Tips for Parents: Social Experiences of Gifted Adolescents
Swiatek, M.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Dr. Mary Ann Swiatek. She addresses issues raised by parents on several topics, including acceleration, personality characteristics and developmental tasks.

2010 Seminar

Our active seminar took off quickly, with a number of themes emerging during the first day. Following is a summary of some of the key points of discussion within each theme.

Theme #1: Finding Friends

  • It can be difficult for PG kids to find friends, because they are on a very different intellectual (and sometimes emotional) level than others their age. Seminar participants mentioned the following resources that helped their children find friends:
    • Extracurricular activities
    • Grade skipping
    • “Quirky” small groups
    • DITD activities
    • Community theatre
    • Homeschooling groups
    • Church groups
    •  Band/orchestra o Sports
  • Overall number of friends usually is not an important measure of a child’s social “health,” and neither is amount of time spent alone vs. with others. Some children are introverted, and this is not necessarily a bad or unhealthy thing. We came to the conclusion that the most important single issue probably is whether the child is happy. A child who spends a lot of time alone, but is able to function well socially and is happy, is better off than a child who has lots of friends but is miserable, or a child who spends a lot of time alone because he or she can’t get along with others.
  • Children who radically accelerate may end up having older students treat them as “mascots” rather than friends. Some students are fine with this; others cannot tolerate it.

Theme #2: “Fitting in”

  • Children vary in their need to “fit in” with age peers. Those with a strong need to fit in probably won’t be comfortable with highly visible educational interventions. Some participants suggested that boys may be less concerned about fitting in than girls are.
  • To some extent, the same kinds of things kids have done to find friends are things they do to discover how to fit in. Parents also mentioned boarding school (perhaps especially with a focus on a special interest, such as music), early college entrance programs, and camps for PG kids as places where children may find that “fit.”
  • The ability to fit in may change with different developmental stages—“teen issues” can change the social picture, for instance. Parents need to be constantly aware of what’s going on, and flexible enough to meet a child’s changing needs (both social and academic).
  • As in Theme #1, the child’s happiness may be the most important issue—that was an overarching theme of this seminar!
  • The ability to fit in may be important, and acceleration may make that difficult, but other important things can be facilitated by acceleration—such as learning to deal with failure, and developing positive characteristics like perseverance and resilience.
  • Several participants noted that exposure to “pop culture,” such as TV shows, can help a child fit in.

Theme #3: Acceleration

  • Social aspects of acceleration may get better with time, as children’s bodies mature and they physically stand out less among older students.
  • Keeping the lines of communication open is very important. Some families with children who went away to school talked about using technology (e.g., Skype, Facebook) to their advantage in this respect.
  • Even when a child is accelerated, he or she may stand out academically because of issues like learning at a faster pace than classmates. Additional educational interventions may be necessary, and they bring with them more social implications.
  • Creativity and flexibility really can be key when deciding how to meet both the social and the academic needs of PG kids—even when acceleration is part of the picture. One of the repeated phrases in this thread was that “there are always tradeoffs.”

Participants also asked for further information about my research on social coping. To summarize: Larry Coleman and Tracy Cross talk about a "stigma of giftedness paradigm," in which gifted students believe that others treat them differently because of their giftedness (whether that's actually true or not really doesn't really matter), and they want "normal" social relationships, so they do things to manage the information others have about them in order to attain the most "normal" social life possible. I've called the things they do "social coping strategies," and worked to be able to measure them with a paper-and-pencil survey. The strategies that emerged were:

  • Hiding giftedness (e.g., not discussing test grades)
  • Denying giftedness (e.g., thinking people are wrong when they believe you're gifted)
  • Using humor
  • Becoming highly involved in social activities (including extracurriculars; sometimes this came up as two strategies—one involving general activity level and one specific to providing academic assistance to other students)
  • Denying that giftedness matters to your popularity
  • Focusing on popularity and striving to conform to others (or, conversely, refusing to do so; sometimes conformity and focusing on popularity came up as two separate strategies)

Some studies have suggested that girls may be more likely than boys to deny their giftedness and use the social interactions strategies, whereas boys may be more likely than girls to use humor, but these gender differences are not consistent across studies.

