The subject of giftedness in children can be a contentious one. Many of us parents hope that our kids will be born with that special “something” that sets them apart from their peers. While giftedness is usually used to describe academic or intellectual ability, the experience of children identified as gifted or talented in sports or other non-academic areas can be similar.
What does “gifted” mean?
Smart kids are not always gifted, and gifted kids are not necessarily geniuses. Kids may be high achievers because they work hard and are disciplined and committed. Likewise, a gifted kid may have above average intellectual ability, but fail to achieve. A genius, meanwhile, is defined as someone who has exceptional talent in one specific area.
Gifted kids are often easy to spot. Apart from the obvious cognitive attributes, they can be intense, focused, sensitive, curious, and idealistic. Genius kids may have an almost obsessive focus on their area of interest. They believe strongly in fairness and justice and may struggle to deal with inconsistencies in environments such as classrooms and schools. Gifted children have high expectations of themselves and others, and can easily become disillusioned and disappointed when expectations are not met. More than other children, gifted children grapple with the questions “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?”
We all know kids who were identified or labelled ‘gifted” (it may even have been you or your child). Achieving amazing grades with very little effort, these kids seemed to be brimming with academic potential even if they were a bit nerdy, geeky, or socially awkward.
Gifted kid burnout
Why is it then that these same children do not always excel as they progress though high school, college, and into the workplace? This failure to excel has become known as “Gifted Kid Burnout.” For some children, it is unrealistic expectations that lead to self-defeating behaviors in order to cope, for others underachievement may simply be as a result of seeking relief from the pressure to excel.
Teenagers and young adults will often lay the blame for feeling less accomplished as they get older on the adults who lavished too much praise on them for their academic achievements as children. As they grow to realize that being told they could be anything or do anything as a result of being smart is not always true, feelings of inadequacy and failure increase. Gifted children may also struggle to see themselves in relation to the perfection they strive for.
Gifted child syndrome
Gifted Child Syndrome or Child Genius Syndrome refers to children who are raised with constant praise and high achievement. These kids then grow up, find themselves amongst other high-achievers and fail to adapt. It is what happens when a child has never had to work hard for anything in the past, and now does not know how, but cannot move beyond the pressure to be exceptional. A child (adolescent or young adult) with gifted child syndrome has no concept of ‘trying’ and struggles to develop a work ethic, self-discipline, and the grit required to succeed.
Research by Professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The new psychology of success, suggests that labelling kids in their formative years creates a fixed mindset: believing that certain qualities are cast in stone and cannot change. This is problematic as children begin to struggle as they progress academically and being gifted is no longer sufficient to guarantee good results.
Dweck recommends avoiding labelling and encouraging a growth mindset in which a person believes that “true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.” This mindset pushes kids to work towards making themselves smarter rather than accept that their intelligence is fixed and unchangeable.
Gifted kid burnout bingo
In 2017, a meme was posted to Instagram labelled “Gifted Kid Burnout Bingo”:
This darkly humorous meme resonated with many adults who had been identified as gifted children. For teens and young adults, these feelings of “burnout” can be characterized by a loss of interest in academic work, feelings of hopelessness, and an awareness of lost potential. Your kids might report difficulty in studying, as they have never needed this skill before, or they might feel a sense of impostor syndrome when surrounded by other bright and talented people. If adults express a sense of disappointment, they may become even more demotivated.
Gifted child problems
It may seem like a good problem to have, but for gifted kids, being smart comes with its own set of challenges. With every level of achievement comes competition, complexity, and responsibility. If you view giftedness as something fixed and unchangeable, this can lead to stress, fear, and anxiety. It can therefore be helpful to view the giftedness of your child as something that develops over time. When kids and adults understand that everyone is born with potential, and our job is to develop and activate that potential it means that there will be successes and failures, and ups and downs in the process.
A number of characteristics may affect gifted kids negatively, including:
- The awareness of being different
- Nonconformist behavior
- Desire to become all they are capable of becoming
- Need for mental stimulation and a preoccupation with understanding
- Heightened emotional intensity
Together with these factors is the fact that gifted kids succeed at an early age with very little effort. They have no ownership over their successes and do not learn the connection between effort and outcome. This means that later on when failure occurs, the gifted child attributes their failure to a lack of ability rather than a lack of effort.
As your gifted child progresses through the education system, the number of gifted children they encounter will also increase and at some point (usually in college) they will be at a level where most people around them are gifted or talented to some degree. They will no longer be “special.” At the point where inborn talent is no longer sufficient for success, they may struggle with self-doubt or impostor syndrome if they have not learned the skills of persistence, patience, perseverance, discipline, and hard work.
Do gifted students become successful?
As much as we want to see giftedness as a gift that keeps on giving in our children, it is impossible to know whether or not a gifted child will go on to be a successful adult. However, there are some indicators of attributes that do contribute to success. Instead of emphasizing your child’s giftedness, talk about their attitudes and skills, 2 things that they can control. Encourage them to pursue things that they are interested in and give them opportunities to maximize their gifts (if possible without the pressure of the gifted label).
Instead of talking about potential, which just places an enormous expectation on a child over something they may be unable to achieve, rather talk about “realizing ability.” No one knows how much ability they have, but your gifted child can be encouraged to develop their abilities to their fullest.
Giftedness is overrated as a contributor to success. Anders Ericcson, who studied expert performance in multiple areas, found that innate ability was the least likely predictor of success. The single biggest predictor of success was effort and practice. In putting in hard work, children learned to practice, persevere despite setbacks, and developed skills to support future success.
Research on high performance in individuals suggest that it goes way beyond intelligence that can be tested. It also shows clearly that brains are plastic (able to change) and that new neural pathways can be forged. IQ is not fixed and the right attitude and approach to learning is vital in the development of high performers.
Supporting your gifted kid
There are a number of ways for us parents to give our kids the right messages about giftedness and abilities:
- One of these is teaching kids from early on that study and effort matter–they may not be immediately necessary, but without them, the chance of future success is diminished.
- Another important thing is to teach your kids to identify and express their feelings. Validate their emotions and make sure they know they do not have to succeed in everything all the time.
- Model good behaviors to your child–face your fears, try new things, do things outside of your comfort zone and talk candidly about how being intimidated, worried, or anxious feels.
- Finally, find ways to connect your smart and gifted kids to good mentors and role models within your community. You can even introduce your kids to books and movies where characters embrace their uniqueness, have courage, and take measured risks both with and without the support of their peers. Movies such as A Beautiful Mind come to mind.
By developing resilience, emotional maturity, and a growth mindset, gifted child burnout can be avoided.