Why Gifted Students Are Targeted by Bullies

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Every day, numerous gifted children and adolescents are targets of teasing and bullying. In a foundational study on bullying and gifted students, researchers at Purdue University found that by eighth grade, more than two-thirds of gifted students have been victims of bullying, with 19% of teasing specifically related to intelligence and grades.

A review of studies on bullying and gifted students from 1970 to 2014 revealed that gifted students are victimized at similar rates as other targeted groups (sometimes slightly more, sometimes slightly less); however, they may be targeted for unique reasons, and may also respond to bullying differently...often more intensely and more prolonged.

Why Gifted Kids Become Targets of Bullying

One reason gifted students are bullied is because of their exceptional school performance, as well as the attention, resources, and opportunities that center around these high academic achievers. Bullies are either envious of their success and grades, or they see them as a threat to their own personal status and academic success.

Related: 3 Reasons Why Envy and Jealousy Lead to Bullying  

What's more, they also may be considered the “teacher’s pet” or a “know-it-all.”

A gifted student's exceptional academic abilities make them stand out from their peers and an easy target for children who bully.

Another factor affecting gifted students is that they are often grouped together during school or pulled out of the classroom for special enrichment programs. When this happens, it draws attention to them and sets them apart from the general school population. While this approach is positive and keeps school fresh for them, removing them from the classroom or having separate classes reduces contact with some of their friends and peers. That distance may lead to alienation and resentment by some students, which can ultimately result in bullying.

Additionally, some gifted children may behave unusually as a result of overexcitabilities, which also draws attention to them and can cause them to be victimized.As a result of their special achievements, unique personalities, quirky interests, and sometimes odd behaviors, some gifted children are less likely to be part of a large group of friends that would protect them from bullying.”

Like other forms of bullying, peer-victimization of gifted students tends to escalate toward the end of elementary school and reaches a peak in middle school. By high school, the bullying tends to reduce in frequency but still remains an important issue.

How Does Bullying Impact Gifted Kids?

Bullying negatively impacts all children, but gifted children may differ from other students in some significant ways. As a result, their reactions to bullying can vary as well. Here are some unique ways in which gifted children are impacted by bullying.

Related: The Long-Lasting Effects of Bullying

They view their academic gifts as flaws. Because gifted children are often bullied for their academic strengths, they may start to have a negative view of their intelligence because others have made it a flaw. This distorted perception can cause them to doubt their abilities or falsely believe something is wrong with them. They also may become embarrassed by their academic gifts.

They hide their giftedness. Gifted students know that their academic abilities set them apart from other students. Consequently, they will sometimes hide their abilities and pretend to be like everyone else. They may even go so far as to give the wrong answers in class.

They try to fix the situation. Gifted children often are self-starters, independent, and self-reliant. As a result, they sometimes will take responsibility for the bullying.

Gifted students often try to fix the situation or make the bullying stop on their own rather than asking for help.

Increased perfectionism. Most gifted children are inclined to be perfectionists and self-critics. As a result, they have extremely high expectations of themselves and do not like to make mistakes or fail. Bullying could be a sign to them that 'something is wrong with me' and they need to fix themselves so that bullies no longer target them. Such victimization can significantly increase anxiety and depression levels when they cannot solve the problem and achieve their goals.

Because bullying is often interpreted by gifted kids as a personal failure, this can lead them to become even more self-critical.

They struggle to understand the bullying. Gifted students often struggle to understand why the bullying is happening and may get deeply engrossed in analyzing the situation. They may try to figure out everything from the bully’s motivation to how they could be different. Their goal is to learn about the situation in order to change it or make it stop. The problem is that bullying does not usually end without outside help. What’s more, gifted students are often passionate about social justice issues and may struggle to make sense of cruelty and aggression.

They experience strong reactions. Gifted students tend to have heightened sensitivities and are profoundly affected by verbal bullying (name calling, threats) and relational aggression (silent treatment, gossip, social exclusion). As a result, just one incident can be traumatic for them and they can have trouble overcoming the impact of bullying. They may also become severely depressed and high-risk for suicide. Research shows that nearly one-third of gifted kids feel unexpressed rage and have violent thoughts after being bullied.

They lose interest in school. Like other victims of bullying, gifted students lose interest in schoolwork, fail to complete assignments, and skip school. But their reasons are different. Because they are being bullied for doing well in school, they may not see a point in continuing to work hard at something that only brings them trouble.

A Word from Verywell

Remember that even though being gifted attracts the attention of bullies at school, this does not mean a gifted student is to blame for the bullying. Likewise, they should not be forced to change to avoid bullies. Instead, parents and educators need to empower them to not only stand up to bullying and defend themselves against bullies but also equip them with the ability to report bullying issues when they occur.

18 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.