Creative Synthesis

Living up to your full potential.

Teen Survival Smarts

Authors Judy Galbraith and Jim Delisle on today's brightest adolescents

When our son was younger, one of the resources that was very helpful in understanding his experience and needs was a book not for adults, but for teens, The Gifted Kids' Survival Book: A Teen Handbook, by Judy Galbraith and Jim Delisle. I kept our local library's copy checked out regularly, and my only reservations about the book were that it was, at times, too school focused for the needs of our family, who was at that time homeschooling.

The newly revised and updated fourth edition, The Gifted Teen Survival Guide: Smart, Sharp, and Ready for (Almost) Anything, not only includes information on homeschooling, but also features new sections on recent brain development research, more extensive information about social and emotional growth and needs, and input from nearly 1,500 teenagers from around the world. I was fortunate to be able to interview the authors about their experience in writing the book and some of the changes they have seen in the past 15 years.

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Judy Galbraith, M.A., has a master's degree in guidance and counseling of the gifted. She has worked with and taught gifted children and teens, their parents, and their teachers for over three decades. In 1983, she started Free Spirit Publishing, which specializes in Self-Help for KidsĀ® and Self-Help for TeensĀ® books and other learning resources. She is the author of numerous books, including The Gifted Kids' Survival Guide: For Ages 10 & Under. Judy lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jim Delisle, Ph.D., has taught gifted children and those who work on their behalf for more than thirty years, including twenty-five years as a professor of special education at Kent State University. The author of more than 250 articles and sixteen books, he is a frequent presenter on gifted children's intellectual and emotional growth. Jim lives in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Question: In your interviews with teens in preparation for the book, did any comments or trends surprise you or was there any general response that you did not expect?

Jim Delisle: The response we received on our questionnaire regarding whether gifted boys or girls had a harder time in school was unexpected. In our previous edition (granted that was 15 years ago), gifted girls were seen by teens as being at a distinct disadvantage when it came to their giftedness being accepted by classmates. It was almost as if girls were saying 15 years ago that "it was smart to appear dumb." That all changed in this edition, as our respondents--boys and girls--agreed that boys now have the tougher time being smart in school. Another difference I noted was in the overall sophistication of our respondents regarding virtually all of our topics, from what being gifted means, to ways to improve school and friendships, to career and college options open to them. I believe the online access teens now have to virtually any topic has helped them get questions answered in ways that are unique to this generation of adolescents.

Judy Galbraith: I was surprised (and impressed) that 70% of our respondents wanted to know about brain development, and 50% wanted to know more about how to improve their critical-thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills. As Jim noted above, the level of sophistication of their responses was much higher, and students clearly wanted to know more about navigating life successfully. One thing that hasn't changed in the 30 years I've been surveying gifted kids, for the most part, they are very willing and eager to share their experiences (good and bad), insights, and feelings. They appreciate being listened to, even if it's via an Internet survey.

Q: Are there any changes you have seen in the needs or experiences of gifted teens in the past 15 years?

Jim Delisle
Jim Delisle
Jim: I was intrigued by how much our respondents wanted to know about the genetic, biological, and neurological bases of intelligence. Where the previous edition of our Survival Guide focused more on things like learning styles and preferences, this edition addresses new trends and theories on shaping "the gifted brain," so to speak. In a way, our survey respondents were much more analytical in their approach to understanding giftedness. Another difference is how much our readers believe that they are "educational free agents." If a typical school setting isn't working for them, many other options exist--homeschooling, early enrollment in college, online courses to satisfy graduation requirements, to name a few. This isn't the sense of helplessness ("My school sucks and I can't do anything about it") that I perceived to be almost pervasive in previous editions of our book. It seems to me that students are learning to become their own best advocates in achieving an education commensurate with their abilities and interests.

Judy: Although I agree with Jim that more of our respondents believe they have at least some control over their education compared to past years, 50% said they want help getting teachers to be more flexible (e.g., alternatives to traditional assignments being acceptable) and 49% wanted to know about earning college credit while in high school. That suggests to me that educators and parents need to do more to inform students about educational options and opportunities.

Q: In your opinion, what is the most misunderstood aspect of being a gifted teenager?

Jim: The biggest misunderstanding about giftedness today is the same condition that existed 30 years ago (and probably longer than that): that gifted kids "have it made," they can get by on their own without additional educational assistance or emotional support, and that our education dollars would be better spent on kids who were "truly needy." I think we have gotten away from giftedness being synonymous with genius--probably because at least some of today's parents were in gifted programs themselves--but there is still the pervasive societal myth that gifted kids are "a passionless issue in a society geared to emergencies" (one of my favorite quotes from gifted forerunner, John Gowan). To me, this is why the role of gifted advocate can be such a frustrating one--it seems that every new teacher, principal, school board member, and governor needs to be convinced anew that gifted kids have needs as unique and important as any other subgroup of special-needs students.

Judy: I completely agree with Jim on this. What's particularly frustrating to me about this lack of attention to gifted students is that the world so desperately needs people who are up to the serious challenges we face in every area, from medicine and the environment, to economics and education. That's not to say that these students should be burdened with the expectation that they save the world, but what if we supported and inspired them to pursue their passions? Logic tells us that many of them would end up being great at whatever their chosen fields or pursuits, and benefits would follow for all.

