Anxiety and Gifted Children
With anxiety rising, parents are understandably concerned about their children’s distress – it’s our number one duty to see to their wellbeing after all! Parents of gifted and twice exceptional (2e) children may find it no surprise that their children’s unique brains also come with some challenges when it comes to anxiety. In this article we’ll review the main factors that affect anxiety for gifted and 2e students as well as tips for parents for managing anxiety at home.
Are gifted students more likely to feel anxiety than neurotypical peers?
Not exactly. As has been pointed out in other articles, there is some research to support two different answers to this question. Some research has pointed to the fact that being gifted can be a risk factor for anxiety due to their outlier status in schools, while others have highlighted the resilience of gifted children when it comes to managing difficult emotions. However, the consensus seems to be that, while gifted children are no more or less likely to experience anxiety than their peers, the way they experience anxiety is different due to their unique characteristics, which we review in more detail below.
One important note on this topic though is that anxiety is on the rise for children and adolescents across the country. In our own work at the Davidson Institute, we have also observed that the topic of anxiety has come up more frequently in conversations with parents. Again, this isn’t to say gifted children are experiencing more anxiety, rather, gifted children like all children are responding to the changing social, political, and technological world around them.
What gifted characteristics affect anxiety?
In our experience, no two gifted children are alike, but they often overlap in certain characteristics or life experiences. The following list is not all inclusive but shares some of the more common traits of giftedness that can amplify anxiety.
Heightened Sensory Processing
Sensory processing is a large umbrella term that relates to both how the physical world is understood through the senses (touch, sight, taste, smell, sound) and how we respond to all the information we take in through our senses. Research has found that many gifted and twice-exceptional students have heightened sensitivity to the world around them, which can be both a strength and setback. Their “hyper-awareness” of the world around them may increase their physical discomfort to loud noises, scratchy fabrics, or pungent smells, creating anxiety around certain physical stimuli.
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that this heightened sensory processing in gifted children often creates stronger and more vivid impressions of events around them and may be linked to increased emotional processing. This means that gifted and 2e children are more likely to have stronger emotional reactions to both ordinary experiences and extraordinary events that might be shown on the news. These findings aren’t universal for all gifted children nor do they mean that gifted children with sensory sensitivities are bound to have anxiety. However, parents should be mindful if their child frequently has meltdowns or withdraws as the chronic stress on their nervous system may be a risk factor for anxiety.
Asynchrony is a big catch-all term in the gifted and 2e world. It can refer to a number of different profiles and situations, but generally describes the uneven cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development of a child. Asynchrony is thought to be a hallmark of giftedness as, the higher the intellectual capability, the more it will appear out of sync with the rest of the normal childhood development. While asynchrony can show up in a range of areas, when it comes to gifted children and anxiety, asynchrony may play a larger role in emotional coping skills.
Gifted children possess the ability to intellectualize beyond their years at an early age, but they may not possess the emotional understanding to cope with bigger concepts like war, injustice, and death. Relatedly, research into the gifted brain shows that executive functioning skills can be delayed by several years in gifted children. While executive functioning is more commonly cited for issues like organization, it has a large effect on social-emotional development and regulating emotions. Younger gifted children may not have the appropriate emotional coping strategies and life experience needed to process life’s more challenging topics, which may play a role in the development of anxious behaviors.
Kazimierz Dabrowski’s concept of overexcitabilities (OEs) is prevalent in many discussions surrounding giftedness. Dabrowski observed more intensity and/or sensitivity in the gifted in the following five areas: psychomotor, sensory, intellect, imagination, and emotions. Not every child displays intensity in all five, but it is understandable that gifted children who tend to have vivid imaginations, overanalyze, or over-empathize may be more likely to experience anxiety. In particular, OEs that lend themselves to catastrophic thinking may increase a child’s risk of anxiety disorder.
As we have discussed in our other blog articles, perfectionism is a prevalent condition in gifted children, even those who underachieve. Gifted children who are aware of their capabilities often place high standards on themselves and those around them. Additionally, well-meaning teachers and parents may unintentionally reinforce these high expectations. This can create a cycle of shame when they fail to meet their own standards. Perfectionism, at its core, stems from a lack of self-acceptance and is a risk factor for chronic anxiety.
