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