Gifted adolescents are no more prone to social or emotional difficulties than other teens.1 Yet, the burden of feeling different from peers, and attempts to offset stigma and rejection, create a unique set of conflicts. At a point in their development when social acceptance seems essential, many gifted teens go to great lengths to hide their abilities from others. Some try to “dumb themselves down,” avoiding classes that might brand them as “nerds.” Others struggle with how to remain true to themselves, while still adapting to the social norms around them. Social challenges
are particularly difficult for adolescents who show signs of asynchronous development, and whose social skills lag behind their intellectual abilities. Even those gifted teens who achieve popularity still may be acutely aware of their differences and attempt to conform, sometimes immersing themselves in social and extra-curricular activities at the expense of academic pursuits. They sometimes later regret that they “sacrificed” their interests or ambitions to gain approval.
Gifted adolescents often struggle with being gifted
Regardless of their level of social comfort, gifted adolescents often struggle with traits frequently associated with giftedness. These may include perfectionism, harsh self-criticism, oversensitivity, fear of failure, anxiety about performance, and even despair over injustices affecting others. Some develop cynicism about an education system that has failed to challenge them, and become underachievers. Others may feel ashamed of their so-called “gifts,” claiming they are undeserving of accomplishments earned so easily. They may be conflicted about career goals, torn between their desires and what family and society expect, and worry that they will not live up to their potential.
Therapy can offer both support and challenges
Therapy can create a safe haven where gifted adolescents can receive the support, understanding and the appropriate challenges they need to surmount difficulties associated with giftedness. Trying to fit in, juggling others’ expectations, and sorting out an array of conflicting messages are commonplace for gifted teens. Participation in therapy does not mean that something is seriously wrong; therapy is a resource for achieving greater self-awareness and overcoming obstacles to personal growth. (See APA
for more information about psychotherapy).
Adolescents’ cognitive abilities, attitudes about being gifted, and the family’s and school community’s impressions about their giftedness influence feelings about themselves. Therapists need to consider the interplay between the child's giftedness and specific emotional, social, family or academic problems. Webb2 and others in the literature3,4,5,6 have also emphasized how an individual’s giftedness needs to inform treatment planning.
Therapists can help teens manage the social and emotional "baggage" often associated with giftedness. Common characteristics such as introversion, oversensitivity, asynchronous development, and attunement to moral injustice can make adolescence even more trying. Other examples include social anxiety, perfectionism, harsh expectations of self and others, underachievement, family demands, sibling conflicts, unresolved distress related to bullying or peer rejection, shame associated with failed accomplishments, and ambivalence about career goals. Counseling can offer support and a clear perspective when these burdens seem overwhelming.
Giftedness must be considered in diagnosis and treatment
Sometimes gifted adolescents suffer from emotional problems that any teen might face, such as depression, anxiety, or an addiction. Therapy is even more essential under these conditions. Nevertheless, a child’s giftedness needs to be considered in any diagnostic evaluation and throughout treatment. Webb2 has highlighted how gifted individuals can be misdiagnosed by practitioners who fail to appreciate the effect giftedness has on an individual’s social, emotional and cognitive functioning. (Recently, SENG has launched the SENG Misdiagnosis Initiative to educate pediatricians and other health care professionals about the risks of misdiagnosis.)
If giftedness is secondary to more pressing psychological, interpersonal or family problems, a therapist can still remain cognizant of how the teen's intellectual strengths, and traits associated with giftedness may influence their behaviors and emotions. While identifying psychological symptoms of distress is beyond the scope of this article, some general warning signs can include: withdrawal from family and friends, sadness and tearfulness, comments related to hopelessness, increased anxiety, angry outbursts, threats to harm self or others, difficulty concentrating, insomnia or sleeping a lot more than usual, unexplained physical symptoms, significant weight loss or gain in a short period of time, change in friendships, problems at school or with the law, intoxication or signs of drug use. (For further information about symptoms, you can visit www.psychcentral.com. If you need to find a therapist, often the best resource is to check with your child’s pediatrician for a referral.)
Gifted adolescents often enter therapy with hesitation, but soon welcome feeling understood. Their acute self-awareness, tendency to scrutinize themselves and others, and willingness to engage in complex debate create both opportunities and challenges during therapy. Therapy can help them navigate this difficult passage through adolescence, and provide further tools for growth and development.
This paper was adapted from the following article: Post, G. (2013). Counseling gifted adolescents: Integrating social and emotional aspects of giftedness into treatment. National Association of Gifted Children Counseling and Guidance Newsletter, 9, 13-14.
1 Neihart , M. (1999). The impact of giftedness on psychological well-being: What does the empirical literature say? Roeper Review, 22, 10-17.
2 Webb. J., Amend, E., Webb.,N., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., & Olenchak, R. (2005). Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Aspberger's, Depression, and Other Disorders. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.
3 Grobman, J. (2009). A psychodynamic psychotherapy approach to the emotional problems of exceptionally and profoundly gifted adolescents and adults: A psychiatrist’s experience.Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 33, 106-125.
4 Jacobsen, M. (1999). Arousing the sleeping giant: Giftedness in adult psychotherapy.Roeper Review, 22, 36-42.
5 Moon, S. & Thomas, V. (2002). Family therapy with gifted and talented adolescents.Journal of Advanced Academics, 14, 107-113.
6 Silverman, L. (Ed.) (2000). Counseling the Gifted and Talented. Denver, CO: Love.