As a group, gifted students are socially and emotionally healthy and perhaps more well adjusted than many of their age peers; nonetheless, there are some issues that may affect them. Just as the presence of any of these doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is gifted, neither does the absence mean that he or she is not gifted.
Asynchronous development: Gifted students may at times feel that they don’t quite fit in with their peers because of their academic development or maturity. They may have wanted to talk at length about economics or world peace while their classmates were more interested in braiding each other’s hair or wrestling like the WWF. They may have even been teased into thinking that being smart was not a good thing.
To have the intellect of an adult and the emotions of a child combined in a childish body is to encounter certain difficulties. (Leta Hollingworth quoted in Davis & Rimm, 1998, p. 393)
Introversion/extroversion: In the general population, about 75% of the people are extroverts (gaining energy from being with people), and about 25% are introverts (gaining energy from being alone). In the gifted population, the percentages are reversed. At times gifted students may resent being made to do things in groups or think there must be something wrong with them because they prefer to read a book rather than play kickball.
Perfectionism: Perfectionism exists on a continuum from healthy perfectionism which leads to excellence and achievement to unhealthy perfectionism which can paralyze students into procrastination and an unwillingness to take healthy risks. Gifted students may find that they put off starting projects or don’t turn in homework because it could be better if they just worked on it a little bit longer. When this happens it may be a sign that their perfectionism is starting to cause them stress.
Underachievement: Underachievement is a complex issue which can be caused by many different things, but one cause may be unhealthy perfectionism. If students worry that they won’t be able to do the work perfectly the first time, they may not even try to do it. Perhaps getting good grades has been easy for them for a long time and now the work is getting harder. That does not mean that they are any less smart than they were before. Smart does not equal easy.
Underachievement may also be caused by gifted students themselves when they do not want to appear too different from their peers. They may sabotage grades by intentionally answering incorrectly.
Overexcitabilities: A theorist named Dabrowksi discovered that gifted students often have heightened sensibilities in the areas of the sense of touch, appreciation of beauty, empathy for the sufferings of others, emotional intensity, imagination, and intellectual curiosity. When gifted students feel things more deeply than others, worry more about world problems, or even just can’t stand the feeling of the tag in their undershirts, it might be because of these overexcitabilities.
Multipotentiality: This is the wonderful condition of being smart enough to be able to do just about anything you want to do well. The downside is that this may make it difficult for gifted students to decide what to do for a career.
Relationships with Peers: Most gifted students relate well with their age peers, but occasionally some are “heckled” by classmates when they do not receive an A+ or 100% or when age peers find out they have been subject or grade accelerated. As one student said, “We may feel isolated from other students, but if [teachers put us in groups with other gifted students] those students may become our best friends.”
Pressure to Succeed: This can come not only from the student herself but from parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, and other students based on the gifted student’s past accomplishments. One student commented, “Teachers have told me that they grade my work tougher because they hold me to a higher standard.” In the extreme, this pressure to succeed may become “the burden of the gift.” This situation arises when gifted students feel pressure not only to do well in school but also to make a significant contribution to solving the world’s problems.
Fortunately there are some excellent resources to help parents help their gifted children navigate these challenges. One of the best is a series of ten guided discussion sessions called SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted). District staff have been trained to facilitate the sessions, and reports from past participants have been overwhelmingly positive. For many parents, the SENG sessions are the first time that they have been in a group with other parents who understand them. The book that is used as a basis for the discussion (and which is valuable even without the discussions) is Guiding the Gifted Child by James Webb and Elizabeth Meckstroth. (See the Resource List for complete citations.)
In addition to reading books to increase your own knowledge, books can also be a powerful tool to help gifted children deal with issues in their lives. This is sometimes called “bibliotherapy.” When children read or are read stories similar to what they are experiencing, they can talk about the issues objectively and develop coping strategies. A resource to help you find appropriate books is Halsted’s Some of My Best Friends are Books: Guiding Gifted Readers from Pre-School to High School.
The book which one Green Bay parent says “saved my daughter’s life” is The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide by Judy Galbraith and Jim Delisle. This book is available in editions for both children under ten and teenagers. Sally Walker has written the Survival Guide for Parents of Gifted Kids. All of these are published by Free Spirit, and the gifted and talented office has copies available for you to borrow.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that not all gifted children will encounter social or emotional turbulence, but if your child does, help and support are available.
Reference: Davis, G. & S. Rimm. (1998). Education of the Gifted and Talented. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.