An Interview with Dr. Edward R. Amend: The Emotional Needs of Gifted Kids

By Michael Shaughnessy.

Question: What are some ways to distinguish between gifted behaviors and pathological behaviors?

Answer: One of the most important pieces of information is the context in which the behaviors are shown. Let me be clear that pathological behaviors are not necessarily characteristic of gifted children and adults; however, some behaviors that may appear pathological in certain contexts can be better explained by giftedness than by any pathology. For example, inattention can be indicative of an Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Predominantly Inattentive Type, and inattention would not be considered a “characteristic” of giftedness. However, inattention and concentration difficulties can also be caused by a number of factors including depression or anxiety. Inattention may also be explained by lack of interest, an inappropriate curriculum (curriculum not meeting a gifted child’s needs), or a variety of other factors. Viewing this inattention in the context of the person and the environment will better enable a clinician to determine the appropriate cause of the behavior and to determine whether the inattention would be better addressed by curriculum modifications, therapy, or medication, for example.

Question: What are some characteristics of gifted children and adults?

Answer: If you pick up just about any book on gifted children, you will find a list of typical characteristics of gifted children. These lists typically include things like strong memory, large vocabulary, persistence, and a wide range of interests. Gifted children typically learn to read earlier than other children and show an intensity that cuts across all interests and activities. These characteristics typically persist into adulthood. However, I believe that asynchronous or uneven development and the fact that gifted children really do see the world differently than others are two traits that truly differentiate a gifted person. Their superior intellectual abilities allow them to view the world from different perspectives, and as a result their behaviors are both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the norm. Whether their giftedness is in the intellectual domain, specific academic areas, creativity, or visual and performing arts, they typically show uneven development, intensity, and ability that far surpasses most others their age. Often, they demonstrate not only the potential to perform at high levels, but also a high level of performance.

Question: How can we avoid mislabeling gifted children?

Answer: It seems, today, that we are very quick to label any behavior that is different from the norm in any way as pathological. As a society, we have become very interested in the labels which can be placed upon individuals and their maladies. On the positive side, by accepting these differences and their labels, we become more accepting of the people who bring them and minimize the stigma historically associated with mental illness. However, the ease with which any difference is labeled is certainly of concern. Specifically, gifted children, by definition, are different in at least one way. When these innate differences are misunderstood and labeled as pathological, the gifted child’s true needs are not met. Recognizing that the gifted child’s needs arise from his or her strengths, rather than his or her weaknesses, can allow others to better address these needs. Providing appropriate curriculum and interventions to address these needs will promote adjustment among gifted children. Appropriately using giftedness as an explanation, but not an excuse, for any behaviors that may seem apart from the norm can also help.

Question: What are the emotional needs of gifted children?

Answer: There is a good bit of research looking at the social and emotional needs of gifted and talented children. As a group, gifted children are not necessarily more or less well adjusted than any other group. However, gifted children face risks that many other groups do not face. For example, their asynchronous or uneven development creates difficulties in relating to both themselves and others. Gifted children may be more likely to view themselves based on their relative weaknesses, even though these abilities may fall in the average range, rather than their strengths that are often well above average. As a group, gifted children show more perfectionist behaviors than other groups, and this creates potential difficulties. Finally, the lack of educational fit can also create adjustment or emotional difficulties.

Question: Suicide is always a major concern. What should parents, teachers and counselors be on the look out for?

Answer: While it is clear that some gifted children do commit suicide, it is impossible at this time to answer the question whether gifted children commit suicide more frequently than other children and teenagers. The data simply are not there. There are a number of specific factors that are associated with suicide, and we know that suicide is more frequent than everyone would like. Some of the risk factors for suicide include drug and alcohol abuse; family loss or disruption; family history of suicide, psychiatric disorders, or substance abuse; impulsiveness; adverse life events; easy access to lethal methods; and exposure to suicidal behavior of others, including friends or media portrayals (true or fiction).

Question: Perfectionism seems to be a major issue. How can parents and teachers address this concern?

Answer: It is clear that perfectionism is a major issue among gifted and talented children. Here are a few ideas for parents. Allowing children to make and learn from mistakes by using natural consequences can be helpful. Modeling appropriate handling of mistakes is also an import