others.  Sometimes what feels to the child like an attack was meant to be ordinary childhood teasing, but the child’s unusual sensitivity makes it feel much more serious.  Often, though, the attack is quite purposeful.  It may come from other children, or it may come from a defensive adult threatened by a child whose vocabulary, knowledge or understanding of a particular topic is more extensive than his or her own.  Sometimes a highly gifted child develops a spiritual understanding of her own and humanity’s place in the universe that so challenges the world view of her culture or even religious tradition that fear-based attacks may occur against the child and any family members who support her nontraditional world view.  Any behavior felt to be an attack, whatever the motivation, causes pain.

            The unusual sensitivity that is common to the highly gifted population may cause pain in a variety of ways.  Children bright enough to see at an early age the way the world is and also to create for themselves an image of the way things ought to be, must come to terms with the need to live in the gulf between, and so may be subject to a degree of existential depression or despair.  Some children have such strong empathy with other people, with animals or even with the planet itself that they may internalize pain from outside themselves without knowing it. 

            Parents too, of course, experience an unusual amount of pain from the giftedness itself.  Some of it comes from seeing their children in pain, some from their own childhood pain, reactivated as the same sorts of things that happened to them happen to their children.  Injustice makes most of us crazy, and the gifted must regularly contend with injustice (often with no remedy).  The fact is that extreme giftedness in a family can create a level of pain equal to that of dealing with a severe handicap.

When There’s No Solution

            In call after call over the last two decades, parents have described situations (often truly appalling ones) that for one reason or another cannot be “fixed.”  There may be no way to change the person or the situation creating the problem and no way to remove the child or substitute a safer environment.  Sometimes there are strategies that may relieve the current pain but are likely to create equal or possibly greater pain.  Our cultural preference for finding the solution to every problem ignores the fact that some situations are not mere problems, but dilemmas, in which all the available choices have negative consequences.  Sometimes we can’t choose the best answer, we can only look for the least harmful one.  Time and time again I have hung up the phone after a conversation with a parent and cried, feeling the intensity of the family’s pain and knowing there is nothing I can do to take it away.

            I have come to realize that what parents need even more than answers to an immediately painful situation, is a way of seeing the inevitable pain of life that is healthier than our standard cultural view.  They need to recognize that some of the people who have shared their extraordinary gifts with the world in extraordinary ways are people whose lives (in childhood and after) have included great pain, but who developed resiliency and learned to use their gifts to handle their pain.  Parents could also use a set of strategies (what one mother called a “nifty tool kit”) for handling pain. 

Pain Thresholds

            It’s important, first, to recognize that pain, whether physical or emotional, is an individual matter.  What causes one person enormous pain may give someone else little more than minor discomfort.  We need to be aware of individual differences in the perception of pain, the reaction to pain and the expression of pain.  Some parents have called me in trauma over something that is happening to their child, concerned that the child seems not to be reacting.  There are several possible explanations for this.  The child may genuinely not feel as traumatized as the parent, the child may feel it but may either deny it or refuse to focus on it, or the child may feel it, react strongly, but hide his feelings rather than expressing them. It’s important to observe a child carefully to learn his or her typical pattern.  This isn’t always easy, especially when parents and children have different pain thresholds and different ways of responding to pain.

            When my own son was in a class of older children in which classmates often bullied him and the teacher frequently reminded everyone of how much younger he was, I took him to see a psychologist because I was afraid that his generally cheerful appearance was hiding a level of pain and stress that should be addressed.  The psychologist assured me that he was just fine; RJ thought the bullying said more about the bullies than about himself, he rather liked the teacher and so allowed the belittling comments to roll off his back, and his cheerful appearance reflected the fact that he was a very cheerful kid!  What I would have found painful, RJ was able to take in stride.  A friend of mine has a rule for such a situation:  “Never disturb a happy child.” 

            On the other hand, the extremely sensitive child who hasn’t been taught to distinguish between levels of pain may go into paroxysms of agony over every tiny bump in the emotional road so that parents become desensitized to the constant expression of pain.  They may then ignore serious alarm bells.  Or they may become so impatient with the whole issue that they give the child the message that unusual sensitivity is a shameful thing.  My father, of stoical German heritage, must have been totally stumped by the problem of raising a “skinless” and highly emotional child.  Having done his best to outlaw feelings, he made it clear to me that strong people not only didn’t show pain, they didn’t have it in the first place.  Pain in our family was proof of poor character, weakness, failure.  I’ve often thought how much easier it would have been on my father to raise my cheerful son instead of me!

