Helping Them Climb: Optimizing Favorable Outcomes When Counseling the gifted

By Dr. Steven I Pfeiffer


This article provides an integration of the empirical research literature on child psychotherapy and what the author has gleaned, first hand, in counseling work with gifted children and youth, and their families, over his 40-year career as a clinical psychologist. The article focuses on best practices in counseling gifted students in a way that optimizes favorable outcomes. The article has application for preventive and early intervention work, as well as for individual and group counseling efforts. Four principles of evidence- based counseling are emphasized, including the pre-eminence of a common factors’ perspective in work with gifted clients. The article highlights the value of progress monitoring and incorporating a strength-based focus, and provides a clinical case to illustrate counseling work with a troubled gifted adolescent guided by evidence-based practice.


Counseling the gifted, best practices counseling, evidence-based counseling


There is a growing interest in the gifted field on the topic of counseling students who are gifted. The student might be a high-ability client who presents with a coexisting psychiatric or mental disorder, or special education disability—termed the “twice exceptional” or 2e student (Peterson, 2018; Pfeiffer and Foley-Nicpon, 2018). Or the client might be a high-ability student just beginning to experience social-emotional difficulties, what the psychiatric field calls “sub-clinical” problems (Pfeiffer, 2013; Pfeiffer and Burko, 2016). Finally, the client might be a high ability student in no apparent psychological distress, but who would be a candidate for universal, selective, or indicated preventive interventions to support their mental health and well-being (Darling-Hammond, 2015; Mendaglio and Peterson, 2007).

This article provides an intentionally brief synthesis of the child therapy research literature and the author’s own experiences as a therapist counseling gifted children and youth. The article emphasizes four important principles of evidence-based counseling, highlighting the pre-eminence of a common factors’ perspective in work with all clients, including the gifted. An actual clinical case is presented to illustrate counseling work with a troubled gifted adolescent guided by four principles of evidence-based practice that optimize favorable outcomes.

Gifted children and youth remain a misunderstood population (Robinson and Reis, 2016). Part of the problem is definitional. In the USA, the federal definition states that the gifted demonstrate outstanding ability or potential and require differentiated educational programs, and includes exceptional intellectual, academic, and leadership ability, creativity, and artistic talent (Stephens, 2018). In clinical practice, however, high IQ remains the predominant definitional criterion. Most psychologists and schools across the globe use the criterion of an IQ cut score of 120, 125, or 130 (Pfeiffer, 2015; Renzulli et al., 2002; Silverman, 2018).

A second definitional issue that has contributed to misunderstanding is whether we should narrowly define giftedness as persons of high IQ or more broadly define giftedness as any person with exceptional ability or uncommon talent. A third issue is whether we should restrict our conceptualization to those children with already demonstrated high ability or also consider children with outstanding promise—“diamonds in the rough” (Pfeiffer, 2015, 2020).

Most would agree that the child who is reading at age 3, playing competitive chess at age 5, or performing violin in an orchestra at age 10 is gifted. These exemplars reflect children who are developmentally advanced, a hallmark of giftedness. Characteristics commonly associated with giftedness include advanced language and reasoning, interests more aligned with older children and adults, impressive memory, intuitive understanding of concepts, insatiable curiosity, uncanny ability to connect disparate ideas and appreciate relationships, rapid learning, heightened sensitivity of feelings and emotions, perfectionism, and asynchrony across developmental domains (Piechowski, 2013; Sternberg and Kaufman, 2018). However, no gifted child exhibits all of these characteristics and gifted children vary tremendously in core characteristics (Neihart et al., 2016a). Giftedness does not always make an early appearance. For every Mozart, who created masterpieces at an early age, there is the Ce´zanne, whose great art was completed later in life.

Of course, the gifted, like their nongifted peers, experience typical developmental and psychosocial challenges. Sometimes, developmental milestones occur quite early, which can create unique problems (Piechowski, 2013; Robinson and Reis, 2016). Some gifted are vulnerable to emotional problems because of the very characteristics that are the hallmark of giftedness. For example, asynchronous development can generate feelings of being out of sync with their peers (Rinn and Majority, 2018; Wiley, 2016). Some gifted feel uncomfortably different and have difficulty finding a friend; others experience bullying (Peterson, 2016, 2018; Peterson and Ray, 2006). Some gifted view their gift as a burden. Difficulty with affect regulation or negative perfectionism increases their vulnerability to psychological problems (Neumeister, 2016; Rice and Taber, 2018; Silverman, 2012). An appreciable number of gifted experience a mismatch with their educational environment, which can create boredom, inattentiveness, underachievement, and even conduct problems (Plucker and Dilley, 2016; Siegel, 2018).

In addition, the gifted are not immune to the social and emotional challenges that all children face. Some gifted underperform to mask their abilities. A number of gifted struggle with depression, suicide ideation, anxiety, social isolation and feelings of alienation, anger management, neurotic perfectionism, traumatic events, and sexual identity issues (Neihart, 2016; Peterson, 2018; Pfeiffer and Burko, 2016). Finally, some gifted are twice exceptional and have sensory, orthopedic, or communication disabilities or psychiatric disorders coexisting with their giftedness, including ADHD, Asperger’s disorder, eating disorders, and mood disorders (Peterson, 2009; Pfeiffer and Foley-Nicpon, 2018). Some experts hypothesize that the majority of twice exceptional gifted/disabled have specific learning disabilities (Brody and Mills, 1997). Twice exceptionality creates a conundrum for the teacher, parents, counselor, as well as the child.

Most authorities agree that the gifted are those in the upper 3% to 5% compared to their peers in general intelligence, academics, the arts, and leadership (Gagne´, 2004; Renzulli et al., 2002; Silverman, 2018). Although some experts argue for a more liberal inclusionary threshold, as high as 10% to 15% (Pfeiffer, 2015, 2020; Worrell and Dix- son, 2018). Not surprisingly, there is evidence for genetic and neurobiological influences (Goriounova and Mansvelder, 2019). The fields of music and mathematics are rich with child prodigies. Evidence also comes from the unfolding of extraordinary accomplishments among kids from impoverished environments (Ackerman and Lakin, 2018). Most authorities agree that the unfolding of extraordinary talent requires a supportive environment and a number of influential, moderating and mediating factors over time (Subotnik et al., 2016; Tannenbaum, 1983).