The Plight of the Gifted Child… and how this can lead to depression and anxiety

During the past week, I had the opportunity to participate in two panels on gifted students.  One involved a group of teachers and the other involved a group of parents.  Both discussions looked to the social-emotional struggles gifted children seem to have.  Is it more than other students?  Why is this happening?  As an educator with a son identified as gifted who struggled with school, my experiences have made me passionate about gifted education in our school system.  It is an issue that strikes particularly close to home.

The statistics here do not lie — depression and anxiety are on the rise amongst teens.  Some statistics show that depression and anxiety have risen 70% in the last 25 years.   Anecdotally, there appears to be an increase in depression and anxiety amongst gifted students.  However, there does not seem to be any sustained research analyzing these issues in the context of gifted students.

Why do gifted children seem to be so much more anxious than others?  First, these kids are told they are smart their entire lives. It becomes part of their identity.  So if they face a challenge or are not successful in school, even once, they often do not have the skill and resiliency to work through their difficulty.  The gifted children take the struggle as a  personal attack on their self esteem because being identified as intelligent often becomes a large piece (if not the entirety) of their identity.  This was definitely true with my son last year when he had always whipped through math and struggled with geometry.  He took it as a judgement of who he was as a person, and that somehow he was not smart anymore.  This type of behavior leads these students to be anxious about school as they set incredibly high, and often unattainable expectations for themselves.

The gifted brain works differently.  Gifted children often approach the world differently. This can lead to social isolation from peers (real or perceived),  being overlooked as being “at-risk” (“Too smart to play with drugs”), being emotionally immature (asynchronous development between their IQ and emotional intelligence), and subject to bullying, teasing, and name calling.  

Based upon my own experience, gifted children facing these types of issues can easily go and look for somewhere to escape — finding solace in gaming or being in front of a screen.  It calms their brain, they can have social interactions without being present, plus they get brain reinforcement as they achieve various levels.  Research has shown that screen addiction leads to further social isolation and depression.  I believe that these screens have been even more detrimental to gifted children than others.

So what do we do to help our gifted children?  First, we need to be more aware of their screen time than others and help them find healthy coping skills for their struggles.  Second, we need to advocate for our gifted children within our school systems.  Our school systems (public and private) are built for high achieving children (those who have a great motivation to achieve, not an actual high IQ), not gifted (those with a high IQ). Third, we need to teach our gifted children a growth versus fixed mindset.  This will help them realize they grow from challenges and failures.

This is clearly easier said that done.  I often wonder if, in some ways I failed my son in these matters.  He has a wicked screen addiction which we are working through, and he has a very fixed mind set.  I have always been an advocate for him for his education but perhaps it was more about what I thought he needed, not what was in his best interest long term to become a life long learner.  But I know that he can learn, as can I, and I am hopeful for the future as we all try to change our patterns.



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