Elizabeth Donovan M.A.

Youth and Tell

Exploring the Duality of the Gifted Teen

Why a teen's high IQ can be both a gift and a curse.

Posted Dec 19, 2011

"The hardest part about being a success is to continue being a success."

                                                                                - Raven, age 18.

At the age of eighteen, Raven Magwood is the exception to every rule. She's a published author, motivational speaker, filmmaker, junior in college, and former national gymnastics champion. It's safe to say that she's accomplished more as a teenager than most of us will in a lifetime. Raven carries with her the label of "gifted and talented" though she readily admits that all is not 'perfect' in her world. "On the one hand, it's great to know that other people recognize the potential significance I can have on the world. On the other hand it can be hard trying to live up to other individuals' expectations." Indeed. Exceptional intelligence is a double-edged sword for most kids, especially teens, who often find the pressure to succeed both intoxicating and suffocating. It is often the duality of these polar opposites that give smart teens the gift of success or the demise of failure.

The notion that the trajectory of smart teens is limited to an upwardly mobile platform with little struggle either academically, psychologically, or socially, is simply not true. Gifted teens are as likely to be plagued by low self esteem as other teens—perhaps more so. Research has shown that smart teens typically have a heightened sense of accomplishment and failure which means they are acutely aware of their own flaws and imperfections and often base their sense of worth on how others perceive them, as Raven did. "I remember in high school I would refuse to ask teachers questions for fear of being judged as 'not so smart' after all," she admits. "I always wanted to outdo whatever I had just achieved. I always wanted to be the successful person that others perceived me as."

Raven, like so many gifted teens, struggled with the constant pressure of having to be perceived as "perfect" by her teachers, peers, and even her parents. The problem with the constant pressure to be flawless—whether it's self-imposed or socially driven—can quickly morph into a psychological crisis as the gifted teen begins to see her self-worth defined strictly in terms of how she performs academically. The brutality of this realization can affect how teens not only view themselves, but it can create an unhealthy relationship with others as they try to constantly live up to the impossible bar that has been set for them.

Yet it's equally important to consider that the term 'perfectionism' can define both positive and negative personality characteristics. We so often jump to the conclusion that if our kids are perfectionists, they must exhibit extreme behavior that is "outside the norm." Not necessarily so. Gifted teens often got that way because of their careful attention to detail and their drive to be successful. It is this innate drive smart teens have that propels them to set goals for themselves and to live up to them. In Ellen Winner's, Gifted Children, she noted that "being a perfectionist could well be a good thing if it means having high standards, for high standards ultimately lead to high achievement (1996)." In most cases, exceptionally smart teens need a degree of perfectionism to succeed.

Existential Anxiety: Crisis of Meaning and Purpose

For adolescents, the teen years bring with them the intimate opportunity to explore thoughts, feelings, and their surroundings in an effort to find out who they are and who they want to be. The search for meaning in one's life is often felt more profoundly during adolescence when teens are trying to differentiate a healthy identity from facing the perils of Erik Erickson's role confusion. The search for purpose and meaning can be compounded for gifted teens who are typically more sensitive and self-aware than other teens, making them question their status in life more strongly and intensely. Pressures from the outside world albeit parents, school, friends, or societal standards make it paramount for gifted teens to quickly discover "who they are and who they want to become" in an effort to live up to the heightened standards set before them. The more they question issues, ideas, and the world around them, the greater their anxiety grows and the greater their chances are of internalizing these issues to the point of triggering severe anxiety or depression.

The upside? The sharp minds of our day have used philosophy and existential thought to further important causes for mankind. Socrates who dared to ask "Why, Why, WHY?" nurtured the cause for us to explore the inner depths of who we are and ultimately how we want to live our life—as have other genius minds such as Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Marie Curie. The ability for smart teens to embrace deep existential questions and attempt to formulate answers may just put them one step ahead as they enter adulthood.

Social Awkwardness: Reality or Myth?