While social-environmental fit is outside the scope of gifted characteristics, many gifted children share similar experiences in these areas. Negative events that happen at school, like teasing, can contribute to any child’s anxiety. However, one dimension of the gifted experience is that it is often the case that these students feel isolated from their same-age peers or alienated by their intellectual gifts in the classroom. They are less likely to find a “true peer” who shares their interest and feel like they don’t belong in the classroom. This chronic outlier experience may negatively affect their ability to develop a healthy self-concept and contribute to both generalized and social anxiety.
Many additional factors can influence how students experience anxiety, such as being twice exceptional, coming from a low-income or minority background, and experiencing a traumatic event.
How to treat anxiety in gifted students?
It may be impossible to avoid anxiety in one’s life, so the first step is to recognize that anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. Normalizing anxiety in your household can help children (and parents) from feeling further isolated by the shame of feeling anxious. One way to normalize anxiety is to talk about your experiences with anxiety and what you did to overcome them in that moment: “I was really anxious leading up to my annual evaluation at work today, but I took a few big breaths and a short walk right before the meeting which helped me reset.” In this example, the parent is sharing that anxiety happens to them and is a safe topic for discussion. They also shared that breathing techniques and getting some fresh air are some solutions to help when someone is feeling anxious.
Connect with Each Other and the Present Moment
In S.O.S. moments like an anxiety attack, listen to your child’s concerns and let the student know their feelings are valid. Expressing our fears out loud has research backing its effectiveness at helping reduce negative emotions. If they aren’t able to articulate what caused their anxiety in that moment, try connecting them to the present moment and the physical world around them. This may be particularly helpful for gifted children who experience profound, overwhelming, or existential thoughts at night before bed. Have them name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can smell, 2 things they can feel, and 1 thing they can taste. There are many breathing exercises that can help reduce anxiety as well.
Keep Calm and Co-regulate
Keep in mind, when someone is anxious, their nervous system is “on alert” and their body may be telling them to fight, flight, or freeze. This is why yelling is never an effective way to communicate to a child with anxiety. It can be exhausting or even alarming for the parent when facing these situations, but staying calm will be the most effective option to help a student in distress recognize that they are not in immediate danger. In fact, parental anxiety is a strong predictor for children’s anxiety, which is why parent self-care and modeling self-soothing techniques can be a great way to address the issue of anxiety as a family, especially for our perceptive gifted children who tend to pick up on everything going on around them. It will be difficult at times, but the parent’s role as the co-regulator is crucial for helping children work through anxiety. An excellent parenting resource on this topic is the book The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
Cover the Basics
Once the acute anxious episode has passed, parents will want to make sure that their child is getting plenty of sleep at night, getting regular exercise or activity each day, and eating nutritiously. While this won’t solve everything, maintaining a healthy body and stable weekly routine will help provide the foundation to address any additional concerns that could otherwise be exacerbated by physiological issues like insomnia or malnourishment. Aside from physical needs, attending to the child’s sense of belonging is another way to lay a healthy foundation so that they can positively work through feelings of anxiety when they come up. Community service, volunteerism, youth groups, and afterschool clubs can help alleviate feeling isolated, especially if the gifted child is able to meet like-minded peers through these opportunities.
Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help
Lastly, know that there is no shame in needing the help of a professional. As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, child and adolescent anxiety are on the rise. If your child is experiencing anxiety that is increasing in intensity, persistence, and prevalence, it may be time to get help from a therapist or counselor. You can read more about how to find a gifted therapist and considerations for working with gifted professionals in our blog.
While this article focused on the aspects of giftedness that may amplify anxiety, it is important to note that there is research that supports that resilience may also be part of the gifted package deal. With the right tools and support at home, our gifted children are just as likely to do well socially and emotionally as they are intellectually.
Looking for more information or ideas? Try the following titles below and be sure to share your suggested anxiety resources in the comments.
- Anxiety, Sensitivities and Social Struggles among Profoundly Gifted Kids – Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
- Existential depression in gifted individuals – Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
- Supporting Emotional Wellness at Home for Gifted and 2e Students – Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
- The Impact of Giftedness on Psychological Well-Being (sengifted.org)
- “I Can’t Think When I’m Stressed!” Anxiety, Executive Function and How to Help
- Academic Anxiety: How Perfectionism and Executive Dysfunction Collide (beyondbooksmart.com)
- Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child’s Fears by Dr. Dan Peters
- Detecting Childhood Anxiety Disorders | Child Mind Institute
- When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers: How to Meet Their Social and Emotional Needs by Judy Galbraith and Jim Delisle
- Family Circle: Putting an End to Negative Self-Talk in Kids | Cultures of Dignity