Why Gifted Children Have Social and Emotional Behavior Problems

Perfectionism and sensitivity may put your child at risk.

Bullied young girl.
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Giftedness is wonderful in many ways, but gifted children may also have characteristics that can affect their social and emotional development. To understand your gifted child, it's a good idea to see how your child's giftedness can influence his behavior.

Problems Resulting From Asynchronous Development

Advanced intellectual skills are not always accompanied by advanced social and emotional skills.

When skills develop at different speeds, develop is described as "asynchronous." In some cases, gifted children can run into problems when their intellectual power is not matched by their other abilities. For example:

  • Gifted children can intellectually understand abstract concepts but may be unable to deal with those concepts emotionally, leading to intense concerns about death, the future, sex, and other advanced issues.
  • Gifted children's physical development may lead to an inability to complete a task they are capable of intellectually envisioning. This can lead to extreme frustration and acting out. (Perfectionism may play a role in this frustration as well.)
  • A gifted child may be able to participate in adult conversations about issues such as global warming or world hunger one minute and the next minute cry and whine because a sibling took a favorite toy. This may confuse adults, and cause an overreaction to age-appropriate behavior.

    One Solution: Dealing with Asynchronous Development

    Problems Resulting From Advanced Verbal and Reasoning Ability

    While gifted children are capable of reading, speaking, and even reasoning above grade level, those abilities may not always be used in positive ways. For example:

    • Gifted children can be argumentative and/or manipulative. (Adults often remark that these children are little lawyers!) Parents and other adults need to remember that, although credit should be given for logical and convincing arguments, a child is still a child and requires appropriate discipline, no matter how clever or cute the behavior may look. Children who see that they can manipulate adults can feel very insecure.
    • A gifted child may try to outsmart parents and teachers.
    • Sophisticated vocabulary and advanced sense of humor can cause gifted children to be misunderstood, which can make them feel inferior and rejected. (This is one reason gifted children prefer to be around older children and adults.)

    One Solution: How (Not) to Argue With Gifted Children

    Problems Resulting From Perfectionism and Emotional Sensitivities

    It's wonderful to have high-level skills, but those skills sometimes create unreasonable expectations. Some gifted children become perfectionists, expecting themselves to get 100% scores on every test. Giftedness can also lead to an over-active imagination. These issues can cause behavioral issues; for example:

    • Perfectionism can lead to fear of failure, in turn causing a gifted child to avoid failure by refusing to even try something (including doing a homework assignment!).
    • Keen observation, imagination, and ability to see beyond the obvious can cause a gifted child to appear shy, holding back in new situations in order to consider all the implications.
    • A gifted child may require full details before answering questions or offering help, making him or her appear socially shy.
    • Intense sensitivity can cause gifted children to take criticism, or even general anger, very personally. Childhood slights do not roll off their backs.
    • Sensitivity and a well-developed sense of right and wrong can lead to concern over wars, starving children, pollution, and other injustice and violence. If they are overloaded with images and discussions of these issues, they can become introverted and withdrawn or even suffer from "existential depression.”

    One Solution: Helping Gifted Children Cope with Intense Emotions

    Virtually all the characteristics of giftedness can make gifted children feel “different,” even at a very early age. It's important, therefore, to get them together with children like them and with people who understand them.

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