How to Recognize a Gifted Child's Behavior Problems

Perfectionism and sensitivity may put your child at risk

Bullied young girl in school hallway

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Parenting a gifted child is both a wonderful experience and a challenging one. After all, gifted kids are curious, enthusiastic about learning, and full of ideas. But they also may face challenges that are unique to their situation—and that can be confusing and exasperating for parents.

Advanced learning and understanding can lead to anxious thoughts. Gifted kids also may struggle socially and emotionally. As a parent, it is important to understand the unique challenges gifted kids can experience. You can be a source of comfort and reassurance, especially when these challenges leave your child feeling vulnerable and insecure (which, in turn, can lead to behavior issues).

Challenges Gifted Children May Face

While reading high-level books or solving complex math problems might come easily for your child, other areas might be a challenge. A gifted child might not have a lot in common with other kids their age, which can make it challenging to make friends. Or, once they are teenagers, they may try to hide their intelligence in order to fit in with others their age.

They also might experience boredom in the classroom—particularly if they already know the material—which may mean they avoid doing schoolwork or misbehave. They may find it challenging to follow rules, especially if they have lots of original ideas or like to come up with creative solutions.

Julia M. Chamberlain, MS, INHC, LMHC

Gifted children may be under-stimulated or bored in typical social or education settings, [which] may result in behavior challenges like school refusal, tantrums, distractibility, or general acting out.

— Julia M. Chamberlain, MS, INHC, LMHC

"Gifted children may be under-stimulated or bored in typical social or education settings, [which] may result in behavior challenges like school refusal, tantrums, distractibility, or general acting out," says Julia M. Chamberlain, MS, INHC, LMHC, a holistic therapist in private practice in Massachusetts.

Research shows that compared with their peers, gifted kids also have different social and emotional needs. They feel more isolated and tend to be less sensitive to their peers' thoughts. These challenges can be exacerbated by parents and teachers who tend to have high expectations of gifted kids and do not always recognize their different needs.

"A child’s behavioral challenges depend on how the parents regard and raise their child," says Laurie Hollman, PhD, a psychoanalyst and author of seven books including “Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior.”

When a child is told they are exceptional, placed in special schools, or given special tutors, this can lead to a feeling of exceptionalism that makes the child feel burdened and set apart from their peers, says Dr. Hollman.

Kids in these situations end up trying to live up to these expectations. They also may try to please their parents rather than enjoying their giftedness. In return, they may begin to wonder about their own core identity, Dr. Hollman says.

Gifted kids also may experience anxiety, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, and excessive perfectionism. Additionally, research indicates that gifted children often believe that their social abilities and physical health are worse than their peers.

Why Gifted Kids Struggle

Because gifted kids can grasp concepts quickly, have adult-like conversations, and develop creative solutions to problems, parents are often surprised to when their gifted child has behavior issues. But many times, challenges are related to giftedness.

Asynchronous Development

Gifted kids often have advanced intellectual skills that allow them to perform at high levels and solve complex problems. But this intelligence is not always accompanied by high social and emotional skills. Socially and emotionally, gifted kids often develop at the same rate or even slower than their peers.

When these skills—intellectual skills and social and emotional skills—develop at different speeds, development is considered asynchronous. In some cases, gifted children can run into problems when their other abilities don't match their intellectual power.

Gifted children might be able to intellectually understand abstract concepts but may be unable to deal with those concepts emotionally. This understanding can result in intense concerns about death, the future, sex, and other issues kids their age may not be struggling with.

"Gifted children may become overwhelmed or overstimulated easily because of their natural ability to comprehend larger concepts and situations," says Chamberlain. "For example, a gifted child may be digesting all the aspects and byproducts that may result from a divorce, causing an increase in anxiety, whereas a typical child may take these circumstances more at face value."

Likewise, their physical development is age-appropriate but their IQ is advanced. They might imagine being able to hit a target with a tennis ball when they are in preschool, but do not developmentally master this skill until they are five or six years old. This can lead to extreme frustration and acting out.

A gifted child also may be able to participate in adult conversations about issues such as climate change or world hunger one minute and the next minute cry because a sibling took a favorite toy. This may confuse adults and cause an overreaction to age-appropriate behavior.

