The Pitfalls of Giftedness: Social and Emotional Issues Experienced by Gifted Kids

This article has been written for the Mummy Fever blog by: Dr. Tali Shenfield, Child Psychologist

Giftedness is celebrated for the many advantages it can confer. Not only are gifted children highly intelligent, they also tend to be creative, enterprising individuals. Their plentiful ideas and unique take on the world can propel them to achieve great success, but only if they’re provided with the supportive, understanding environment they need. Gifted children require particularly attentive guidance if they’re to achieve their full potential owing to the often-overlooked downside of giftedness: The asynchronous development that gifted children experience brings with it numerous social and emotional challenges.

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The “Disconnect” Between Gifted Kids’ Intellectual Skills and Social Skills

One of the main reasons why gifted children are treated as a specialised group is the fact that their asynchronous pattern of development typically creates imbalances. There’s often a broad gap between their intellectual capacity and their level of social functioning, for example. Though gifted kids can appear highly mature at times, thanks to their ability to understand advanced concepts, their physical, social, and emotional development often follows a standard trajectory. This can lead to the following issues:

  • Gifted children usually display a rational understanding of complex “adult” subject matter, but they’re not emotionally ready to handle such heavy concepts. As such, it’s not uncommon for these kids to experience significant anxiety about death, the future, sexuality, relationships, and other advanced topics.
  • Gifted children are sometimes physically unable to complete projects they can intellectually envision. Gifted children are often able to visualise complex tasks from a young age. Unfortunately, like all children, they have limited dexterity and their fine motor skills are still developing. This can cause them to experience a great deal of frustration when pursuing their interests (which is often compounded by their tendency to be perfectionists).
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When parenting a gifted child, it’s important to remember that although your child is able to participate in some adult conversations, he (or she) is still very much a child. Don’t mistake his ability to comment on issues like climate change or global poverty for emotional maturity.

While you can’t protect your child from pursuing adult concepts if he wishes to, you should be mindful not to overload him with ideas that are unsuitable for kids his age. You should also give your gifted child ample support and counsel when he’s processing concepts that cause him anxiety. Finally, don’t make the mistake of holding your gifted child to unrealistically high behavioural standards at home. Just because your child is bright, that does not mean he shouldn’t be permitted to act in age-appropriate ways. Like all children, gifted children will sometimes have meltdowns, need help interacting productively with their siblings, etc.

Behavioral Problems that Arise From Advanced Reasoning Ability

Though you should be careful not to be overly critical of your child for acting out, as all children do, it’s worth noting that in some areas, gifted kids need very firm (albeit loving) boundaries. Sometimes, the combination of natural immaturity and advanced reasoning ability that gifted kids exhibit can result in counterproductive behaviours. Gifted kids can appear argumentative, stubborn, or even manipulative due to their frequent attempts to rationalize their way out of rules and limits they don’t like. It’s essential that parents neither react harshly to these traits nor give in to them; instead, they must exhibit a strong, calm, and immovable demeanour. Holding fast to your stance will do more than just keep the peace; if kids feel like they can manipulate the adults in their lives, they often become insecure. They lose faith in the ability of adults to protect them and give them wise counsel.

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Along with having an advanced capacity for creative, logical thought, some gifted kids also display a verbal ability far beyond their years. This can get them into trouble at school, where they occasionally attempt to “outsmart” their teachers. Likewise, their mature sense of humour and emotional depth can alienate them from their peers. Connecting your child with a support group for gifted children is a good way to provide him with peers that he can relate to.

Perfectionism and Heightened Sensitivity

 Just like parents and teachers sometimes develop unrealistic expectations when dealing with gifted children, gifted kids themselves often hold themselves up to overly high standards. Their awareness of their own abilities combines with their heightened level of sensitivity to create significant performance anxiety. Over time, this can develop into a chronic and crippling fear of failure.

This fear of failure does more than cause stress for the child in question. Left unchecked, it can become so intense that the child actively avoids trying new things and meeting new people. He might also start to intentionally underachieve, operating under the illusion that not trying very hard to succeed will lessen the sting of failure. This approach seldom works, of course; because gifted kids are so sensitive, they still feel the pain of rejection when they don’t perform as expected. Gradually, this pain can lead to the development of low self-esteem.

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Gifted kids need parents and teachers who realise how sensitive they are to perceived criticism. They need the adults in their lives to deliver feedback in an empathetic and encouraging way, so that they remain motivated to improve. They also need to be frequently reminded that it’s okay to make mistakes. They must understand that “messing up” doesn’t make one less worthy, valuable, or loved; it simply makes one human.

Above all else, gifted children need to be surrounded by people—both adults and other kids—who understand and accept them for who they are. They need people who give them the freedom to make their own mistakes, while also being there to buoy them up and inspire them to try again. When provided with such an enriching support network, gifted kids get the emotional nourishment they need to prosper both personally and academically.

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