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What to do if your child has superpowers

A FAQ for concerned parents

By Samuel Arbesman
June 21, 2009
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You may have heard that it could happen at any time. One moment your child might be playing with a toy truck and the next moment he or she is levitating a few feet above the ground. Or your baby might suddenly transform into an ice sculpture. Or - and I have heard this worry expressed by more than one parent - your child might become orange and rock-like, even though he was nowhere near any cosmic rays.

Please don’t be alarmed. It’s not easy to hear the truth, that your child is indeed different. Some parents do not even hear the doctor’s words: “Your child has superpowers.” It is natural to feel afraid, and even to seek a second opinion. But it is within every parent’s power to handle such an occurrence. Indeed, you will likely come to find your life with a superpowered child an enriching one, in addition to never fearing street toughs again.

It is also natural to have questions. You no doubt feel you have been thrust into a confusing new world, with little guidance into how to balance their superpowers with, say, their schoolwork. You might have no sewing experience, and are entirely at a loss as to how to fashion a cape and tights. Or you might be afraid to change their diapers, for fear that their waste may be radioactive. These are all common concerns.

But, above all, know that you are not alone. I have counseled these special children, and their families, for nearly 25 years. And I can tell you that having a superhero child should not be cause for distress.

Q. What causes a child to be endowed with superpowers?

A. We are not entirely sure, but there are a number of theories. For example, superpowerism likely has a genetic component. Are you or your partner graced with some sort of superhuman ability? If so, you might very well have a toddler who can bend steel with his thoughts. Is your child confident and strong-jawed? Then he might be able to lift buses one day. Research has also shown that the first manifestations of special powers generally occur before the age of 8, and on school nights.

And what of the “traumatic experiences” we so often hear about when we speak of superhero origins? I cannot emphasize this enough: it is not necessary to be emotionally tormented, or to have witnessed the death of a loved one, in order to be an agent of justice.

Q. My child can control the weather and summon tornadoes at a moment’s notice. This makes discipline a challenge.

A. Discipline of a super-powered child is a complex issue. First, try to explore the limits of his or her powers, and use some common sense. Can your child control magnetic fields from across a room? If so, place all knives in the attic. Has your toddler ever ensnared you in spider-webbing that can only be removed with great effort? Explain (sternly) that superpowers are a “sometimes” behavior. And do limit their super-activities; I have found that insisting that they only use their powers for one hour a day is a good way to teach a child self-control.

Q. My child would like to dress as Wonder Woman for Halloween. Please help.

A. Halloween can be a confusing time for these children. The number of costumed children alone can make them think that everyone is a superpowered crimefighter.

But you must also exercise caution in what your own child wears. Do not dress her in a superhero costume, especially one that conflicts with her powers. This will only introduce identity issues that can manifest later in life. I personally have seen at least five cases of children who had a great deal of difficulty returning to their secret identities for months after Halloween.

In addition, amid the holiday’s excitement, some children may try to use powers that they don’t even have, with mixed results. (Though I do recall one toddler who discovered he had latent X-ray vision.)

Q. Should I allow my child to participate in soccer, or other sports?

A. There are no easy answers, though here is one thing to bear in mind: if they do decide to compete, they will be peeing into a lot of cups. I personally recommend that you allow them to participate, but responsibly.

Q. Is there anything I should do differently regarding my child’s schooling?

A. Most superpowers have little effect on cognitive abilities, and this can actually provide a good life lesson for your superpowered little one: not everyone can be good at everything. While it is jarring to realize that someone who can traverse the continent in 10 seconds can have sawdust for brains, this does happen and can be a valuable experience.

On the other hand, some superpowers are nearly entirely cognitive. This is doubly true if your child is some sort of cyborg, infused with alien technology. In this case, schoolwork would be dispatched nearly instantaneously. I recommend home-schooling, combined with a nightly rereading of Wikipedia.

Q. My child wants to choose a crime-fighting pseudonym that I do not approve of. How should I handle this?

A. Gently discuss alternatives that are more palatable. Explain that Awesome and Great Flying Boy might be more succinctly conveyed as Flyboy. Emphasize nouns rather than sentences. Of course, when they are young (as a general rule, below the age of 7), don’t worry about their name choices; they will outgrow it, just as they outgrow their desire to wear yellow rain boots as dress shoes.

Q. My super-kid just hit puberty. Help!

A. The teenage years are a difficult time for any child, and this is especially true for the super child. Their bodies are changing in complicated, and scientifically mystifying, ways. If they do not wish to fight crime when their acne is acting up, be understanding. If they wish someone were dead, before they slam their bedroom door, gently remind them that they can control things with their mind, and that they must therefore be careful.

Q. My child shows a strong interest in villainy. Should I be concerned?

A. Presumably you oppose your child’s desire to become a super-villain, a position I wholeheartedly endorse. However, my experience has taught me that being intent on world domination is a phase that everyone goes through. If these feeling persist, however, consider allowing them to control a small region populated by self-aware robots. This will give them a sense of responsibility and ownership, and make them aware of the burdens that come with dominion over a society. Very likely, they will grow tired of the iron grip they hold over their mechanical citizenry, and revert to a life of defending humanity against the dark lords of evil and chaos.

Samuel Arbesman is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Healthcare Policy at Harvard Medical School.