            It is important to mention that there are a few children, whom some would call “old souls,” who seem to come into the world able to handle pain in a unique way.  They can apparently do with it what the Buddhist compassion meditation is designed to allow the meditator to do -- absorb the pain of the world, process it through the heart with compassion, and send it out into the world again as love.  If you should be lucky enough to have one of these rare children, you may learn more than you will teach.

Perceptions, Definitions and Meaning

            How do you perceive and define pain?  What does it mean to you?  The answers to these questions determine your ability to cope with it, to teach and to model for your children. 

            As parents, it is our responsibility to keep our children from harm.  If we equate pain with harm, then we will think it’s our job to keep our children from experiencing pain -- an impossibility that will create even more pain for us and for them when it comes in spite of our best efforts to keep it at bay.  If we think pain is some kind of punishment or an unfair visitation of unnecessary distress, then our ability to contend with it will be marginal.  It can grow beyond the immediate experience and take on implications of guilt, injustice, or the hostility of a vengeful god or a malign universe, which can be overwhelming.  If this is how we view pain, we are likely to teach our children to ignore, deny, run from or blame themselves or others for pain that can’t be immediately stopped, fixed or avoided.   In the worst case scenario this perception of pain can lead to addictions, bitterness, withdrawal or suicide.

            All religious traditions address the issue of pain in one way or another and a family’s religious traditions or spiritual awareness is likely to have important effects on their understanding of pain’s meaning.  The effects of tradition can be positive or negative, depending on the tradition and on the interpretation of its teachings the family subscribes to.  But whether you have a religious or spiritual focus in your family or not, you have a belief system about what the universe is like and what your place in it is, and you will teach this belief system to your children, if not by word, then by modeling.  Einstein is quoted as saying that the most important question each person must answer is whether the universe is a friendly place.  It will be far easier to handle your own pain and model good strategies for your children, if you believe in a friendly universe!


            The following tools are readily available to anyone of any age, but all of them require practice.  That’s why some of the people most able to handle pain are the ones who have had the most pain in their lives.  The more we use the tools, the better we get at using them and the better they work.  Pain is an excellent motivator, and for some it’s quite enough.  Others would rather moan and groan and whine about pain, or grit their teeth and stoically endure it, or shriek and rage about having to encounter it, than put out personal effort to cope with it.  Using the following tools may require going against a good deal of conditioning, or against our own natural tendencies.  If we tend to run from pain, for instance, it isn’t going to be easy at first to get ourselves to turn around and face it.  But the tools work.  They don’t take pain out of the world, but they can literally turn lives around and bring light into darkness.

Ten Tools for the “Nifty Tool Kit”

1.  Acceptance. 

            Accept that pain is part of life, neither unfair nor intended to ruin your day or your children’s childhood.  Accepting pain allows you to move through it and out the other side, while denying it shoves it inside, where it does not vanish, but remains and often festers. When someone hurts your child, old, denied pain can sometimes burst like a boil and turn you into a raving maniac, unable to address the issue reasonably.

            Accepting pain instead of denying or covering it up, allows us to feel it, experience it for as long as it lasts, and then let it go.  Accepting it lets us discover that it can and naturally will go.  And once out on the other side of a painful experience, we are likely to discover that something very important has been learned that could have been learned no other way. 

Some pain, of course, does not simply pass with time – the loss of a loved one, for instance, may remain with us a lifetime, returning from time to time with an intensity that surprises us.  But even that pain becomes more bearable and less intrusive over time – here, too, acceptance helps. 

2.  “One Day at a Time” or “Day-tight Compartments”

            If we can keep our attention confined to a small space, the pain that fills that space will be easier to handle.  In times of moderate pain that space may be a day; in times of intense pain that space may be a minute or even a second.  It’s possible to endure something briefly that we can’t imagine enduring for a long time.  If we focus on the moment, we can get through just this one, then just this one, then just this one.  If we look back at all the other bad moments there have been and extrapolate from that an infinite number of future bad moments, they all run together into a single eternal pain and we may not to be able to handle it.

