Gifted Kids at Risk: Who's Listening?

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

By Patricia A. Schuler.

Driving home from last week’s Hollingworth Conference on the Highly Gifted, I heard a radio interview with Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul. He spoke of the loss of empathy in our lives. His words echoed those spoken only hours earlier by Dr. Thom Buescher, an expert on gifted adolescents. We were discussing the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado. I mentioned that I was about to write an article about gifted kids at risk.

“What factors do you think were involved in this horrible incident?” I asked.

“The lack of intimacy and rejection,” he replied.

Now, I sit here surrounded by newspaper and magazine clippings all offering opinions about the “whys” of Littleton and other locations where bright kids have murdered or committed suicide. Suggestions on how to avoid similar incidents: gun control, metal detectors, peer mediation, conflict resolution, changing media messages, controlling video games and access to the Internet, parent involvement, religion, and more counselors in our schools … they are all here. Yet no one discusses an important component in understanding what is happening to some bright kids – their being “gifted” and at risk for emotional difficulties.

E-mails and discussions with colleagues around the country confirm what Thomas Moore and Thom Buescher so eloquently stated. Loss of empathy, lack of intimacy, and rejection are daily experiences for some gifted children and adolescents. As “Geek Profiling” sweeps the country, we must speak out to dispel the myths that surround what it means to be “gifted and talented.” We must make a concerted effort to educate our society so that awareness, acceptance, and action will result. It is time to ask others listen to us. It is time to say clearly: bright kids are not better, yet they are different; and because they are, they face different issues.

Consider these two prevailing and paradoxical myths about gifted children and adolescents.

Myth 1: They do not have problems; somehow they can handle difficulties on their own.

Myth 2: Some of their characteristics are perceived as pathological.

To dispel such misconceptions, we must better understand the gifted: their intellectual and personality characteristics, the manifestations of high ability, and the specific problems and issues they face.

Silverman (1993) presents lists of the interrelated intellectual and personality characteristics of giftedness that may be found across all talent domains:

Giftedness impacts a child’s psychological growth and well-being through the relationship among these characteristics, the type of giftedness manifested, the degree of giftedness (above average to profound), and how well the needs of the child are being met. A child or adolescent may demonstrate general high ability or it may be in a certain domain such as mathematics, verbal, spatial, interpersonal, music, or kinesthetic. In addition to these characteristics and areas of high abilities, it is important to know what attitudes, values, personality temperament, and life experiences a gifted student brings to school. The culture and values of the school and community will also impact whether a gifted child or adolescent feels invited to participate as a positive contributing member.

Research consistently shows that many gifted children and adolescents have the capacity for intensified thinking and feeling, as well as vivid imaginations. Whether they are gifted athletes, artists, musicians, intellectuals, or are highly creative, they may have higher levels of emotional development due to greater awareness and intensity of feeling. “Being different” in ability and personality characteristics may lead to higher expectations, jealousy, and resentment by adults and peers. Specific problems that may result can be external or internal:

· Difficulty with social relationships

· Refusal to do routine, repetitive assignments

· Inappropriate criticism of others

· Lack of awareness of impact on others

· Lack of sufficient challenge in schoolwork

· Depression (often manifested in boredom)

· High levels of anxiety

· Difficulty accepting criticism

· Hiding talents to fit with peers

· Nonconformity and resistance to authority

· Excessive competitiveness

· Isolation from peers

· Low frustration tolerance

· Poor study habits

· Difficulty in selecting among a diversity of interests (Silverman, 1987)

For some gifted adolescents, acceptance by their peer group is the major source of stress in their lives. Repeatedly they hear the message “It’s okay to be smart, but it’s better if you are something else we can accept as well.”