An Interview with Jean Sunde Peterson: About Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted

By Jean Sunde Peterson.

Twice Exceptional/Twice Successful: Back to School Strategies that Work

Jean Sunde Peterson, professor at Purdue University, directs school counselor preparation and focuses most of her research on gifted youth. Her workshops, keynotes, and presentations address social and emotional development, academic underachievement, development-oriented group work, bullying, advocacy, and parenting. She has authored over 80 books, invited chapters, and journal articles and has received several national research awards. Her latest book is Gifted At Risk: Poetic Profiles (Great Potential Press).

Interview by Michael F. Shaughnessy

Question: Jean, what do you see as the main social and emotional needs of the gifted?

Answer: Social concerns may include being a bully (with implications for future relationships) and/or being bullied, isolation, feeling unconnected to peers because of life circumstances, and having difficulty connecting to home or neighborhood because of interests and education. Perfectionism and other control issues (e.g., dominance, angry outbursts, anxiety), shyness, poor impulse control, and lack of tact are among several other concerns that may come to the attention of parents, teachers, and counselors. Social needs vary, according to how satisfied students are with interpersonal connections, how connected they want to be, and what might be interfering with connecting. Anyone with a poor fit with family, peers, teachers, coaches, directors, and neighborhood probably does not feel at ease socially.

Emotional concerns can be related to anything just mentioned. I do believe that sensitivity, intensity, and overexcitabilities are potential extra layers during life transitions, whether related to normal development, change and loss, or moving across school levels. That layer might exacerbate expected developmental struggles. In my view, including when there are learning disabilities, academic underachievement may be mostly a developmental phenomenon, with the possibility of “spontaneous remission” when developmental tasks are accomplished.

Needs that come to mind are these: 1) to be seen and appreciated as a complex person, not just as a performer or non-performer; 2) to have developmental tasks named and explained and struggles normalized, as related to giftedness; 3) to have associated characteristics recognized for what they are, and not pathologized (when pathology isn’t indicated); 4) to be viewed with compassion—even for having to bear the burdens of high ability; 5) to have someone who can affirm them where and how they are; 6) to know that angst, doubt, fear, anxiety, sense of inferiority, guilt, and even despair in the moment will not always feel the same, and that everything is always in the process of change; 7) to have a venue for learning to express concerns about present, past, and future.

Question: In some schools, gifted kids receive an IEP. What goals might a school consider to assist in their social and emotional development?

Answer: Gifted kids have as much need as anyone else to learn about social and emotional development, to talk with a compassionate and nonjudgmental adult about growing up, to feel safe and secure at school, to have personal strengths unrelated to academics affirmed, to figure out their identity, to have assistance in career and relational development, to develop autonomy, and to learn how to be self-reliant, resilient, and comfortable in the world. Any of these are appropriate to focus on.

Question: Do gifted boys and girls differ in their needs, and, if so, how?

Answer: As a counselor, I’d say yes, but it’s important not to think in neat categories. As a researcher, I can look at a few of my studies. In one large high school, 75% of extreme underachievers were boys and 75% of high achievers were girls. I do view typical classrooms as being an easier and better fit for many gifted girls, especially those who are compliant and able to focus on the tasks at hand. When I selected 14 at-risk gifted high school graduates to follow for four years, there were more boys than girls, and at the end of the study the girls had accomplished an average of 3 developmental tasks (of the 4 of interest), compared with the boys’ 1.75. In a co-conducted study of gifted individuals who were gay/lesbian/bisexual, male subjects had sensed more danger. In a study of successful adults who once were underachievers, many of the females had been “feisty” adolescents in difficult family situations. Participants who became achievers last, in terms of age, were male. On the other hand, negative life events seemed to rain equally in another study, with both genders struggling.

Gifted girls had important research attention a few decades ago, and gifted males less so. Fortunately, the latter have had increasing attention in recent years. For both, personality factors and interpersonal strengths probably have the most impact on well-being. Those who do not fit gender stereotypes and lack peer support seem to be vulnerable to bullying. Both genders need compassion and support.

Question: Do gifted children differ in their social and emotional needs as opposed to gifted adolescents?

Answer: In general, their developmental tasks differ, although gifted kids may wrestle with typically adolescent identity and career development earlier than others their age. If abilities in gifted kids are obvious when young, childhood is likely affected, since significant adults are likely to interact with them accordingly. Others’ and their own high expectations may contribute to stress, and a sense that they should not disappoint highly invested adults may become entrenched during childhood—to the extent that they don’t reveal concerns, doubts, and distress.

Adolescent developmental tasks are related to identity, direction, relationships, autonomy, and differentiation within their family, and gifted teens have needs related to all of these areas. For instance, those who have potential in several fields may actually sense impending loss when needing to commit to a college major.