Stephen is a 13-year-old math whiz. He’s also a good all-around student, energetic, and curious. He sometimes drives his parents to distraction with his questions and ideas, and he has alienated more than one neighborhood friend with his information about and zeal for mathematical equations. His parents worry that Stephen has few close friends and few prospects of making any.
Feeling understood by their parents is vital to children’s growth. It helps curb what can become a craving to be understood by everyone.
Stephen’s story is a typical one heard in psychotherapy practices that address the emotional and social issues of gifted children and adults. The dilemma is this: How can Stephen be himself—excited about math and all—and still fit in and feel a sense of peer acceptance? What can his parents do to support his enthusiasm and help him have friends?
Let’s consider some basic points:
- Gifted children differ from their nongifted peers in inescapable ways. Apart from their intellectual prowess, they frequently differ in emotional intensity and complexity, the breadth and depth of their interests, their love of learning, and their desire to question things.
- Because children often react harshly to differences from local norms, some children are driven to hide the attributes of their giftedness. However, this concealment comes at a cost, and many gifted children who attempt to fit in by presenting a mask to their peers experience feelings of dissonance. They fear discovery and may even conclude that there is something wrong with who they really are.
- As they develop, all people routinely work new experiences into ongoing, consistent ideas of who they are and of the world they inhabit. They then interpret encounters with other people according to this outlook. If children generally think well of themselves, a difference between themselves and others may simply be something they recognize and feel comfortable with. If they have low self-esteem, they may interpret the difference as a flaw that needs to be hidden or expunged.
In summary, social connections are crucial determinants of self-concept. If social interactions go badly for them, children will begin to ask themselves whether they are being “bad” or other people are being unfair. How children act is based on this understanding. Perhaps they will try harder to connect (not necessarily productively), or perhaps they will downplay or even reject the need for connection.
Understanding what sense gifted children make of their predicament is an important part of helping them with socialization issues. Such skills as listening, sharing, and dealing with anger constructively are vital but are frequently only part of a much larger picture.
I would be remiss not to mention that sometimes serious, chronic socialization issues are rooted in mental health concerns. Depression, anxiety disorders, autism, ADD/ADHD, and Asperger syndrome can lead to problems in connecting with others. All of these conditions can be treated once they have been appropriately diagnosed. If you are concerned that your child may suffer from one of them, have him or her assessed by a competent psychologist or another mental health professional, preferably one who is familiar with giftedness.
All parents can do the following to help their children if they are having problems with social relations:
Find out who their peers are. Gifted children do need to learn to get along with different kinds of people, but if they have peers who are more like them, they will feel more acceptable. They then will find it easier to relate to others who are less like them. Look into after-school activities, summer camps, and local gifted organization activities for peers who may not be available in the classroom or the neighborhood.
Look for opportunities to have an ongoing dialogue with your child. Make conversations a mutual exploration of interests and concerns, rather than a lecture about what your child should do. Work out disagreements between yourself and your spouse or coparent beforehand. Take this opportunity to talk about your own patterns of relating with others, both now and when you were a child. Empathize with children who feel bad about being different, rather than trying to talk them out of these feelings. Children learn how to relate to others and to parents and adults from parents and adults. If they know that adults like and understand them, it is easier for them to feel likable. Tell your children, often, what you like and appreciate about them.
Ask yourself if it is okay with you for your child to spend significant time alone, engaged in some productive or creative activity. Only when a child has absolutely no social connections, in any environment, do we get concerned clinically. It is difficult to say what a normal level of interaction is, because so many variables, like the attitudes and compatibility of peers, play a role. In your family conversations, try to figure out whether your child has fears about social activity or simply prefers to spend time alone.
If your child is not a loner and seems genuinely satisfied with the level of his or her social contact, yet you are still worried, ask yourself if your own past experience is the source of your concern. It is important to pay attention to your child’s friendship patterns, but it is also important to remember that these patterns may have a different meaning to him or her than to you.
Cherish your child’s interests. You may not be deeply interested in dinosaur anatomy or World War II submarines, but watch with pride as your child focuses intently in pursuit of knowledge. Children know when their excitement is mirrored in our eyes, and this mirroring forms the basis of their self-concept and self-esteem. When children feel good about themselves, they more easily accept that not everyone shares their interests, and they more easily share in others’ interests.
Accept and nurture your child’s positive differences. Teaching our children to act like everyone else eventually stifles their creativity. Helping them accept others and themselves frees them to feel a sense of belonging while still being different.
Frequently, a gifted child’s sense of identity is built around his or her intellectual ability to understand things and around the excitement that this understanding generates. Lack of acceptance—or, worse, ridicule—of this identity disturbs the sense of a cohesive self and so becomes a source of great anxiety and fear. Our job as parents is to make sure that our children feel important in our eyes, so they can feel comfortable with themselves while having the courage to connect with others.
—Thomas S. Greenspon, PhD
Thomas S. Greenspon is a licensed psychologist and a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice. He lectures and writes on perfectionism and the emotional needs of gifted children and adults.
By the Author
- Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism, by Thomas S. Greenspon, Free Spirit Publishing, 2002.
- Free Spirit also has a number of other books for gifted children of all ages and for their parents and teachers on such topics as self-esteem and friendships. For more information visit