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Adolescence and Gifted: Addressing Existential Dread

By J'anne Ellsworth.

Adolescents often describe experiencing Existential Dread. Gifted youth may be especially susceptible. If teachers, parents and students work together, the following solutions are suggested for consideration: a) nourish students socially, (b) work toward acceptance of giftedness and teach methods for enhancing emotional development, (c) provide philosophical nurturance.

As a graduate student in Humanistic Psychology, I read the materials of May (1961) and Kierkegaard (Sickness unto Death,1842). I was singularly struck by the notion of Existential Dread. It didn’t ring a true note within me. I felt my own angst was the result of developmental emotional impoverishment and could be traced directly to a dysfunctional family system. I am hearing the reverberating tones of existential dread now, however, in my work with high school students and college underclassmen. I also am impacted by the dark overtones of my four adolescent children’s friends, who are not completing high school or planning to college, or who try school for a semester and do not stay focused or involved enough to complete their classes. This causes me to pay attention to actions and attitudes that speak of more than ennui.

I am struck by the lyrics of the music these young people immerse themselves in and the images they use to costume and present themselves. I feel an ominous chill in the apparent lack of interest in personal survival that I sense. I decry the morbid sense of impassioned disinterest with which they describe the future. It brings an uneasy ambivalence and a recollection of Freud’s statement, “The moment one inquires about the sense or value of life, one is sick” (Jones, 1957, p. 465). I also recall the comment by Lasko (1967) that once a person’s belly is consistently full, this lack of energy about living is precisely the kind of thinking one might expect.

I must also say that I do not ascribe to the Wheel of Misfortune idea, that would allow me and the reader to ease the tension of discomfort by selecting a target worthy of blame. I do not know if adolescent thoughts and behavior are shaped by TV, video game playing, drugs, violence or ‘Rock and Roll’. There may be powerful causal forces in the class distinctions that are so clear to children – those who can afford a wardrobe of name brand jeans and those who would kill for them. Some pundits blame the breakdown of the family, some espouse the belief that we have lost our sense of values. I suppose we may be seeing phenomena unique to our historic times, but I recall very similar themes in myths about the Olympian and Norse Gods, in Jewish historic and sacred writings, in the journey of Buddha, in the oral traditions of Native Americans and in classical literature that is written about adolescents.

What if part of being very bright, extremely bright, has a dark side that eats away at youth? What if part of the burden of brilliance is the roller coaster of knowing too much, seeing too much, feeling too much? By too much, I refer to the times children ask questions that we regard at face value and thus perceive as shallow, and since they are young we ‘spare’ them depth, so they continue in the loop of horror. Or, we assuage them rather than listening deeply enough to engage the profundity of the issues and concerns being expressed? This next essay was written by a young woman when she was a Junior in High School.

No one seems to be able to label this generation. It is a generation so filled with inconsistencies any label would prove itself incorrect. We are going straight to hell and some of us are dragging our feet, being pulled kicking and screaming. But the majority are enchanted by the idea — maybe we want to say to our parents, “You’re right, we’re losers,” or maybe we are hoping they will hear us say “Look what you’ve done. Now live in guilt.”

We have all had the world at our fingertips. There is nothing left for us to want. We can sit down and the world is brought to us. We have never had to work for anything. We have had everything so there is nothing left to want — Nothing! And so little has any meaning left. We don’t have to work at being socially appropriate or liked. We have the asylum of television. It likes you no matter what. And nearly everyone likes it better than other people. It certainly is more amusing!

Besides, why do you want to get close to other people? You’ll just be hurt.

Everyone keeps telling us that all of us are going to keep on losing the people that matter most to us to Aids. So who is left to live for? The TV won’t miss us and no humans will be left to miss us. “We might as well go down with smiles on our faces.” “Might as well come and go unattached as most people seem to be moving around us.” And why not? “Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Sometimes sex without concern for the partner seems like a good solution. Sex seems to be the only thing left that doesn’t lose intensity. It is as intense for Generation X, maybe more. So as it was for the “me” generation or the baby boomers, or anyone else, it can give us solace.

We have causes. We have wants, hopes, dreams. But because we have never had to get anything for ourselves, we have no idea, no clue on how to empower ourselves. We don’t know how to let the world around us know. So we work to effect changes within our own peer group. The adult world around us doesn’t see how we are conquering discrimination among ourselves — how we are slowly becoming accepting of those who have different sexual identities than what is considered the norm. Adults do not see this as they look at us. They don’t understand the silent revolution and evolution. The question remains, “Will we live to see the revolution, the undercover changes brought about? ” Or are we going to flounder in our own boredom and end up changing our lives by ending them?”

