The Gifted Teen Has Both a Blessed and Burdened Life
Every once in awhile, you’ll hear about a young child who excels at music and has been composing since a child or a teen who has already obtained a Ph.D. in physics and working on the next scientific breakthrough. Scan the Internet and you’ll find plenty of stories of children and teens with exceptional talent. You’ll read about a five year old who has already become ordained as a minister, a young boy who potty trained himself after reading a book about it, a teenage Olympian who is also an author, motivational speaker, and screenwriter. These stories of talent among children and teens are not only inspirational; they seem to capture what’s possible in all of us.
However, underneath these stories of excellence and remarkable achievement are the struggles these teens go through. In fact, the challenges they face are becoming more and more the focus for mental health professionals. The reason is two fold:
1) A New Recognition in the Special Needs of Gifted Teens: Up until recently, talented teens have been left alone. They seem to be intellectually astute enough to meet academic, family, and societal demands; why would they need any mental health care? However, the opposite is proving to be true. Because of their intellectual, musical, or artistic prowess, they might be vulnerable or display symptoms of mental illness.
Some of the psychological disorders that are common with excellence include schizophrenia, teen bipolar treatment, Asperger’s syndrome, autism, and depression. Gifted teens might be more sensitive, tend to be perfectionists, and have high levels of energy. These traits might contribute feeling so different that they cannot socially or emotionally connect with others, leading to a sense of loneliness or isolation. For instance, it is typical for a teen diagnosed with Asperger’s to be very intelligent but suffer from social impairments.
Although one might not at first imagine that gifted teens would have mental health concerns, the presence of mental illnesses and high levels of intelligence are in fact related. Despite their gifts and talents, the need to understand the associated complex inner life of gifted teens is becoming more and more evident. Contrary to popular belief, gifted teens do have problems, needs, and concerns just like other children. In fact, they have psychological and emotional concerns that are unique to them because they are gifted in the first place.
2) Over and Under Diagnosis of Gifted Teens are Commonplace: The relationship between giftedness and mental illness goes in two directions. Gifted teens are being confused as having a psychological disorder, labeled erroneously, and at that same time, other gifted teens go unrecognized for the symptoms and mental illnesses they do have. Marianne Kuzujanakis, pediatrician and the Director of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted, known as the SENG organization, wrote the following: “Highly gifted children are a particular diagnostic challenge with errors that can occur both ways. When pediatric diagnoses are carelessly applied, gifted children are frequently mislabeled with ADHD, autistic, depressive, or bipolar disorders. Yet sometimes being gifted effectively hides these same conditions. So, while some gifted kids are erroneously labeled and medicated for mental health disorders they do not have, others are unrecognized for learning or mental disorders they do have.”
Furthermore, there are many talented and intellectually gifted children who are never recognized as gifted. Sadly, in these cases, teen might feel depressed and experience other symptoms such as:
- Difficulty with peer relationships
- Refusal to do routine, repetitive assignments
- Inappropriate criticism of others
- Lack of awareness regarding how their unique ability is affecting others
- Not feeling challenged at school
- Depression as a result of boredom
- Anxiety as a result of feeling different
- Difficulty receiving constructive criticism
- Hiding intellectual and creative abilities
- Resisting authority, nonconforming
- Excessive competitiveness
- Isolation from peers
- Frustration tolerance is very low
- Poor study habits
Kuzujanakis also commented that gifted teens might talk a lot, have high levels of energy, be impulsive, inattentive, perfectionists, and introverted. If a therapist were not careful, it would be easy to misdiagnose a gifted teen with ADHD, autistic, or depressed.
Although it’s easy to categorize children and teens with special talents as being successful, the mental health field is discovering that this isn’t always true.
Frances, A. (March 14, 2013). Giftedness should not be confused with mental disorder. Psychology today. Retrieved on April 2, 2014 from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/saving-normal/201303/giftedness-should-not-be-confused-mental-disorder
Grobman, J. (2009). A psychodynamic psychotherapy approach to the emotional problems of exceptionally and profoundly gifted adolescents and adults: A psychiatrist’s experience. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 33, 106-125.
Schuler, Patricia A. “Gifted Kids at Risk: Who’s Listening?” SENG. 2013. Retrieved on February 26, 2014 from http://www.sengifted.org/archives/articles/gifted-kids-at-risk-whos-listening
– By Robert Hunt
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