Advanced Verbal and Reasoning Ability

While gifted children are capable of reading, speaking, and even reasoning above grade level, those abilities can be challenging in a number of ways. For instance, gifted children can be argumentative. Adults might even remark that these children are little lawyers. A child is still a child and requires appropriate guidance and boundaries, no matter how clever the behavior may seem.

Plus, this ability to reason at an advanced level can make kids feel insecure because they do not have the emotional capacity to handle making decisions or taking on increased responsibility. They still need rules and structure just like any other child their age.

Additionally, sophisticated vocabulary and an advanced sense of humor can cause a gifted child to be misunderstood, especially by peers. This can make them feel inferior and rejected. This is one reason gifted children often prefer to be around older children and adults.

Perfectionism

It's wonderful to have high-level skills, but those skills sometimes create unreasonable expectations. For instance, some gifted children become perfectionists, expecting to get perfect scores on every test.

This perfectionism, in turn, can lead to fear of failure, causing a gifted child to refuse to try something new. Sometimes a gifted child's parent or caregiver can make perfectionism worse, says Dr. Hollman.

"If the aim is to create a career child and not one who enjoys their gift, [the gifted child] may experience the pressures often attendant on young athletes," she explains. "If [the child's] parents or teachers are narcissistic and treat them like their prize, [the child] may develop identity struggles as they try to find their own direction."

Emotional Sensitivities

Giftedness can also lead to keen observation, imagination, and the ability to see beyond the obvious. This can cause a gifted child to appear shy because they may hold back in new situations in order to consider all the implications. A gifted child also may require full details before answering questions or offering help.

Intense sensitivity also can cause gifted children to take criticism, or even general anger, very personally. Sensitivity and a well-developed sense of right and wrong can lead to concern over wars, starving children, pollution, violence, and injustice. If kids are overloaded with images and discussions of these issues, they can become introverted and withdrawn or even suffer from existential depression.

What You Can Do to Help

Raising a gifted child requires a keen understanding of their abilities, passions, and interests, but also of the unique challenges they face. This means you need to become a student of your child, and parent them in a style that matches their needs.

Be a Good Listener

Truly listen to what they say. Be open to their views, opinions, and even complaints and try to formulate solutions together. Doing so will empower your child to approach challenges with confidence.

"If the parent-child relationship is open to attentive listening about the child’s own views, feelings, motivations and intentions, [challenges] can be discussed freely without parental intentions overwhelming the child," says Dr. Hollman.

Strive to provide a safe space for your child to discuss and process issues as they arise. Keep open communication with your child's school to ensure appropriate support, suggests Chamberlain. It also may help to find a mental health professional to help your child develop other areas of intelligence—like social and emotional skills.

Use an Authoritative Parenting Style

Studies indicate that authoritative parenting is the best approach when it comes to parenting gifted kids. This approach promotes self-motivation and a sense of autonomy. Authoritarian parenting can have a negative impact on the gifted child's well-being and mental health, which researchers say can keep the child from meeting their potential.

"[Remember], they are still children," Chamberlain says. "It can be tough to remember that a gifted child is still a child due to their mature presentation. Keep in mind that even if they are gifted they still may need assistance in social and emotional processing and they may need help developing adaptive coping skills to handle adversities that arise."

Support Social Development

It is not uncommon for gifted kids to feel different from their peers—even at an early age. It is important for parents to recognize this fact and help them make social connections.

Make sure your child has the opportunity to socialize with a diverse group of children, suggests Dr. Hollman. You also should find ways for your child to explore and expand on their areas of giftedness if you can.

"[Your child] can be raised to feel proud of their uniqueness yet not feel like an outsider," Dr. Hollman says. "If their gift is in the arts, unique apprenticeships can fulfill their skill-building and lead to their own well-chosen aspirations."

A Word From Verywell

It is important to help gifted kids learn to cope with the challenges they face, like increased anxiety and a tendency toward perfectionism. The best way to accomplish this is to focus on authoritative parenting, which empowers your child to make decisions and boosts their self-confidence.

If your gifted child is struggling, talk to your child's pediatrician about what they are experiencing. You also may want to consider connecting them with a mental health professional to help them learn coping skills.

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6 Sources
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