Exploring Social and Emotional Aspects of Giftedness in Children

By Deirdre V. Lovecky.

Parents of gifted children often must devise their own means of understanding problems and issues that arise from their children’s giftedness. There are few guidelines to follow for children who differ from average children not only in intellectual development, but also in social and emotional development. It is not uncommon for gifted children to find that age peers do not share their interests, play by different rules, and appear to engage in pastimes, such as teasing, that many gifted children find puzzling and painful.

In trying to deal with their gifted children’s needs, parents find few resources. Indeed, since gifted children differ from each other as much as they differ from average children, what may work with one may not work with another. Nevertheless, gifted children do appear to have certain social/emotional traits in common including: heightened sensitivity, emotional intensity and reactivity, feeling different, perfectionism and uneven development of intellectual and emotional areas (Erlich, 1982; Janos & Robinson, 1985; Kitano, 1990; Kline & Meckstroth, 1985; Lovecky, 1990a; Roedell, 1984, 1988; Roeper, 1982; Silverman, 1983; Tolan, 1989; Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982). Some of these social and emotional traits may take the form of particular vulnerabilities for gifted children; for example, both Hollingworth (1942) and Whitmore (1980), working with somewhat different populations of gifted children, suggest that gifted children may have difficulty dealing with their great sensitivity, coping with discrepancies in intellectual, emotional and social development, and finding peers who truly understand and appreciate their unusual and advanced perceptions. Piechowski (1986) describes a model, the concept of developmental potential, that explores five dimensions that have social and emotional consequences for gifted children and adults. These include aspects of emotional intensity, sensitivity, empathy and compassion. Piechowski (1991) suggests that the vulnerabilities of the gifted can result in growth towards self-awareness and self- actualization.

This article is an attempt to define five traits common to gifted children that result in social and emotional vulnerability: divergent thinking ability, excitability, sensitivity, perceptiveness and entelechy. While the traits appear to be an integral part of giftedness, their behavioral manifestations may vary depending on such psychological and physiological factors as tolerance for ambiguity, age, degree of introversion/extraversion, preference for types and levels of sensory input, locus of control, etc.

Although the traits themselves are neutral, their behavioral manifestations give them social significance, suggesting positive or negative perceptions by others. The traits are described as if only one predominates in order to clarify which issues result from particular aspects of each; however, the traits, in real life, overlap to some degree.

The development of the traits was based on observations of 80 gifted children who were psychotherapy clients. In addition, 12 children, known to the author, who were not clients, and their families, contributed to the anecdotal material used in this article. Children ranged in age from 4 to 22 years; 40% were girls and 60% boys. All lived in the Northeast with the vast majority in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Most were middle class, but all socio-economic groups were included. For example, several children lived with single parents on welfare. Ethnically, most were white. Several children were black (2) or had parents who had emigrated to the United States from Asian, Southeast Asian, and Arabic countries (5). Identification of giftedness was based on obtained IQ scores over 130 (one score on a multi- score test like the Wechsler Scales), overall achievement scores on a standardized achievement test over 95%, selection for a school’s gifted program or independent evidence of high creativity based on achievement of portfolios, awards, prizes, etc. Of the 92 children, 23 (9 girls, 14 boys) scored over IQ 150. The scores of these gifted children ranged to over 200.

The observations that served as a basis for this article were gathered in the form of journal notes, correspondence with parents of gifted children, and notes made of issues pertaining to giftedness that arose in therapy. Also biographic data of eminent people was used to determine whether the traits could be delineated in the childhood years of these people (for example, Louisa May Alcott, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Camille Pissarro and Martin Luther King, Jr.).


Divergent Thinking Ability Cris, at age 11, loves to make puns. Ask Cris to get something from the pantry, and she pictures an oak tree with hanging pots and pans. Shadows and shapes assume sinister tones as meanings and perceptions shift with her moods. Cris is highly creative in art and writing. Her poetry is exceptional for her age in form, sensitivity and depth. She is also interested in science, and, on her own initiative, is working after school on an original biology project.

Despite her academic successes, Cris is often unhappy at school. She feels misunderstood by both peers and teachers; she complains to her parents that she is different from others, and has no real friends.

Cris is a divergent thinker, someone who prefers the unusual, original, and creative aspects of any topic (Lovecky, 1990b). This means that Cris, like most divergent thinkers, tends not to think first of the response most likely to be thought by others. In fact, divergent thinkers tend to respond in a manner that reflects their fantasy proneness and pun proneness (Lovecky, 1991). There appear to be two types of divergent thinkers: those whose divergent thinking is circumscribed to certain times and subjects, and those who are primary process thinkers and fantasize much of the time. Cris would be an example of the latter type.

Performance and behavior at home and school are often problems for divergent thinkers. One of the reasons for this is that they are often negatively reinforced for their curious questions, unusual answers, dislike of working in groups, and rather morbid imaginations.

Many children who are divergent thinkers appear to be disorganized and absentminded, particularly in school. While adults can compensate for their absent-mindedness by choosing life styles that reward divergent thinking, it is more difficult for children. Divergently thinking children find many organizational schema difficult to understand. For example, the standards adults use to organize schoolwork are based on a linear model while divergent thinkers tend to see things holistically and make intuitive leaps to correct answers. Furthermore, decision making and setting