One of my studies related the various social coping strategies to areas of self-concept in order to understand more about which strategies are "healthy" and which can be detrimental (at least in terms of self-concept). That study indicated that problem-focused coping strategies (those that aim to address the actual problem a student is facing, such as maintaining a high activity level or helping others, both of which directly increase social involvement) tended to be positively related to self-concept. Emotion-focused strategies (those that aim to make the student feel better without actually changing the situation, such as denying giftedness or denying that being gifted has any effect on one's social experience) tended to be negatively related to self-concept.

Several participants were interested in the long-term adjustment of students who use different types of social coping strategies. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that specific issue has been researched.

2007 Seminar

This article by Mary Ann Swiatek, written as a summary of her 2007 "Social Experiences of Gifted Adolescents" online parent seminar, addresses the subject of various social experiences had by gifted adolescents in a question and suggestion format. It addresses concerns ranging from imaginative play and immature peers to the importance of social interaction.

Q: Should parents be concerned if gifted children continue to engage in highly imaginative play into the school years?

S: Probably not. Many seminar participants stated that their PG children are interested in imaginative play up through at least age 12, and some noted that they themselves were very involved in this type of play as children. Such interests may be related to high levels of creativity. Another possibility is that, when there is not sufficient academic challenge at school, gifted students may find their fantasy worlds more interesting than their real environments.

Q: How can parents help gifted children to overcome shyness and let their true personalities show around others?

S: It probably depends on the source of the shyness.

Gifted children and adolescents tend to be very aware that their abilities are not always regarded positively by others. Their apparent shyness may be caution in the presence of new people, to make sure they will be accepted. This actually may be a strength, as long as some friends are made and appropriate trust is developed.

Some kids don’t connect well with schoolmates because they haven’t got enough in common with them. In this case, extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, arts, scouts, church groups) may help provide a common interest around which friendships can be formed. One parent suggested the book Good Friends are Hard to Find, by Fred Frankel, for information about how to “break into” an established friendship group.

Some students may experience anxiety in social situations (e.g., dry mouth, feeling like the throat closes up, the mind going blank). Role plays may help such children develop skills for social interaction that can alleviate such anxiety, and relaxation techniques can directly work against the anxiety itself. In extreme cases, a professional therapist also may help.

Q: How can parents help a child who is put off by “immature” behavior (e.g., profanity, selfishness, arrogance) among classmates, even in gifted pullout programs?

S: Suggestions for finding like-minded kids included Talent Search summer programs, student government, school activities focused on justice (like Mock Trials), service-oriented volunteer opportunities, and community kids’ groups organized around a prosocial topic. One participant suggested that some private schools have a focus on prosocial behavior, although of course financial concerns may prohibit a move to a private school. Of course, the Davidson Gatherings are wonderful ways for kids to meet intellectual peers, and some seminar participants commented that their children’s behavior is completely different at a Gathering than just about anywhere else—more outgoing, more relaxed, more involved in typical kid activities like playing cards or “hanging out.”

Q: Should parents “push” children toward greater social interaction “for their own good?”

S: The answer to this question may depend on whether the child is simply somewhat introverted or has a desire for more social interaction and doesn’t know how to get it. As a psychologist, my first questions are about the child’s adjustment and happiness. If a child spends quite a bit of time alone, but is happy and has the ability to interact well with others when necessary, I wouldn’t worry too much. If the child is not happy, or does not have the skills to develop the kind of social life he or she desires, then help might be appropriate.

Several participants noted that their attempts to “push kids for their own good” have not worked out well, however. Some remembered ill-fated attempts by their own parents to do the same with them. One participant noted that that her family has a rule that a child must try a new activity twice. If the child doesn’t like it after two tries, the activity can be dropped. Sometimes, it turns out that the child really likes something—but if not, his or her wishes are respected. This also frees the child up to try a variety of things and seek a good fit.

