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The Unhappy Intellectually Gifted Child

A "The Eminents" interview with Edward Amend

Anthony Kelly, CC 2.0
Source: Anthony Kelly, CC 2.0

What’s a parent to do with an unhappy intellectually gifted child?

To address that, in today's The Eminents interview, I spoke with Edward Amend. He is co-author of two award-winning books: A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children; and Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Asperger’s, Depression, and Other Disorders.

For two decades, he was on the Board of Directors of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted and has been Chair of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) Counseling and Guidance Network.

I interviewed him today:

Marty Nemko: Has public schools’ attention to gifted kids waned?

Edward Amend: Absolutely. For example, in my state of Kentucky, the state budget for our 98,000 gifted students is $7 million or just $61 per child! That’s out of a total state education budget of $2.5 billion! And that amount hasn’t increased since 1980. So it falls ever more on parents to ensure that their children have that basic right all children have: to get appropriate-level education. It’s so sad to see so much potential wasted.

MN: So let’s turn to what parents and teachers can do. Many intellectually gifted kids are said to be hyperactive. How do you determine whether a dual diagnosis of gifted/ADHD is appropriate?

EA: First, does the behavior disrupts learning and/or socializing? Even if it does, that  doesn’t necessarily warrant an ADHD diagnosis. It could be the child’s issue or his or her environment. So ask yourself if your child does better when in an appropriately stimulating environment. Perhaps he’s in a class that provides that. Or maybe it’s an after-school class or summer program or simply when talking with an intellectual peer, child or adult. Or is s/he still, even then, hyperactive and weak in planning and organization, what today we call “executive function?”

Of course, even if a child doesn't meet the criteria for ADHD, we shouldn't excuse consistently bad behavior. I’ve heard parents say, “After all, s/he’s gifted.” Intervention is needed. First, you might simply try careful reasoning with your child. After all, a gifted kid’s reasoning skills may be good enough that if s/he fully understands the reasons the need to change behavior, s/he might at least reduce the bad behavior. Of course, that won't always work. ADHD kids tend to have the information needed but can't execute the skills in real-time.

Another low-intensity intervention: Sometimes a child simply needs to move more. Tactfully ask the teacher if s/he might, for example, allow your child to sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair, squeeze a Koosh ball or otherwise be allowed to fidget without reprimand. One teacher regularly sent an active boy on errands, even when unnecessary. She sent him with a note to give to a teacher at the other end of the school. The note said, “Dear Ms. S, I needed to give Johnny a chance to move, so I sent him to you with this note. Just thank him and send him back.”

MN: Many gifted kids and adults are said to have Asperger's-like characteristics. It's said, only half-joking, that half of Silicon Valley programmers have Asperger’s. What are the differentiating characteristics?

EA: Again, first, let’s be sure it’s a problem that requires intervention. How much does his behavior hurt him: Do his social quirks preclude communicating effectively or making friends? If it does, a sine qua non of Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1 (the current term for Asperger’s) is whether he is able to put himself in another person’s shoes to fairly accurately assess how his behavior will make others feel. Also, does he understand common idioms and humor that his age peers “get?”

MN: Are any interventions particularly effective in helping a gifted kid with Asperger’s?

EA: As with all people with autism, it’s often wise to at least start with key concrete social behaviors, for example, the so-called business-friendly behaviors: smiling, saying hello, shaking hands. A difference when working with intellectually gifted kids is that you may more effectively motivate them to change by fully explaining the rationale behind such seemingly unnecessary behaviors.

Teachers should provide predictable, structured tasks with a minimum of ambiguity, for example, a list of the sections in a term paper. It may also be wise to assign papers that require the child to organize facts rather than to formulate opinions. The latter requires understanding other people’s perspectives, in this case, their likely objections to his opinion. After completing the fact-based paper, the teacher or parent might guide the child into formulating an argument for his or her opinion.

MN: Are there other Asperger's behaviors that parents and teachers need to be particularly vigilant to?

EA: Many. For example, many kids with Asperger's are unable to form relationships, know what is expected in a situation, or even remember classmates’ names. A mother taught her gifted Asperger’s five-year old to go to a public bathroom by himself. She told him what to do in great detail, including that there’s no need to get down on your knees to see if someone is in a stall. On his first solo attempt, the mom waited outside and heard her son in the bathroom singing loudly. When working with people on the autism spectrum, you can assume little: Cover all the details, with explanations for why each need be done. Not easy but necessary.

MN: Standard treatment for depression is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Are there specific such techniques that are particularly effective with intellectually gifted kids with depression?

EA:  As with anyone, I lead the child to understand the dangers of his or her erroneous thinking, such as exaggerating how bad something is likely to be. For example, if a child doesn’t want to go to a birthday party, we analyze the risk/benefit of going and then discuss how to increase the chances of finding some pleasure in it. For example, I might slowly lead the child to realize that it provides an opportunity to practice a particular social skill and even if he gets rejected, it’s good practice and he might still enjoy the food, games, and music. I’d then ask the child whether, in light of that, attending is a likely better option than spending those two hours doing what he’d routinely be doing, which he can do anytime, unlike that one-time opportunity?

Also, gifted kids tend to think that their intelligence is all of who they are and is immutable. So they avoid challenges for fear it might reveal that they’re not as smart as they or others thought. In therapy, I try to help them understand that effort is key to building on their native intelligence and that even smart kids fail often, which doesn’t make them unintelligent. I also stress that their intellect is only one part of who they are. Their diligence, kindness, and special interests and skills all comprise important parts of themselves. All that helps motivate them to try things that are outside their comfort zone, which reduces their excessive perfectionism.

MN:  Many intellectually gifted kids struggle to consistently muster the patience to deal with the slow pace of today's mixed-ability classes as well as with children of average or below-average intelligence. Any advice?

EA: Of course, sometimes assignments and interactions will be boring. We’re not always going to be accommodated to. Indeed, we don’t want to raise a child who feels entitled to perfect comfortability, the so-called entitled person.

That said, encourage your child, perhaps using role-playing, to advocate for him or herself, for example, to ask the teacher for an alternative assignment to substitute for less engaging activities. The work should not be in addition to regular work---a child shouldn’t be punished for giftedness. The goal is to require not more work, just appropriate-leveled work, the same as teachers are urged to provide for low-achieving kids.

Consider subject and grade acceleration, along with AP courses, International Baccalaureate programs, and dual high school-college enrollment.

Outside of school, parents should help their gifted child find and spend time with intellectual peers, children and adults.

Visit museums, libraries, and tourist attractions. Modeling how to be a life-long learner goes a long way. Find what’s around or just explore.

I am a big fan of learning through playing, for example, board games and card games. Many video games (not first-person shooters) are non-stop problem solving. They can provide individualized, immersive experiences that build thinking skills. Of course, parents need to set limits on video games—Some parents complain that their kids want to do nothing else.

Many kids point to summer programs and connections outside of school as their lifeline throughout the difficult times. Some locales have Saturday enrichment classes. Also, there are summer camps for gifted students. offers a database of these.

MN: Is the advice for depressed or ADHD intellectually gifted adults different from that for any adult with depression or ADHD?

EA; Many gifted adults are depressed at least in part because of existential angst. They’re smart enough to realize that there really are serious questions about the meaning of life and of their life in particular. I try to remind them that many gifted people’s depression or ADHD can drive great achievement, that it can be their problem’s silver lining.

MN: Is there anything you'd like to add?

EA: Yes. Amid all our efforts to help low-achieving kids, we shouldn't deprive intellectually gifted kids of their right to an appropriate education. After all, they'll be the people most likely to cure cancer, create the next Google, and wisely lead our world.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.