The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) defines the gifted student as one “with… the capability to perform—at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more domains.” Studies of “gifted” children suggest that the pressure to achieve in adolescence can lead to stress, anxiety, and poor self-image, among other psychological disorders, once they reach adulthood.
What Is “Gifted Children Syndrome?”
Twentieth and twenty-first-century studies of gifted students have yielded two conflicting theories regarding mental and emotional health risks in high-performing students. The first theory spectates that gifted children are better adjusted and that their developmental progression will lead to mental and emotional stability in adulthood with greater frequency than non-gifted peers.
Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) summarizes that “Studies supporting this view report that gifted children demonstrate better adjustment than their average peers when measured on a variety of factors.” The results of these studies showed that gifted children were better able to understand self and surroundings due to higher mental capabilities.
Gifted children were more successful in coping with stress, conflict, and abnormalities in development. The alternative theory suggests that giftedness increased vulnerability to difficulties in emotional maturation. Those manifesting symptoms of “gifted children syndrome” are more sensitive to interpersonal conflict and susceptible to peer pressure due to actual or perceived low social rank.
The NAGC finds that gifted children are more susceptible to “heightened awareness, anxiety, perfectionism, stress, issues with peer relationships, and concerns with identity and fit” than non-gifted students. Dr. James Webb, the founder of SENG, maintains that the behavioral patterns of gifted children, namely high internal drive, emotional intensity, and unbalanced emotional and physical development, increase the risk of disturbance in adulthood.
Dr. Thorpe notes that teachers and caregivers are oftentimes hypervigilant in their surveillance of gifted children, thereby increasing the likelihood of detecting developmental issues in gifted children. She does not, however, discount the potential for maladaptive behaviors in adulthood and supports the “gifted children syndrome” theory.
Are Gifted Children at a Higher Risk for Developing Anxiety, Depression, and Other Disorders Than Their Non-Gifted Peers?
Though there is no consensus among educational psychologists concerning the vulnerability of gifted children, traits commonly associated with higher levels of academic performance, such as the low perception of social rank, can worsen as a child matures, increasing the risk of mental health disorders.
The pressure to reach or exceed the expectations of teachers, caregivers, or goals set by the child leads to anxiety disorders in adolescent or teenage years. All children suffer school-induced stress and the National Institute of Mental Health finds that 25% of American teenagers struggle with an anxiety disorder.
Giftedness, or perceived giftedness, may exacerbate already crippling levels of stress. Poor peer relationships and heightened self-awareness, traits of gifted students according to the NAGC, are linked to issues with emotional development.
However, some studies have found that gifted students are as emotionally competent as non-gifted peers, even if they exhibit negative behavioral tendencies associated with giftedness. Educational psychologist Lewis Terman, the pioneer of the longitudinal Genetic Studies of Genius, found that people with higher levels of ability were less likely to develop disabilities, such as depression, and developmental problems.
Some studies conclude that gifted children are equally likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders, and co-occurring addiction-based or psychological disorders. A study on alcohol use in adolescents published in 2011 found that gifted children consumed alcohol at the same rate as non-gifted children. The study suggests that the desire for social acceptance is a possible motivation for gifted students to engage in alcohol use.
What Are Effective Strategies to Combat the Stress of Perfectionism and Other Damaging Behaviors Related to Giftedness?
The NAGC contends that gifted children “require modification(s) to their educational experience(s) to learn and realize their potential.” Gifted students require alternative educational programs that cater to their proficiencies. More important than specialized curricula, however, are resources to guide proper development.
Students coping poorly with stress and anxiety need intervention from a mental health professional to accept and overcome difficulties in school and life. These skills are critical to development and children lacking the strategies to battle stress may encounter more serious mental health issues as adults.
Professor Barbara Kerr popularized the term “multipotentiality” to describe the diverse talents and interests of gifted students. Not all gifted students excel in multiple subjects or activities, but all children engage in a variety of classes, sports, and extracurriculars, often selecting favorite practices based on preference rather than skill.
A 2009 study featuring 800 high school students found that gifted children chose career fields that aligned with the interests of teachers and caretakers rather than their passions. Gifted children were also shown to have lower self-esteem.
Whether high-performing students are more at-risk than non-gifted peers for anxiety, depression, and other disorders or not, gifted students deserve to explore all interests and to make professional, social, and academic goals without the overwhelming influence of instructors or other adults. Children need space to grow!
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