This child of fifteen is carrying a dark view of the world about with her. She is walking in dread and she describes her world in shadows of gray. I took this young woman’s piece to my college students. I passed out the essay during a discussion of adolescent development. I was startled at the resonance in the room. This child spoke for many. I then asked how many of these bright young people had considered suicide.

I encountered an overwhelming, “Yes! I began considering suicide in Jr. High!”

I asked them with whom they had shared these thoughts.

Most had not shared them with an adult. A few said they had hinted about their feelings and intentions to an adult, but had not been taken seriously. Two remarked they had been greeted with parental anger rather than apprehension or questioning. It seemed to me that the group, as a whole, carried a thread of lightly concealed hunger for someone to stand as a target for dedication; give them a sense of purpose that superseded self.

Solutions This word solutions is chosen carefully, because of the double entendre. I do not believe in “all the answers,” but I do believe in a team approach where many take cognitive and personal responsibility for hearing and doing, for adding personal strengths and insights. I believe that adults seeing these adolescent issues, and youth knowing that adults are seeing issues and are concerned, belongs in the middle of working with the youth in a quest for answers.

Youth I have talked with have shifted their need for attention from “Notice me,” to “Validate the importance of my feelings.” Just the process of communicating “I honor your feelings and see your intensity,” or “I want to understand,” has assuaged many adolescents. I also believe it is hard work to listen deeply and openly enough to honor that intensity, and doing so is sometimes rather unpleasant. That is not because of the shock factor for youth, but because we adults lose our own innocence and carry a heavier burden of understanding.

Listening to and hearing adolescents is vital (Ginnott, 1972). Our intellectually gifted students need direct involvement as well. Though many youngsters will pursue their intellectual gifts with passion, many need assistance, guidance, and tangible modeling to enhance emotional, social and philosophical development. These youngsters are multifaceted and need:

1. to be nourished socially,

2. to be taught to find emotional acceptance and growth, and

3. to be provided with nurturance, philosophically. Some will find their way through the mirages and morass without that assistance, but many others have not and will not.

A sense of dread can be paralyzing and those youngsters who get lost in the mazes of immaturity and become disillusioned and discouraged can become permanently lost to us and to themselves. Losing hope may lead to losing focus. Our adolescents live in a dangerous world with many escapes that are life swallowing. The potential is ever present that our youth will not only lose hope and focus, but may lose personal volition through poor choices. We would never leave a toddler unattended close to the highway.

The morass of existential dread and the concomitant lure of deadly escapes is no less threatening to gifted youth. Augmenting the depth of educational progress for gifted adolescents may have social ramifications. Providing youth with the education to make moral and psychological gains that are commensurate with our scientific gains may provide an emotionally healthy and socially adept intelligencia to steer us through the next years, not moral pygmies and self appointed social outcasts who find little to value in the human condition and little comfort in fellow humans. So, extra attention to gifted youth may enhance their passage through adolescence and provide benefits to humanity as well.

I wish to reiterate that a team approach to finding and implementing solutions will work best. Not only do parents and teachers need to recognize and address the needs of these young people, the young people themselves need to be assured of the saneness of their feelings of dread. They can be taught ways to enfranchise themselves and accept the lucidity of feelings so that they can deal with them constructively and honestly.

Nourished socially Many youngsters who are gifted and talented appear driven, almost obsessed in their areas of genius. This explains some of the solitary pursuit. At the same time, there are feelings of ambivalence and inadequacy that emerge, since fully half of our self acceptance is driven by our value in others’ eyes. Human beings acquire ego development through interaction with others (Erikson, 1968). Thus, children who are “driven” to play music while peers are playing tag, lose out on valuable social nourishment and development of ego strength.

One way to frame this socialization issue is the example of creating art for self and the sake of art versus producing art to please consumers. It is a common theme for creative geniuses. Many of our greatest artists were recognized for their genius long after the works were completed and the artist, musician, writer, died in poverty and a sense of oblivion. While many people are able to work as team players, those with extraordinary genius often report a sense of isolation and a lack of interest in pursuing social or team efforts. It is very compelling for many brilliant and talented people to have the final project “just so,” and to need to accomplish this either oblivious of, or at the expense of, the vision of others. We know a Degas when we see it, and others who imitated his style did just that. We can distinguish between a J. S. Bach and J. C. Bach with little trouble. One is the father, the other a son. One got close to genius, the other was one.