Like it or not, there is a degree of truth to the assertion that some gifted teens have difficulty socializing with others. I recently spoke with one of my friends, a GT middle school teacher, who offered her own unique perspective. "The teens I teach are brilliant and amazing," she said. "But the majority of them have some degree of difficulty socializing with others. I'd say at least half of them exhibit symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. I had one student who insisted on sitting underneath his desk all year long. He'd get A's on every test, but could not bring himself to join the rest of the class socially." Brilliant, yes. Socially competent, no.

Certainly this is an extreme example of social awkwardness, but nonetheless one that demonstrates how some smart teens acquire their own set of behaviors that accompany their stellar IQ's. However, it's important to point out that the aspects that make many gifted teens unique are the same ones that make them geniuses. Some gifted teens may demonstrate a lack of social understanding but that does not mean they should be relegated to being treated like the stereotypical "mad scientist." In my practice I have treated gifted teens that had Asperger's Syndrome and those who have not and I can tell you that even though it may be challenging for some of them to socialize with others, they are every bit as capable as other teens of having meaningful relationships—the difference being that they must work a little harder to achieve them.

One of the most prevalent assumptions about gifted teens is the notion that they must become  highly successful adults. This train of thought remains one of the most common misconceptions about gifted teens and narrowly defines success in terms of  reaching "Einstein" status. This expectation can place additional burdens on gifted teens that do not exist for the rest of the teenage population, creating anxiety and psychological chaos.

Gifted teens needn't become the next Secretary of State or Nobel Peace Prize recipient in order to fulfill their destiny. Notable British professor Dr. Joan Freeman, one of the leading experts on gifted children, recently published in her book Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up (2010) that only about 25% of the gifted teens she studied went on to adult lives that matched the potential of their early promise. The rest of the gifted children became sidetracked by a combination of psychological and social factors such as: too much early pressure, mental or physical illness, and loss of drive. Yet Dr. Freeman found that many gifted children in this study went on to achieve personal goals and fulfillment with or without material benefit—suggesting that gifted teens should not be concerned about following career paths that are considered "beneath them" by society. In fact, their key to happiness may just be chosing a career that alleviates much of that pressure to be perfect that is thrust upon them.

What to do?

Helping your gifted teen succeed and derail the psychological pitfalls of their giftedness is something that every parent can help control. Gifted children are truly a dynamically wonderful group, but like all teenagers, their gifts comes with challenges. Practice this sage advice and watch your teen thrive.

1. Avoid "the parent trap." It's easy to get caught up in the pride you have for your extremely intelligent teen, but do not mistake pride for arrogance. It's important to remember that this is about your child, not about you. Kara Buntin, the mother of two gifted teenagers, has experienced firsthand how the pressure of parenting can harm teens. "Teenagers have a lot more academic pressure today than they used to and if parents push too much it's going to make any problems [they have] worse." She advises parents to make sure their own experiences and dreams do not cloud those of their teenagers.

2. Find a balance between encouraging and punishing. Gifted teens often put more pressure on themselves than any parent ever could, but nonetheless, as with any teenager, it's important to make the distinction between encouraging their academic success and punishing them for it. Some parents like Kara Buntin find it helpful to "tailor" their parenting efforts according to each teen's personality traits. For example, some gifted teens respond poorly when they get a bad grade and instantly want to punish themselves. As a result, they are more prone to anxiety and depression, making a parent's need to "punish" them obsolete. Others thrive when parents apply an appropriate amount of pressure to their academics and thrive from some stress.

3. Advocate for your teen's needs both academically and socially. Parents are always their child's biggest advocate. This is true regardless of whether or not your teen is labeled gifted. Yet some parents of gifted teens focus solely on their teens' academic success and fail to encourage their social success. Sherri Hale, mother of a gifted teen, became frustrated when she found it near impossible to find additional resources to help her teen socially. She soon realized that other parents were struggling with how to help their teens balance academics success with social and emotional maturity. "There is a misperception that gifted students don't have a need for resources devoted to success strategies, but the needs of gifted students are present, they just appear differently from other student populations," she says. This can be especially true in cases where gifted teens also are diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome where their social skills can be particularly weak and require additional resources.