Gifted girls encounter unique challenges, particularly during adolescence. With our help, they can learn to transform adversity into opportunity. The keys are information and communication. Here are six springboards for conversation and personal growth that concern gifted adolescent girls.
Dealing with Envy
In friendships, girls tend to be supportive of their peers when they suffer failure or disappointment. If a girl breaks up with her boyfriend, has a fight with her parents, or does poorly on an exam, she can count on her friends to help out with kind and encouraging words. However, girls are less skilled at cheering on peers. If a girl exhibits outstanding performance in a sporting event, on an important exam, or at a dance audition, her friends may become envious of her. Recognizing this tendency and learning appropriate strategies to reverse it can help girls find the vocabulary and emotional strength to cheer on friends and to accept their own successes graciously.
Dealing with Criticism
Women are understandably sensitive to patronizing and otherwise disrespectful responses to their ideas and actions. Unfortunately, defensiveness can become a knee-jerk reaction to criticism. For a gifted girl to benefit from helpful feedback from peers, teachers, parents, and mentors, she needs to differentiate criticism of her ideas or actions (a sign of respect, although sometimes hard to hear) from criticism of herself (which is never meant to be helpful). Educators and parents can offer girls examples of constructive and destructive criticism, addressing both subtle and blatant situations, to help them tell the two apart.
Handling Well-Intentioned but Unsuitable Classroom Values
According to education experts, girls tend to learn better in groups than individually. However, gifted girls may not enjoy cooperative learning as much as their classmates, who expect less of the outcome. Should gifted girls contribute to assignments in which they take little pride, or should they assume the burden of raising the bar for the team? Rather than resisting, gifted girls should be shown that they can use group learning to master or refine communication, problem-solving, mediation, and listening skills.
Another piece of misguided wisdom is that girls prefer cooperation to competition. But all evidence gleaned from the worlds of music and sports, for instance, indicate that girls can be fierce competitors in their areas of strength and should relish those opportunities.
Managing Relationships with Mentors
Mentoring implies an unusual degree of intimacy between teacher and student. This kind of relationship has unique potential for stimulating growth in skills, content knowledge, professional experience, and psychosocial development. Yet intimacy in any unbalanced power relationship can be scary, and girls need to understand the nature of such relationships to avoid losing their identity, assertiveness, or power of choice in them. Knowing the elements of a healthy mentoring relationship can allow girls to focus on its joys and privileges.
Coping with Home Responsibilities and Expectations
Gifted girls tend to have more chores to do at home than their brothers; they also tend to pursue solitary interests. Between their domestic responsibilities and the activities they like to do on their own, they run the risk of social isolation. But if they have weighed this risk for themselves (viewing it, perhaps, as a chance to enjoy their own company), then, as long as they do their fair share at home, parents should not interfere.
Juggling Talent Development and Social Life
Most young girls long for friendships, romance, and appreciation for who they are and what they do. Ideally, a gifted girl finds a peer group that shares her values and interests. Girls should be tracked into ability groups once they are out of elementary school so the siren song of social life does not draw them away from the development of their talents. If their abilities are in the performing arts or sports, then band, orchestra, and athletic teams will provide the friendships and support that encourage excellence and fun. Girls who are academically gifted need to experience camaraderie in a special school, a special class, or a summer program.
Discussing these topics can strengthen the natural resilience of the gifted girls in our care and make adolescence more pleasurable for them. They can then use these skills to take on young adulthood with gusto.
DGL: How can parents help their gifted child find a mentor? Where should they look?
Subotnik: Mentors are not easy to find, and they are used inefficiently when they simply serve as role models to elicit interest in an area of study or performance. Mentors have the most positive effect when they pair up with a young person who already has a deep interest in a subject or discipline and seeks additional information and skill. When a gifted girl has exhausted her resources at school and at home, she should seek out experts who might serve in such a capacity via colleges and universities, museums, contests, contacts gained through special academic programs, the Internet, and so on.
At a later stage, gifted young women need to be recruited by mentors or highly regarded coaches and teachers, rather than the other way around. Experts are always seeking protégées whom they can socialize into their areas of interest. Even the most eminent individuals hope to maintain their intellectual or performance “lineage” and to keep themselves supplied with fresh perspectives. The best way for gifted young women to get such mentors is to make their work known to them.
Girls who exhibit a serious passion for sports, music, poetry, or something else are less likely to get sidetracked. Many gifted girls, however, will not fall in love with an idea or discipline until they are young adults. Their parents need to reinforce their values with regard to schoolwork and other responsibilities. Schoolwork comes first. Extracurricular commitments agreed to by the gifted girl and her family are second. Family commitments, including attendance at key family gatherings and performance of reasonable chores, are a close third. Social life comes fourth. If this rule is enforced from elementary school on, then a gifted girl’s changing priorities will be self-evident.
—Rena F. Subotnik, Ph.D.
Rena F. Subotnik is director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association.
- Center for Gifted Education Policy
- Remarkable Women: Perspectives on Female Talent Development, edited by Karen D. Arnold, Kathleen D. Noble, and Rena F. Subotnik, Hampton, 1996
- Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness, by Barbara A. Kerr, Great Potential (formerly Gifted Psychology Press), 1997
- Work Left Undone: Choices and Compromises of Talented Females, by Sally M. Reis, Creative Learning, 1998