Gifted children have differently-wired brains that make their experience of adolescence unique compared to their neurotypical age-mates. While most individuals think of giftedness in terms of academics alone, giftedness also applies to a child’s social and emotional development.
While all children must navigate the bumpy road of identity formation and social belonging, gifted children may experience these problems differently as they develop and mature. To help parents and educators navigate common gifted behavior and emotional problems, we’ve created a list of some of the most common causes of gifted issues and also provide advice so you can help your child through these challenges.
Common problem areas for gifted children
- Sensitivities and Overexcitabilities
- Social Skills
Sensitivities and Overexcitabilities
Research has shown that gifted students experience heightened sensitivities and advanced emotional processing.
These abilities are often put within the framework of Dabrowski’s concept of overexcitabilities, which describes the heightened sensitivity and intensity for gifted children in 5 key areas.
Dabrowski’s Five Unexpected Intensities of Gifted Students
- 1. Intellectual Overexcitability
- 2. Imaginational Overexcitability
- 3. Sensual Overexcitability
- 4. Psychomotor Overexcitability
- 5. Emotional Overexcitability
Read more about Dabrowski’s Five Unexpected Intensities of Gifted Students
With these unique characteristics, gifted children may have adverse reactions to intense stimuli, which can look like problematic behavior on the surface.
For example, a child might withdraw from socializing at lunch if the smell of the cafeteria overwhelms them, which may lead some to think they are unsociable. A perceptive child may see something on the news that frightens them and refuse to sleep alone at night. Children who are overexcitable in the intellectual and psychomotor areas may not be able to sit still at their desk and interrupt their teachers with questions. Sensory or emotional sensitivity may contribute to a range of feelings and a variety of gifted behavior problems. Understanding how overexcitabilities or sensitivities manifest in your child may help parents find suitable solutions for problem behaviors.
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To borrow from Nancy Robinson, many make the mistake of believing gifted children are inherently awkward and bad at socializing.
The problems gifted children sometimes face with socializing often stem from their asynchrony and educational setting. Asynchronous development, or uneven development, is often considered a core trait of giftedness. These students may be college age intellectually but still 12 in terms of their social skills. As a result, it can be difficult to make friends who share their interests or hard to know how to appropriately express themselves in group settings. Depending on the educational environment, these children may be labeled with problematic behaviors like being bossy, snobbish, anti-social, etc.
Their difficulty making friends with same-age peers may have nothing to do with their ability or desire to socialize, but instead might be a result of not having like-minded peers whom they can form a connection with. Even popular gifted children may feel like they don’t have a “true friend” who understands them. When it comes to gifted friendships, there is a notable discrepancy between classmates, or same-age peers, and someone that they consider as a true friend.
As we wrote about in our article Parenting Gifted Children: Challenges and Tips, perfectionism can look like regular high-achieving behavior until it starts to damage the child’s wellbeing.
Perfectionism is often related to self-esteem when the gifted child, or those around the child, expect them to be gifted all the time, in every subject. While there is debate about whether perfectionism comes in both good and bad varieties, the issue for many gifted students is that this pressure to be perfect comes from their inability to see themselves beyond their role as the “smart student” in class.
Gifted children should be reminded frequently that their value is not based on their grades or performance alone.
Problematic behavior associated with perfectionism
- Competitiveness with others
- Achievement at the expense of socializing
- Avoidance of activities they fear they will fail at
Gifted children hit many adolescent milestones earlier than their same-age peers but may struggle to develop a healthy self-concept during crucial identity formation periods. While parents are the primary way children learn about themselves, negative experiences at school and with peers may harmfully influence the way a gifted child sees themselves. If the child feels unsupported and unaccepted at school, they may develop low self-esteem and feel that their giftedness alienates them. Low self-esteem can contribute to a wide range of emotional challenges, including anxiety and depression. While gifted children may not be more susceptible to anxiety and depression compared to their age-peers, according to research by Tracy Cross and others, their unique intellectual gifts may contribute to an acute experience of anxiety/depression.
As Wendy Rondell summarized in her article,
“Unsure about their ability to live up to their own expectations and the expectations of others, confused about the direction of their true talent, and worried about the ways in which they are different from average students while simultaneously fearing mediocrity – these are the dilemmas which face gifted students attempting to define themselves in a confusing and often hostile world.”