3.  The Blanket.

            Many children, like Linus, have “security blankets” that provide more than security.  They provide comfort.  It is important to find out what soothes and comforts us, what soothes and comforts each of our children, and then provide it whenever possible during painful times.  It may be a warm bubble bath or a long walk or a cuddle and a story.  It’s important not to think of this comfort as indulgence, but as healing medicine.  My parents’ generation disallowed thumb-sucking and bemoaned the introduction of pacifiers.  The excuse was teeth -- thumb-sucking led to braces.  But the underlying reason was that the cultural traditions of their time suggested that comforting a child would make him weak.  There is nothing inherently weakening in comfort during a rough time.  As long as the mode of comfort doesn’t cause immediate or future pain of its own (like alcohol and drugs or too much sugar or chocolate) the dosage may be increased as the need increases.

            My parents’ generation did have a point, though.  As important as it is to provide comfort, we also need to expect and encourage healing and moving on.  Carried too far, offered too often or for too long, comfort can become an end in itself.  Parents who model accepting and admitting our pain, comforting ourselves, allowing it to move through, and then getting on with our lives, give children the confidence to contend with their pain and leave it behind rather than identifying with it and coming to think of themselves as requiring constant attention because of it.  Providing plenty of love and attention when pain isn’t in the picture can help avoid this problem.

4.  Other People.

            We need each other.  One of the most important uses of community is support during bad times.  Because families with exceptionally gifted children are a minority, it can be difficult to establish as many human-to-human ties as we need.  The first step is to seek them out, either in person or through electronic connection, and the second step is to take very good care of the friends we do find.  It’s easy for people with lots of interests to get so busy that we forget to nurture our relationships.  We need to be sure to call or visit friends and arrange for our children to do the same.  Write letters.  Exchange e-mail.  We need to spend time with the people we care about.  Time is vital to building relationships.

            And don’t forget the value of pets for both children and adults.  Animals provide enormous support, sympathy and love, and we can gain balance and perspective from the care and love we offer them.

5.  Help Somebody Else.

            Every year during the holidays newspapers are full of advice to those who find the holidays painful and depressing -- get out and volunteer to make a pleasant holiday for someone else.  Helping somebody else is an excellent way to keep us from being overwhelmed by our own troubles.  Sometimes, in the process, we find people whose pain is far greater than our own and we realize that things aren’t quite so bad as we thought.  Other times, we simply substitute helping (and the good feeling that brings) for hurting.

6.  This Too Shall Pass

            Nothing remains.  Nothing stays the same.  One of my own favorite sayings is “there are no caves, only tunnels.”  It reminds me that no matter how dark and small a space I may be in, there’s a way not just out, but through.  And outside there’s light.

            Telling ourselves that nothing lasts reminds us that no pain is forever.  But there’s another benefit to it as well.  Knowing that good things also pass encourages us to appreciate them while they last.

7.  Breathe.

            Focusing on the breath is a technique the Lamaze method teaches for dealing with pain during childbirth and it is the foundation of many meditation practices that work to reduce levels of stress and pain.  We all breathe, but seldom do we notice.  Conscious breathing is a tool that’s easy to learn, works quickly, and can be used virtually any time, anywhere, under any circumstances.  The more you practice it the more quickly it will work to calm and center you.  Begin by simply noticing your breath, not trying to control it, just noticing each intake and each out breath.  Gradually let your breathing deepen and slow, concentrating on the sensations as the breath moves into and through you. 

            Most of us breathe from our chests rather than our diaphragms, and changing that can increase the effectiveness of the breathing technique.  Take a deep breath and watch to see whether it is your chest or your stomach that moves.  If it’s your chest, see if you can change the way you are breathing so that the movement happens below your rib cage.  To teach children this, have them lie on the floor and place a book on their stomachs.  Have them breathe so that they move the book up and down.  Then let them experiment with moving first their chests and then the book so that they begin to feel the difference.

            A quick way to switch from chest-breathing to diaphragmatic breathing is to take a very deep breath and then let it out in a hard, fast sigh.  Doing it once or twice usually accomplishes the switch. 

            As simple as the breathing technique sounds, it is amazingly effective.  Practicing it regularly can make it an important part of daily life, useful not only for times of pain and stress, but for increasing our awareness of positive feelings, bringing us into the moment to experience them more fully.