We may not get better at recognizing flair or genius in progress but we could get better at valuing those who seem compelled and different. We could provide support, comfort and express acceptance for the person despite our lack of vision about the accomplishments. Every Jr. High and High School has a group of outcasts. Teachers can reach out and provide approval. Teachers can model appreciation of diversity and provide support for those who are “different.” We can lessen the abyss between social acceptance and creative isolation by valuing the person apart from appreciation of the product. Simply, we value the being of the person rather than being caught up in simply rejecting what the person is doing.

Teachers can approach parents about the depth of teen inner life and skepticism. My experience tells me that parents can be as uncertain about students who seem different as anyone else. There are few parents who become angry when told that a son or daughter is in the gifted program. At the same time, there are few who know how to ask their children how they feel or know how to offer to be supportive. Sometimes parents suffer with a child’s social rejection and some feel a personal alienation from the child. Parents can be assisted to understand the importance of searching for self and become more adept at attending to adolescent mood swings. Teachers can provide support to parents through sharing awareness of these issues and current research about effective programs and reading materials. Addressing student feelings of isolation, alienation and depression as a team could be very meaningful.

The normal developmental progression of the adolescent may confuse parents. Taken at face value, teens appear to be brimming with esteem, as evidenced by the messages echoing sentiments of certitude and egotism from “I know,” to “You don’t understand anything!” This paradox of esteem is confusing. What are parents to believe? “I know everything.” “I do everything right.” “I have the answers to world problems.” “I’m afraid to walk alone in the Mall.” “I’d rather die than wear that brand of pants.” “If I don’t have a steady and a ring I can’t go to school.” “I can’t walk out of my room with this face full of ‘zits’.”

Parents can be given insight to see that both sets of messages are plausible assessments by adolescents. Adolescents are in a state of great ambivalence. Every road is open for the taking. To borrow from Erikson’s (1968) way of describing growth, adolescence is assailed at every turn with certitude versus uncertainty. As youth and adolescent brains continue to develop there will be greater flexibility and times of disorientation will lessen. Adolescence is a time of wide mood swings, great certitude followed by devastating uncertainty, high hopes, grandiose dreams and feelings of crashing defeat when dreams exceed the energy and expertise to complete the doing.

A teacher recently gave a personality test for measuring anger to a group of teens. The teens seemed adept at answering honestly and appeared able to accept ownership of the labels the test gave — hostile, critical, untrusting. The whole exercise was going very well. The teacher then turned the exercise toward reflection and introspection. I watched the classroom attention disintegrate. Agreeing to the scoring and the labels of hostile or angry was acceptable to the youth, but reflecting on how it was affecting others was either not possible or not tolerable.

Parents can be taught to expect and recognize this fluctuating state of mind, energy and affect in youth and to see it as a normal developmental process rather than as upsetting or pathological. Instead of bemoaning the irresponsible thinking, or feeling like a personal failure, parents can remind themselves that this youthful lack of insight is transitory. We can be understanding about the lack of causal and consistent information processing while the teen focuses energy toward growing beyond the stage. Teen suicidal ideation and depression may be approached the same way, as very dangerous and transitory, abrupt in coming and assuaged with proper attention, not personalization and recrimination.

Social Graciousness Social skills may be a form of giftedness. If so, some have a charismatic nature, a natural ease that draws others. Many of those we revere for talent or intelligence did not. Lord Byron is an exception, and not the rule. Despite the lack of charisma, many of us learn to be socially adept. Social graces can be acquired and the basics of human nature can be explained to youngsters. Again, first we recognize the need, then we turn to the family, the teachers, and the students to work out a plan for assessing specific needs. As a team we can develop a plan for enhancing acquisition of social skills and coping mechanisms. Graciousness can be acquired as can tact and timing. Incidentally, this issue is more broad based than just gifted adolescents. Nearly all adolescents could benefit from a teaching program addressing socialization and acceptance.

Teens crave acceptance. That is probably a biologically based drive. Who is a companion to someone twelve years old who wishes to discuss immortality and the purpose of existence? There probably won’t be many in the school. Rather than feeling alienated by peer disinterest, youth can learn to discuss those things that are mutual interests with age mates. These include mundane but reality based topics – food, music, acne, movies. It is important to value intelligent pursuit, and to work to meet individual needs, and it is also vital to teach students to look to and meet the needs of others as well as self. Impatience with peer chatter is just as damning as peer impatience with lofty topics.