If you suspect your child is suffering from anxiety, depression, or any of the issues described above, it might be time to reach out to trusted friends for advice or seek a gifted therapist. Fortunately, what works well for a gifted child’s intellectual development may also help prevent these gifted emotional and behavioral challenges.
Finding someone to test your child for giftedness, especially when using an individual assessment tools like the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, may help reveal sensory processing issues so that parents and educators can collaborate to provide the appropriate accommodations. Gifted identification may also help families access special programs to support their development or advocate for acceleration. Using acceleration techniques, like ability grouping or grade skipping, can provide students with intellectual peers who get them and want to interact in the same ways they do, like discussing the detailed history of Middle Earth! It may also come as a relief to not feel like they must be the smartest kid in class. The emotional and social benefits of acceleration are supported by the findings from A Nation Empowered.
Supporting the intellectual and social needs of gifted children can help promote a healthier sense of self and a growth mind-set that will allow them to appreciate both their strengths and weaknesses.
Read on for additional insights into gifted problem behaviors and emotional challenges:
Supporting Emotional Wellness at Home for Gifted and 2e Students | Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
Anxiety, Sensitivities and Social Struggles among Profoundly Gifted Kids | Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
4 Ways To Reduce Behavior Problems in Gifted Students (byrdseed.com)
Parenting Gifted Children: Challenges & Tips | Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
Vulnerabilities of highly gifted children | Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
Helping GT Kids Understand Their Emotions through Effective Emotional Coaching | Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
Gifted Friendships: Age Mate Vs. True Peer | Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
The Mental Health Crisis | Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
Gifted Kids: What You Should Know | Davidson Institute (davidsongifted.org)
Identifying students as gifted can be as much a curse as a blessing. While it can allow for the student to receive academic instruction and materials closer to their ability level, in some cases, it may also set students up for failure in other areas of life. For example, according to Dr. Joan Freeman, a specialist in the needs of gifted children, many of these students have an "unstoppable urge to create". (Cummins, 2015) Where other students find comfort in routine, they can become bored quickly and often change the rules to fit their academic level. While in schools, we nurture and accommodate this urge to create and change, often these students struggle when entering the workplace to understand and perform to their employer's expectations.
A gifted learner's social and emotional traits can also play a factor in how they learn. Research indicates that giftedness is associated with intellectual, emotional, imaginational, sensual, and psychomotor "over-excitabilities".(Gifted and Disabled, 2017) These over-excitabilities can make it hard for gifted people to process society's social norms and expectations. Recent studies of gifted and talented children indicate that gifted children typically also have disabilities in language-related or social skills. (Gifted and Disabled, 2017) It is important to remember giftedness is far more than just a student's academic ability. As teachers of gifted students, it is vital to understand the developmental, social, and emotional factors they face even before focusing on academics. If we do not look at the student as a whole, we will never meet all the student's needs.
Giftedness affects all areas of a person's life and potential for success outside of the classroom. This leads us to the expectations of adults labeled as gifted when they were children. As a society, we automatically assume these students will be leaders in their field and show great successes based on their academic abilities. However, while we as teachers are always encouraging and promoting our students to do their best and meet their goals, we often set higher goals and expectations with gifted students. In many cases, these students are expected to always be on the honor roll or set classwork standards. However, while it may be realistic for gifted students academically to meet these goals, we are failing to consider the social and emotional piece of gifted learners. Unfortunate, the result of this the potential for adults burning out as children and therefore not wanting to enter career fields where high-level expectations and work output are the norms.
By only identifying and reacting to gifted students' academic abilities, we run the risk of leaving them emotionally and socially unprepared for the world. Teachers must set realistic goals and expectations for gifted learners outside of academics. These students need to be encouraged to work within set limitations and boundaries with their peers. If we do not set them on a course for understanding and creating within societies norms and expectations, they may struggle to become successful, well-adjusted thriving adults.
Cummins, D. (2015, July 15). The Problem with Being Gifted. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/good-thinking/201407/the-problem-being-gifted#:%7E:text=Just%20being%20labeled%20%22gifted%22%20can%20create%20emotional%20and,score%2C%20and%20the%20second%20was%20chosen%20at%20random.
Gifted and Disabled. (2017). Autism Coach. https://autismcoach.com/gifted-and-disabled/#:%7E:text=Interestingly%201%20in%2010%20children%20within%20the%20autism,likely%20to%20have%20anomalies%20in%20the%20left%20brain.