Most people would feel flattered and grateful to be referred to as gifted or talented or both. In educational circles, however, these labels are used to describe students with “asynchronous” intellectual development, where certain areas of performance and/or cognition outpace that of their peers. On the one hand, this accelerated performance simply makes certain tasks—say mathematical calculations or writing—easier and more efficient. On the other hand, any developmental difference that markedly separates a child from her peers can create social challenges and emotional distress. Educators and therapists know that the formal designation of “gifted and talented” is really a special education label. It’s an indicator that the child or teen has special needs that may not be met in a traditional classroom. It’s a designation that means the child is, in a word, different.
Even though these special needs are due to intellectual assets rather than deficits, they can set a child apart in ways that are socially uncomfortable and may greatly exaggerate the normal social bumps and bruises of childhood. So while it may be surprising, it’s certainly not unusual for the gifted and talented child to arrive at adolescence with their self-esteem battered rather than bolstered by their special intellectual abilities. Troubled teens who eventually find their way into treatment programs often started their academic careers with the deceptively positive gifted and talented label. An understanding of the reasons behind this correlation of gifted and talented with troubled can help parents, professionals and the troubled teen herself proceed with more compassion, understanding, and hope.
Some gifted children grow deeply dependent upon the praise they so easily garner for compliance and externally defined achievement. They may find it difficult to make the developmental transition to the more autonomous, intrinsic forms of motivation that necessary for the increased independence of adolescence and young adulthood. These students may arrive at adolescence grossly out of sync with their peers, feeling suddenly lost, listless and empty. Everything may have seemed to be moving along perfectly until, at 14, 15 or 16 the wheels suddenly fall off and their academic, social and emotional functioning plummets.
Other students may find the pace of learning in the classroom to be slow and boring. These students are prone to acting-out behaviors and/or to simply checking out while in class. They may doodle. They may talk to their neighbors. They may be disruptive. They might just go to sleep. What originates as simple and honest boredom manifests as poor classroom behavior. These students, because of test scores and other evidence of intellectual talent, may find themselves labeled “under-achiever” or “behavioral problem.”
Still, others may have so internalized their gifted and talented moniker that they come to believe they should be able to achieve with little or no effort. The effort comes, they believe, from lack of talent. Their focus, over time, is on preserving their sense of themselves as gifted and talented. In fact, according to Stanford University educational psychologist, Carol Dweck, they may come to view any challenge and any exhibition of effort as a threat to their sense of self. So they come to avoid all academic or social challenges. The result, according to Dweck, can include problems with motivation, reactivity to criticism and a negative and socially limiting view of others’ success.
The Sore Thumb
Children and teens often exhibit a low social tolerance for personal qualities that differ from the status quo or perceived norm. Because gifted and talented students often think, speak and perform quite differently from their peers in a classroom environment, they don’t always fit in socially; whether they just seem different. So whether a child’s special needs designation is due to gifts and talents or to deficits (or both), those special needs register as peculiar among her peers and can lead to teasing and censure.
According to Kathrine Whittekiend, M.Ed., the education director for Sunrise Residential Treatment Center, some gifted students—especially young women—experience such acute social pressure as a result of early over performance that they actually learn to underperform in their teen years as a way to deflect unwanted attention. They develop what she calls “’fear of success syndrome,’ where bright girls intentionally hold back in order to please and avoid competition.“ Of course, long-term social struggles can lead not only to unhealthy classroom coping strategies, but to deeper emotional problems such as low self-esteem, anger, and social anxiety. By the time a child reaches adolescence, then, it’s not for her educational label to have morphed from “gifted and talented child” to “troubled teen.”
Some intellectual gifts come at a steep price. Many students who exhibit accelerated intellectual development in specific areas suffer from accompanying neurological disorders such as mild autism or Asperger’s syndrome. These conditions often involve incredible intellectual development in specific areas—typically math and science—along with processing deficits that can lead to serious social problems. Many autistics and Asperger sufferers struggle to detect and interpret non-verbal cues. They may be able to process verbal, written or numeric data brilliantly while completely missing non-verbal social cues such as facial expressions or tone of voice. This can come across as coldness, apathy or even defiance to others. They may also hone in on very different details in social situations than most people, missing the forest for the trees, so to speak, and impede their ability to track and interpret the broad social landscape that others take for granted. This means that they both feel themselves and seem to others to be chronically out of step socially. This can invite teasing, bullying, and isolation, leading to other painful emotional problems and, eventually, troubled-teen status.
These students as well as talented students with other learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, or ADHD, are referred to by educators and therapists as “twice exceptional.” For these students, the combination of assets and deficits can be confusing to them, their parents, their teachers, and their peers.
Knowing some of the factors that can turn gifted and talented children into troubled teens can help us engage these teens with compassion, understanding, and sound therapeutic and educational strategies. It can also serve as a caution regarding the power of simplistic labels—positive or negative—to distract and confuse young people. We can help these teens finally heal and teach them how to re-engage their God-given abilities in ways that are comfortable, authentic and productive. All children have gifts, says Whittekiend, and our job as parents, teachers, and therapists is just to help them unwrap those gifts.