Some youth turn to alcohol for acceptance in a peer group. Some turn to substance abuse to escape psychic pain. Neither reason will assist the youngster to cope with the resulting addiction, and addiction does not fundamentally aid in feelings of belonging. This is a serious matter, this belonging and feeling accepted. It is vital to recognize what we have to lose if other outlets and forms of social attachment are not available to these youngsters. Though many teens are resistant to adult intervention, they are not resistant to being accepted into adult status and provided social outlets through adult company. If this is viewed as mentoring it can be powerful. The stakes are great enough to persuade me that a productive solution that promotes social expertise is critical. This does not imply that the child can provide companionship and social acceptance for the adult, but rather that the child has someone who provides acceptance and solace for them when needed. The balance of power and control is best served by an adult who maintains responsibility for the relationship rather than moving to the child’s emotional level and attempting to get personal needs met.

Emotional Acceptance and Growth We have quirks regarding the gifted and talented. I see teachers and parents act as though intellectual giftedness is something that must be kept ‘in the closet’. We seem loath to share awareness of a student’s intellectual gifts honestly. Information about intellectual measurements have been kept from students since we began tallying scores. In addition, though our society has beauty contests quite openly and sports contests and awards are openly displayed, we tend to make fun of the cognitively brilliant. We have questionable terms of endearment that students and society use as descriptors for those with extraordinary intellectual capacity, like geek and nerd and egg head. By helping students accept themselves, by dealing honestly with the pros and cons of genius and by assisting ourselves and others to take responsibility for disingenuous ambivalence about those of prodigy status, we will shed light on the prejudices that are defying fulfillment of these gifts.

We can also separate out intellectual gifts from emotional strength. Some youngsters are quite fragile. Thus, though it is true that we may want to point out and address intellectual giftedness and creativity through pilot programs and pullout classes, we may need to factor in the emotional strength of the youth we plan to involve. In fact, it is my own personal belief that many gifted children will pursue areas of intellectual and creative expertise unassisted, while areas of social and emotional weakness will be ignored or denied. We can assist youngsters to look at emotional strengths and fragility and then provide training in self awareness, self understanding, second person perspective, thus enhancing the emotional development processes.

At the very least we could assist youngsters to understand Erikson’s (1968) explanation of emotional development during adolescence. I find college students regaining composure and a sense of well-being when they realize that others had the same hurdles, questions and issues as they face. I can see visible relief in their countenances when they find that it is normal to question sexual identity, to lose track of time, to have a period of disorganization, to desire the acceptance of peers and find parent perspectives valueless for a time. It is important to give youngsters a road map of adolescence so there is less damage from the change.

I don’t believe that we “make it happen” by naming it. Instead, it may be possible to see adolescents flourish and grow more quickly if they recognize these changes as normal and transitory. Youngsters who recognize the multifaceted ways that gifted youth develop see that they are advanced for their age in some ways and not in others, will be able to help themselves maintain better emotional health and find personalized means to pull themselves from the recurring morass of depression and dread.

Provide Nurturance, Philosophically Our children who are cognitively gifted are often gifted with respect to moral reasoning and philosophical speculation, as well. Children who are intellectually precocious are also typically advanced philosophically as well. Piaget (1964) and Kohlberg (1984) described a developmental process for moral or philosophical reasoning. We do have brilliant four-year-olds whose first works relate to Gaia. We recognize the brilliance of John Mills precisely because he moved beyond the mundane, in concert with his first steps past his study table. We are in awe at the depth of Da Vinci’s world view and renaissance thinking, not just his artistic accomplishments. The brilliance of thought is there as a natural bent. Most philosophers wrote important treatises in their early twenties. That means the philosophical questions were already searing and insistent in their teen years. Seeing the problems without support for solutions, without knowledge about social and political complexity, may lead to solutions, but it may also lead to depression and a feeling of impotence.

Few of us could imagine conducting Socratic debates with early adolescents over issues of murder and suicide, social pathology or religious indecision, but that may be just what these youth need. Facing existential dread alone, without guidance, may lead to suicide rather than deeper, questing thought. Serious attention to the individual’s perceptions and issues is crucial. Once we take the student seriously, we can begin focusing reading to include works of others who have asked about the same enduring questions. We can talk constructively about age mates developing these same questions or never being faced with them as urgently, thus reassuring students of the saneness of their pursuits and making it feel less alienating. Along with deep philosophical questions can come an ability to see and value second person perspective. Three excellent sources for discussing philosophical development are Jean Piaget (1964), who is fairly easy to read, Lawrence Kohlberg (1984) who can be very difficult reading and Carol Gilligan (1982) who speaks of the importance of considering gender in the development of moral reasoning.