8. Make a “Terrific Things” list

            Bernie Siegel, an M.D. who has worked with cancer patients throughout his career, often advises people who are dealing with life and death issues to make a list of the terrific things that have happened to them in the last week and then share it with someone.  It is very easy to notice what hurts, so that in really rough times we may quickly come to believe that pain is all there is.  Making a conscious effort to find something “terrific” in every day changes our focus.  When we are consciously looking for terrific things there turn out to be many more of them than we thought.  Most of us have had the experience of learning a new word and then hearing or seeing it used all around us, or buying a car and noticing how many others of the same model are on the road.  It isn’t that people suddenly begin using the word or driving that model car.  When we aren’t looking for something, we may not see it, even it’s right in front of us.

            Since everything is relative, what seems “terrific” during a smooth part of our life’s journey might have to be really spectacular, like winning the lottery, while what is terrific in a bad time might be something as small as a glimpse of sunset reflected on the surface of a river when we’re stuck in a traffic jam.  The important issue here is not what the terrific thing is, but that we consciously notice it and identify it as terrific!  Sharing the list of terrific things with someone else helps to keep us focused. 

9.  A gratitude list

            This is a common tool in 12 step programs.  At first it can be difficult to be grateful for anything during a time of great pain.  But if we take the task seriously and start with the goal of finding five or ten things we are grateful for, and do this every day for a week or a month, our feelings can begin to change. Sometimes we find that there are actually more things to be grateful for than to be hurting about, whether the painful situation that drove us to using this tool has changed or not.

            Sometimes a kind of spiritual miracle can occur doing this exercise.  We can come close to feeling, if not fully understanding, the mystery of pain.  If we concentrate hard enough on gratitude, we may eventually find ourselves able to be grateful not just for the things outside of or around the pain (like being able to see, or to walk, or to think or not having been hit by a bus today) but for the event or the person causing us pain, and eventually for the pain itself.  We may discover that pain stretches us, grows us and sharpens our whole experience of life.

10.  Joy

            How can this be a tool for dealing with pain, when pain and joy seem to be polar opposites?  Because joy can be a fundamental aspect of life that exists for us at all times, in all places, whether pain exists simultaneously or not.  Joy is light, airy, and may appear to be fleeting, but it can become an enduring reality that resides in our hearts somewhere above, below, or beyond pain.  It can come from building up a memory bank of all the goodness and beauty we have experienced, all that we see around us.  It can come from a sense of the deep meaning of our lives, of what we have to share with the world. 

            There is a picture book by Leo Lionni titled Frederick.  If you don’t know it, it’s worth finding, for yourself as well as for children of any age.  It is the story of a mouse who, while the other mice are industriously storing up seeds for the winter, is merely standing and looking -- at the sun, at the trees, at the sky.  The other mice think he is wasting his time, but he tells them he is working just as they are.  Later, during the long hard winter, the mice gradually eat up their whole store of seeds and find themselves cold and hungry.  It is then that Frederick shares what he has stored up.  He turns his memories of summer beauty into words and fills the cold dark place with light and warmth and beauty.

            Frederick is one of those simple, classic stories that work on many levels.  It can be seen as a celebration of art and artists.  But it is also a story about the truth and strength of joy.  Storing images of beauty, moments of joy, from our daily lives is something each of us can do if we choose to do it.  The greater our store of bright moments, the more aware we will be of their constant presence, their instant availability no matter how dark the world seems at the moment.

Perspective and Choice

            Some of you will have noticed that the last three tools are just different ways of saying the same thing.  At the bottom of the nifty tool kit there is what might be called the Swiss army knife of tools.  It does everything.  It’s perspective.

            Everything in our life view depends on perspective, viewpoint, the place we’re standing at the moment.  Photographers know that standing in one spot and shooting a picture five times can give five entirely different photos, depending on the angle of the camera or the focus.  An inch this way, an inch that way, and the whole picture changes.  Focus close or focus far, and the picture changes.  Face into the light or away from it, and it changes.  We are always in control of our perspective.  We can change focus, back off, take a larger view.

            In his powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl says, “We must never forget that we may...find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.  For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.  When we are no longer able to change a situation -- just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer -- we are challenged to change ourselves.”[1]

            Changing our perspective, changing ourselves, is a choice.  Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, whatever the life situation, whatever the pain, each of us, child or adult, always has that choice.

[1] Man’s Search for Meaning.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984, p. 116.

Revised, originally published in the Gifted Education Communicator (California Association for the Gifted), Volume 31, No. 4, Fall 2000

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