Q: What do you do if a child “doesn’t want to be gifted,” doesn’t want to associate with gifted peers, or refers to how he or she “used to be gifted?”

S: Students may struggle to accept giftedness because it makes them different from others. One participant recalled telling her son that he didn’t have a choice about being gifted, and explaining that developing friendships takes time. Various threads in our discussion touched on the need for commonality in friendship, which may be intellectual, but also may be based on interests or general outlook on life. Although some students may talk about how they “used to be gifted,” I suggested considering whether they take challenging courses at school and do their best in them. If a child is willing to take on academic challenge and is keeping doors open for the future, I’d worry less about such talk than if the child were avoiding challenge.


2006 seminar TIPS

This article written by Mary Ann Swiatek as a summary of her 2006 "Social Experiences of Gifted Adolescents" online parent seminar addresses the subject of various social experiences had by gifted adolescents focusing on Developmental Tasks.

Regarding acceleration, both benefits and potential drawbacks were discussed. The families who posted information about their children’s experience of acceleration described situations consistent with research findings. That is, the children were able to manage acceleration socially, even in cases of very early college entrance, and sometimes actually seemed to fit in better after accelerating. That’s not uncommon, because profoundly gifted children typically have more in common with older children than with agemates, especially in terms of interests and ways of thinking about things. In some cases, however, social development lags behind intellectual development, and providing for both can be a challenge. In such situations, participation in age-based groups outside of school can be very beneficial. Parents in the seminar mentioned that their children particularly benefited from participation in activities including scouts, church groups, and band. What turned out to be a bigger concern for several families of accelerated children was lack of organizational skills. A young child in an advanced grade needs to be able to organize work, and some parents felt that the child was resistant to independence and still wanted Mom and Dad to take care things. This led us into the next topic…

Developmental tasks. Organizational skills often don’t develop strongly until adolescence. Some children who are advanced in intellectual skills may still be at age level in the ability to be organized. Of course, there also is a range of organizational ability among adults. Linked to the issue of being organized was that of being independent, which is a key developmental task of adolescence. It’s a time when kids are forging their own identities and separating from parents. Academically advanced children may also be advanced in this area, or may be more like agemates. Sometimes, the way people look at development is based on average-ability people and may not apply to PG children. For instance, skipping all or part of high school and not having the opportunity to attend “the prom” can be seen as a social disaster! Many of us remember things like the prom as fun and exciting, and maybe as milestones in our development. That naturally leads us to believe that such experiences are important for everyone, but that isn’t necessarily true. I mentioned an article (done at the Early Entrance Program at the University of Washington, I believe) indicating that highly accelerated college students acknowledged that they missed out on some things, but generally found it was “worth it” because of all the wonderful opportunities they got by going to college early. Sometimes, there can be pressure to “normalize” PG kids—to make them just like everyone else—apparently because of a perception that being different is unhealthy. Oddly, this tends to be the perception of intellectual gifts, but not necessarily gifts like extraordinary athletic ability. For PG kids, some differences from “the norm” are unavoidable, and that’s okay.

At least, it’s usually okay. In the Personality Characteristics topic, we discussed distinguishing “normal” behavior from behavior that is cause for concern. It’s important to remember that there is a very wide range of “normal” behavior. The issue of introversion was one of the first to arise. Some families commented that their children do not seem interested in initiating social activities with other kids, or prefer to engage in more solitary pursuits, or hang out much more with adults than with other kids. The reasons for such patterns vary. When children do not have access to an intellectually-matched peer group (whether other PG kids or older individuals), they may turn to solitary activities instead. Even with access to others of similar mental age, some people just aren’t all that social. Further, age and gender differences are common. Young children typically do not develop close friendships—it’s not until adolescence that most children develop long-term friendships that are based on real intimacy. Also, girls typically are much more interested than boys in having a close confidante, or a “best friend.” Boys tend to have groups of friends that are based more on activities than on heart-to-heart talks. In general, as long as a child is productive and happy, everything’s probably just fine.

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