A part of this dynamic may be explained through the change in moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1981). Most youngsters are in transition from seeing the world as black and white and actions as right or wrong to believing in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” There is a literalness in a search for truth – ‘One and only one truth, as I personally am able to capture it,’ to a more diverse search for knowledge and for understanding the milieu of the question, the perspective, the layers of ideation surrounding the quest. Realizing that it may be impossible to gain all truth, to have all the answers, is mixed with a desire to know all things and a hope of being able to contain all wisdom. The cycle of hoping and despairing, of feeling powerful and yet remaining impotent adds to the dread and depression. It creates a roller coaster of seeking for truth, yet hearing the whispers of how impossible the search for the Holy Grail of all truth and wisdom may be.

It will be many years before the adolescent sees the accumulation of questions as wisdom. It is a steep and arduous journey to the place of humility that permits admitting that each person may have a separate reality and that the vision of truth may be elusive and idiosyncratic. In the meantime, the search continues and youthful energy waxes and wanes, building to a crescendo and crashing in whimpers. Truly bright youngsters need help maintaining equilibrium, especially since most peers are neither engaged in, nor interested in the Quixotic pursuit. It also helps teens to know that the mystical path to knowing is an arduous task worthy of their time and energy, and just as unsettling for all who walk it.

Summary Existential Dread is very real to many youth. It may also pose a threat to esteem, productivity, and life force. Team work could alter the amount of time youth languish in the throes of existential dread and lessen the threat of deep depression and suicide. To do so would take insight, respectful communications, time, energy and education for adults and for youngsters. I believe we can significantly impact this concern with youngsters by addressing it developmentally in the areas of emotional, social and philosophical growth. Our gifted youth are not just intellectually different, but show differences in most areas of development (Terman & Oden, 1959). As described, youth can be affirmed in feelings of being different. Parents and teachers can provide them with information about development, with ways to link and communicate feelings to adults when a peer group is not viable, and insight about depression, existential dread and ways to recognize and utilize such emotions instead of becoming embroiled in them or losing esteem and energy. Young people can be taught to cope and can be given responsibility to help themselves and to get help when the burden needs to be shared.

Parents can make a contribution by recognizing how real and how dangerous these feelings of dread can be. We can provide support, empathy, and empowerment to youth by giving credence to the feelings, spending time as adult peers to youth who are ready for adult companionship, reaching out with compassion rather than anger when told of suicidal feelings or despair. If we learn more about developmental milestones, we can relate to the stages of growth, provide insight for self and the youth and recognize the transitory nature of disquieting behaviors.

Teachers are a keystone. Many of us have experienced the struggle first hand. We can model acceptance for ‘odd’ youth and insist on socially appropriate actions, communications and grouping throughout the school setting. We can be mentors to these gifted youth and let them know that we are learning from them as well as providing for their educational quests. We can share developmental insights from specialists and focus some of the learning experiences around classroom ideas and research. We can listen carefully to the thoughts shared and provide nudges to send students looking in productive areas rather than floundering. We need not diminish the excitement of discovery but show genuine excitement as students find the nooks and crannies we also found in our intellectual climb. Teachers can serve as an intellectual peer group also, as long as the ethic guidelines of mentor ship are followed. We can also be alert to depression and despair, and provide insights to students and parents when danger seems imminent.

I have learned a great deal from being bright, and I have found it to be a joyful burden. I have rejoiced when I have not had to walk alone and have been warmed when I could share myself and my ideas with others. The people who I cherish most are those who stood as a warming presence, not as far off beacons. I needed them! Our youth today need us close!

References Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: Norton. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Sex differences in the expression of moral judgment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Ginott. H. (1972). Teacher and child. New York: Macmillan Jones, E. (1957). The life and work of Sigmund Freud. (Vol 3). New York: Basic Books. Kierkegaard, S.A. (1842). Sickness unto Death. Kohlberg, L. (1981). The philosophy of moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row. Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row. Lasko, A. A. (1967). “Psychotherapy, habits and values.” In J.F. Bugental (Ed.), Challenges of humanistic psychology (pp. 247-52).

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