Why Gifted Children Often Suffer From Existential Depression

The meaning of life is important to these youth

Sad young girl
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Depression can manifest itself in different ways in different people, ranging from a few days of feeling "blue" to a deep and lasting sense of despair. The term "existential depression" is used to describe a type of depression that revolves specifically around the fundamental issues of existence, such as life, death, disease, and oppression. Gifted children, who tend to be highly sensitive and curious, are especially prone to this form of depression.

Why Gifted Children Are Prone to Existential Depression

While it is not uncommon for people to experience existential depression after a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one or a natural disaster, gifted people may suffer from it spontaneously; that is, there is often no apparent triggering event. Existential depression can cause a gifted child to question the meaning of life and, in its most severe form, conclude that life is meaningless.

Gifted people of all ages have unique traits that may make them vulnerable to this form of depression. They tend to be highly sensitive, intense, empathic, passionate, idealistic, and likely to analyze things more thoroughly than most people. When they notice injustice, mistreatment of others, poverty, and abuse of power in the world, they can feel hopeless and alone and wonder why those around them appear to be unconcerned about these things.

Gifted children may feel isolated and very different from their peers or family members, who seem less reflective and whose concerns may seem, at least on the outside, to be more concrete. They're often highly attuned to the hypocrisy in the behaviors and assumptions of those around them, and question or challenge things others may accept and take for granted.

Existential depression can manifest itself in children as young as five—the age at which kids typically begin to learn that they are not immortal. The death of a pet, a family member, or a tragic event featured in a book or on the news can spark the child's curiosity about death, cause him to worry about dying, and, possibly, to question the meaning of life.

Symptoms of Existential Depression

Like other forms of depression, symptoms of existential depression can vary in intensity and severity. Signs or symptoms may include:

  • An intense or obsessive interest in the bigger meaning of life and death
  • Extreme distress, anxiety, and sadness about the overall state of the world
  • A belief that solutions to these problems are both impossible and futile
  • Feeling disconnected, isolated, and separate from other people
  • Avoidance of other kids because they feel they are on a completely different level and see problems that their peers don't notice
  • Lack of motivation to engage in once-enjoyable activities
  • Suicidal thoughts

How to Help Your Child

There are no simple answers to many of the questions gifted children have about the world, so you can't simply reassure them that "everything will be ok." Don't dismiss their concerns, criticize them for being "too sensitive," or tell them to look on the bright side. Instead, validate their feelings and assure them you understand they are struggling.

If your child feels powerless to change things in the world, try to be proactive. You might research charities to support, or get him involved in volunteer work at a soup kitchen or shelter. Giving back in these ways can help children feel like they're part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Reading about others who fought injustice or helped underserved, suffering people (such as Abraham Lincoln and Florence Nightingale) can also inspire him and provide a role model. Instead of feeling stuck and powerless to make a difference and enact change, he'll learn how helping others can make one's own life more meaningful.

When Existential Depression Persists

If your child shows more than fleeting signs of existential depression, ask your pediatrician for a reference to a mental health professional. A good psychotherapist can help her walk through concerns about life and the world and help her come up with some solutions to make her feel less hopeless.

If your gifted child appears inconsolable or is having suicidal thoughts, treat this as a medical emergency. Call your child's doctor or therapist right away. Kids who contemplate suicide need immediate intervention.

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