Q: What is the toughest aspect of being a gifted teenager today?

Judy Galbraith
Judy Galbraith
Judy: I think the toughest thing about being a gifted teen isn't about being gifted. Rather it's about being gifted and being an adolescent. Everyone knows adolescence is a time of tremendous change--physically, emotionally, educationally, experientially. And whatever your unique aspects are (gifted, LD, short, tall...you get the idea), it's easy to feel out of sync with your peers and what's going on around you. Some, as Jim noted, navigate quite nicely while others really need extra support to not only survive, but thrive.

Q: What are the one or two most important issues facing gifted teens today?

Jim: I find that many of today's gifted teens struggle with how to define "success." The stereotypic idea of having a good education, which leads to a good job and a nice family equating with "success" isn't as pervasive as it once was. For example, does a "good" education have to include college? Not for every gifted kid, though many are made to feel like failures by society if they don't pursue advanced degrees (the "gee...you had so much potential as a kid" kind of comments). Likewise, in this ever-expanding world of career choices that didn't exist a decade ago, who is to define "success" in this category? It used to be that the professions of doctor, lawyer, and engineer were considered to be the sine qua nons of grown-up success, but now, with technology changing at warp speed, CG artists and designers might be equally as intriguing choices for today's gifted teens. Sadly, I'm afraid too many gifted young adults will be made to feel that they are "wasting their talents" unless they conform to a 20th-century view of what success looks like.

Judy: Related to Jim's comments, I'd like to introduce the term "multipotentiality." Many gifted young people have a variety of interests and things they excel in. At first blush one might think "how fortunate for you." But this multipotential can be a blessing, and a curse. How can adults help a gifted young person who's confused and frustrated as they try to figure out what they should focus on after high school? We need to help them think about what would be the most rewarding things for them to pursue, professionally and in terms of hobbies. Years ago I posited a question to a group of gifted teens: "What is success?" A boy replied, "Success means reaching my manifest destiny." A girl in the group said, "Success means not having to worry about my manifest destiny." He went on to become a CPA, and she became an accomplished artist and dancer.

Q: What are the one or two most important issues facing the parents of gifted teens today?

Jim: Parents of gifted teens frequently share their concerns with me. One of the more common concerns relates to achievement--is an A the only acceptable grade? How do you allow a gifted child to excel without pushing perfectionism? What constitutes "underachievement" for a gifted child? Each of these concerns can be addressed through the old-fashioned strategy of open dialogue between parents and kids, but still, the "right" answer to these questions often seems elusive. Another concern relates directly to the lack of attention given to gifted kids in many--perhaps most--public schools. Most parents are not "pushy" by choice, but when their 6-year-old gifted kid comes home and is bored already, parents are concerned that this attitude will get worse as time passes and adolescence emerges. So, they may intervene at school as their child's advocate, only to be perceived as whiny moms or dads who expect schools to bend over backwards on behalf of their child. Being an effective advocate for a gifted child is a tricky tightrope to walk for many a gifted parent.

Judy: A common topic that comes up when I speak to parent groups is that of so-called underachievement. When I ask parents questions about what that looks like in their child, they often describe a child who balks at doing seatwork or homework that's just more of the same. Many gifted kids have told me that doing easy work is harder for them than doing challenging work, and I don't blame them for not wanting to waste their time on content that they have already mastered. As Jim noted above, it's tricky for parents to successfully advocate for curriculum that is at an appropriate (higher) level for their child without seeming presumptuous or pushy. That's not a reason to give up, however. All kids, not just gifted ones, benefit from an education that's right for them. The more parents speak up about this (politely, but firmly) the better education offerings there will be for all. And again, the more students can learn to advocate for themselves the better. Learning to be assertive is a life-long skill that will help them throughout their lives.

Q: What is the most important thing for parents of gifted teens to understand?

Jim: Parents of gifted teens need to understand that, like all teens, their kids will seek independence in ways that are both useful and naively harmful. Being gifted doesn't give a teen an immunity from doing stupid stuff and making bonehead decisions, but sometimes parents feel that "someone so smart" should have used better judgment in a particular situation. Yeah...just like we all did in adolescence. So, parents of gifted kids need to put the giftedness of their teen into proper perspective, allowing for experience to be the best teacher while trying to channel your teen's actions into directions that are safe, responsible, and kind. I guess some things just don't change over time. This is one of those things.

Judy: I agree with Jim, and I'll add that all of us, not just gifted teens, feel good when we know we're appreciated and loved for who we are not what we produce. So often kids are rewarded for external trappings such as good grades (e.g., Wow...your straight A's look great!) instead of recognizing the persistence or whatever it took to get those good grades. It's important that we recognize character traits in our kids that are at least as important as academic accomplishments. Let your teen know when they've exhibited honesty, leadership, courage, integrity...you get the idea...so they know they're more--much more--than a great brain.

Lisa Rivero is the author of The Smart Teens' Guide to Living with Intensity and other education and parenting books. more...

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