Why Gifted Students Are Targeted by Bullies

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Every day, numerous gifted children and adolescents are targets of teasing and bullying. Like kids with disabilities or special needs, gifted children are at a higher risk of being bullied. In fact, in one 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.

Why Gifted Kids Become Targets of Bullying

Typically, gifted students are bullied because of their exceptional school performance. Other students are either envious of their success and grades or they see them as a threat to their own academic success.

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

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

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 keeps school fresh for them, removing them from the classroom or having separate classes reduces contact with their peers. That distance may lead to alienation and resentment by other students, which ultimately results in bullying.

Additionally, some gifted children may behave unusually or have overexcitabilities, which also draws attention to them and can cause them to be victimized. Gifted children also are less likely to be part of a large group of friends that would protect them from bullying.

Like other forms of bullying, bullying of gifted students tends to escalate toward the end of elementary school and becomes most severe in middle school. By high school, bullying of gifted students tends to reduce in frequency but still remains an issue.

How Does Bullying Impact Gifted Kids?

Bullying negatively impacts all children, but gifted children 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.

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.

They become perfectionists. Although most gifted children are inclined to be perfectionists at times, bullying can increase this tendency. Because they have an intrinsic desire to avoid “mistakes” and to “be better,” they often approach bullying this way, trying to find ways to change themselves so that bullies no longer target them.

They experience strong reactions. Gifted students tend to have heightened sensitivities and are profoundly affected by verbal bullying and relational aggression. As a result, just one incident can be traumatic for them. They also may feel unexpressed rage over bullying or become depressed. Additionally, gifted kids tend to have high expectations of themselves, so when they are bullied, they may feel like they have failed. They also have trouble overcoming bullying.

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 become self-critical. Most gifted children are self-critical already. As a result, they have extremely high expectations of themselves and do not like to fail or make mistakes.

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

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. 

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